How to Write Descriptively: The Basics
This will be a series of three posts. First will be on the generalized basics. Second will be on characters. Third will be on setting.
One question I’m always hearing from my readers on Wattpad is: How do you write descriptions for your characters and places?
The first step is to read. Reading how other writers describe their world is the first step in understanding how to write descriptively. Maggie Stiefvater is one such storyteller who has an incredible talent for description. In The Raven Boys (a great read, mind you), Stiefvater describes a well-used journal the main character finds:
“Blue ran her fingers over the varied surfaces. Creamy, thick artist paper with a slender, elegant font. Thin, browning paper with spidery serif. Slick, utilitarian white stock with an artless modern type. Ragged-edged newspaper in a brittle shade of yellow…Lines became cross-hatching became doodles of mountains became squirrelly tire tracks behind fast-looking cars” (pg. 83).
Stiefvater packs so much description into one object. It makes the reader ask questions, makes them wonder. We see character from the journal’s description. The use of adjectives changes with what she’s describing. The artist paper is slender and has an elegant font, the white stock paper is modern and utilitarian, and the newspaper is brittle and yellow.
Check for key words whenever you’re assessing a description. When you’re in doubt for inspiration, go to your favorite author and see how they did it. What made that book’s descriptions work?
Reading is your greatest asset to amass an armada of writing tools to tuck under your belt for later use. So when you’ve studied what the pros have done, what do you do?
Many writers will tell you to use the five senses to immerse your readers in your story. For a reader, proper use of the five senses makes them feel like they have everything they need for their bedroom: a comfortable pillow, a blanket, a bed, and a cup of hot chocolate.
The five senses are:
Try integrating these senses into your story. Readers want to feel the wind on your character’s face, see the shuddering shack on the mountain, smell the acrid scent of smoke rising from the rafters. You’re giving your readers more than just words. You’re giving them images to interpret your book.
However, don’t feel forced to put all five senses all in one scene. Taste isn’t used as often, nor is smell. Some senses add detail and depth to a scene—but only when they are necessary. It’s up to you to decide whether or not something should be described. Is that foo-foo pink sweater vest really important enough to warrant a two paragraph essay describing it?
To close, I’ll leave an example including all five senses:
“Cal ran his hand over the rough surface of the pot on the kitchen counter. He inhaled the scent of herbs sitting on the counter, tasted the strange flavor of the dill in the air. Mina called to him from outside, and he turned to see her sprinting across the yard, her golden sundress billowing out behind her like the waves of the ocean she came from.”
See how all the five senses came together? Also, I added a little backstory to Mina without saying too much. “…billowing behind her like the waves of the ocean she came from.” Who knows? Maybe she’s a mermaid in a super cute sundress. I’m shipping her and Cal already!
Write a short scene where you integrate all five senses. Make sure to answer these questions:
- What does your character’s surroundings look like?
- What does your character feel around/on him or her?
- What does it sound like?
- What does it smell like?
- Does your character taste anything?
Here are some prompts you can use (or not use) to get you started:
- Your character is in a dark room. There is a strange noise coming from above, and suddenly, a door creaks open…
- Your character is setting up camp in the rainforest. It’s pouring rain and there’s something prowling in the shadows…
- With a single bobby pin, your character must use their wits to unlock the chains on the door before it’s too late.
- Your character encounters a rotting tomato in the center of the street, and a shopkeeper accuses them of thievery. What will they do next?
- Your character crashes their bicycle into the hood of a Camaro. A businessman steps out and pulls a gun on them.
Post your exercises in the comments below!
The next post will dive headfirst into describing characters. Stay tuned!
Katie Spektor is an aspiring author and kitten enthusiast. She is the writer of the Seize the Day series on Wattpad. She also participates in the yearly NaNoWriMo. She adores all things bookish and nerdy, and she holds Nutella in extremely high regard.