Writing Effective Description

This week on #scribechat on Twitter (Thursday 9pm ET US/Friday 11am AEST Aus.) the topic was ‘Editing your Manuscript’. One question that came up was regarding description. So today I’m going to address the topic of writing effective description in your novel.

Show, Don’t Tell This is the most important thing to remember when writing description. I’ve written a post about this before (Show, Don’t Tell). What is the difference between showing and telling? Telling is exactly that: telling. You tell the reader that the character is ‘tall with long brown hair and blue eyes’. Sometimes the writer tries to be more subtle about it, the biggest cliche being a character looking in a mirror to describe him/herself, but it is still telling. Showing means interweaving the details in the story. If the character is tall you might write, “His head brushed the top of the doorframe as he entered the room.” In this example you are showing the reader the character is tall, without having to even use the word ‘tall’.

When I am editing I use a blue highlighter to highlight any sections of my manuscript where I am telling instead of showing.

Use All 5 Senses This is related to showing rather than telling. Whenever you describe anything in your novel, don’t just think about the visual elements, try to imagine the smells, tastes, sounds and how things feel. It’s the difference between your reader viewing a photograph of your scene, or becoming immersed within the scene. You want your readers to feel like they are there, experiencing what your characters are experiencing. Instead of just telling the reader there’s a building on fire, describe the sound of the flames crackling, the smell of the smoke and how the smoke burns your character’s throat.

Here’s an exercise: Go sit outside and close your eyes. What sounds can you hear? Are there birds tweeting in the trees, or cars revving their engines? What can you smell? Can you smell the sweet aroma of flowers, or maybe you can smell rain in the air? What can you feel? Is the sun warm on your face, or is the wind sending chills through your body? Now when you write your next scene think about where your character is, what time of year it is, what time of day and what is going on around him/her and incorporate the different senses into the scene.

Move the Plot Forward It’s important to keep your plot in mind no matter what you are describing. Avoid adding excessive details that do not relate to your plot. Is it important that your main character’s best friend has a mole on her chin? Does it matter if someone’s eyes are blue or brown? Character development and world building are both necessary to give your story life, but try not to bog your story down in too much detail or readers will be inclined to skip over the long drawn out descriptions. Cut out what is unnecessary, then build up the parts relating to your plot. Instead of spending a page and a half describing what your character looks like, use that space to delve into who your character really is and what motivates him/her. Instead of telling your reader your character has a scar on her left knee, you might write, “Liz ran a finger over the scar on her knee, remembering how she’d fallen off her motorbike in the Championship race last year and lost the race.” From this we find out Liz likes to ride motorbikes competitively and if the story is related to her racing it might show us how she is out to prove herself. This shows a very different character to one who might have got the scar from a knife fight.

These are the three main points I keep in mind when writing/editing description in my manuscript. Do you have any other important tips you follow for writing effective description? Please share them!

7 thoughts on “Writing Effective Description”

  1. Thanks. This was a great post. Writing description is my least favorite part of the writing process, so this is a huge help toward helping me refine it.


  2. Great post. Moving the plot forward through a scene with needed–needed–description is a great point. Description for the sake of describing is death. I know it’s heart-wrenching to get rid of those little babies, though. I am a feign when it comes to that. But focusing on the most pertinent descriptions that will propel your plot forward really is the key.



  3. I love writing description and it is always hard to cut out all that extra unnecessary detail, especially when there’s a passage of description that is written particularly well but does nothing to forward the plot – those are the hardest to cut out.


  4. I think one of the points about show and tell that doesn’t get emphasised enough, and it’s something that you allude to when you talk about conveying that someone is tall without actually using the word ‘tall’, is that show allows the readers to draw conclusions themselves. In the example you provide, the character’s head brushing the top of the doorframe allows the reader to draw the conclusion that the character is tall.

    It’s also the case that several sentences that in themselves appear to be tell can, when taken together, allow the reader to draw a conclusion that isn’t directly conveyed, so it’s not always obvious when show is being used if you don’t look beyond the level of the sentence. For this reason, show is sometimes mistakenly criticised as being tell.

    As for description, it can be used for setting and characterisation, too, so it’s not purely about advancing the plot.



  5. That’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it? Telling involves spoonfeeding readers those details, whereas showing allows readers to experience the details and draw their own conclusions. Showing allows reader to become more involved in the story.

    I agree that description can be used for character development and world building as well as forwarding the plot, I mention it in my post. The key is to avoid excessive drawn-out detail. It’s better to weave character development/world building in with the plot where you can so the story is always moving forward. Often character development and plot development are intertwined because the character drives the plot and the plot affects the character.


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