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Writing

How to Use Descriptive Writing to Improve Your Story

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

In fiction writing, authors bring characters to life and create imaginative settings through descriptive writing—using vivid details, figurative language, and sensory information to paint a picture for readers. Well-crafted descriptive writing draws readers into the story. It’s an essential part of storytelling that every author needs to learn.

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What Is Descriptive Writing?

An author uses descriptive language to depict a character, setting, or scene in a way that creates an image in the reader’s mind. A writer often uses figurative language to evoke the reader’s senses. Descriptive writing gives a story more depth and credibility by allowing readers to imagine the physical world and characters a writer has created.

11 Tips for Descriptive Writing

As any good writer knows, descriptive writing in a short story or novel takes practice. If descriptive passages are too long, they slow a story down. If a writer uses bland words (like describing a character as “nice”) character development will fall flat. Here are 11 writing tips to help you perfect descriptive writing:

  1. Use your imagination. When you sit down for the first time to flesh out your story, use your imagination. What do you see when you picture your main character? Where do they live? What does their home look like? If you can visualize people and places in your own mind, then it is easier to find the words to make them real to your readers.
  2. Use dynamic words. To get a scene to jump off the page, create vivid descriptions through dynamic language—choose words that have movement over words that are static. This is especially helpful when you have to build a new world, like in a science fiction novel.
  3. Engage a reader’s senses. Specific and concrete details are critical to successful storytelling, and the best way to make details concrete is by appealing to the reader’s senses. As the saying goes, “show, don’t tell.” Use sensory detail—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—to describe a scene. Use the strongest description sense for the scene. If your character is in a gutter, smell may be more provocative than sight.
  4. Use point of view to inform descriptive writing. Let characters be the gateway to descriptive writing. Follow your characters around and describe the world through them. Most people take in their surroundings with a traveling gaze, so imagine where their attention will rove. Looking at the world through their eyes in a plausible way will add a subtle effect of believability. In first person or third person pov, describe how the main character views other people and experiences moments. Showing the world through a character’s subjective point of view reveals how they feel about things, which helps character development.
  5. Write detailed character descriptions. Visualize a character in your own mind. Make them three dimensional by fleshing out both the character’s personality and physical appearance. What is their eye color? Do they have green eyes, brown eyes, or blue eyes? Write down their physical details like hairstyle and hair color—do they have brown hair, blond hair, or dark hair? Describe how they move through the world and hint at what their body language and mannerisms reveal.
  6. Self-edit for descriptive language. When you review your first draft, make sure there is enough description to paint a picture for readers. Replace weak adjectives with more descriptive synonyms. Replace nondescript character descriptions ("likable," "nice") with more interesting traits.
  7. Use backstory as a descriptive technique. When you’re fleshing out characters, make sure each one has a backstory, then allude to that backstory through specific details. You might describe a woman who is wearing a flannel shirt that belonged to her estranged father. If an old building in San Francisco is rundown, elaborate to show that it’s a survivor of the 1906 earthquake to give it more historical context.
  8. Do creative writing exercises. To improve your descriptive writing, try simple exercises. For example, try writing one-paragraph descriptions of places or people. Write a description of a room you know well. Take a location every knows—like New York—and describe the city from a fictional character’s point of view. Try picking a word in the English language and brainstorm descriptive alternatives.
  9. Make descriptive writing feel organic. Descriptive writing can slow a story down. Good description is carefully woven into the action so the story keeps moving. For example, a thriller must keep a page-turning pace to keep readers in suspense, so descriptions should happen as dramatic events unfold rather than stepping out of the scene and stopping the action.
  10. Let the reader use their imagination. When describing a place or person, be creative and concise and let the reader fill in the visual blanks. Painting pictures in light brushstrokes can be evocative because you’re asking the reader to do the work of imagining.
  11. See how other writers use descriptive language. Search for good examples of descriptive writing in bestselling books. Study how the writers use language and words that pull the reader into the story. Notice how they describe the physical characteristics and personality traits of their characters and how they incorporate descriptive writing into their story to keep the storyline moving and to paint a picture of their world.
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