6 key ingredients for Descriptive Writing

My son is studying descriptive writing at high school. For homework he was asked to write a paragraph on the view from his window. It’s a tough call when there’s not much going on out there.   But that, of course,  is the whole point of the exercise – to note what generally goes unnoticed, and to convey a complete and original picture  of the view from the window, using all of the senses. It’s amazing what you can see, hear, smell, touch and feel when you put your mind to it.

IMG_0764As a writer I do that all the time. But it’s a skill I’ve had to develop, too.  I started my career as a television news reporter. Being a news reporter means turning a lot of complicated information into a short package so the audience can easily understand what is going on.

In television, the pictures help tell the story. The words back up the television footage. Writing fiction works the other way round – you need to use words to describe the images in your head. Good description helps to draw in the reader and helps to make the story more exciting.

These are some of the things I find important:

1. Always start by brainstorming ideas

Dump down every word that comes to mind related to the scene you are describing. If you put down a noun (eg. river) put down as many adjectives as you can think of to go with that noun. (eg. gentle, raging, clear – depending on the type of river). From there you could develop metaphors and similes to go with the nouns.

2. Use all of your senses in the description

Mostly, we rely on our sight. But other senses help to build up a complete picture of what is going on. Draw in your readers by telling them what you can see, hear, smell, taste, touch and how it makes you feel. The reader should know something about you as well as the scene by your choice of words. Blood Money cover

Here’s an example from  Blood Money, one of the adventure stories in my series for young readers – Hazard River:

I’m thinking of money, not dangerous animals. That’s why I put my foot in the long grass without thinking at all. There’s a rustle just in front of my foot. I hear it before I see it. I scramble backwards. A long black body slithers out of the grass. It’s right in front of me. A tongue flickers. Then there’s a flash of red. ‘SNAKE!’ I scream. ‘Red-belly black snake!’(P.24)

3. Make your description as specific as possible.

There are lots of adjectives that sound cool to use, but they don’t always add  meaning to your story. Your house might be in “chaos”, but does that mean there are a few clothes scattered on your bedroom floor or does it mean aliens have invaded and set up camp in your kitchen? Make sure you don’t leave the reader to guess what you might mean. How about a man with a “creepy face”? What is it about his face that scares you? SNAKE SURPRISE! FRONT COVER

Here’s an example from my Hazard River series – Snake Surprise:

An ugly thing with a human body, ears like a rabbit and a face so grotesque it would make gladiators wet their pants, leaps off the roof of the houseboat. (P.19)

4. Use details that are relevant to the story.

If you are writing a book, rather than  just a paragraph for class, you need to choose which scenes to describe in detail and which details are needed. Rich detail adds to a story but irrelevant detail slows down the pacing. Make sure all the relevant details come out early in the story. Don’t surprise the reader in the climax by revealing your main character has supersonic vision. The reader will feel cheated. And be consistent. If your character has a broken leg at the beginning of the story, he won’t be carrying everyone to safety at the end of the story. shark-frenzy-front-cover.jpg

Here’s a snippet from another story in the Hazard River series – Shark Frenzy:

I made a deal with sharks. I don’t swim near them and they don’t play cricket. It may be a little unfair. I can swim, whereas they haven’t got a hope of hitting a six. (P.1)

4. Use description as part of the story.

Good detail advances the story. It doesn’t slow it down.

In this scene from the Hazard River story Tiger Terror, the description is part of the story.

Something wet hits me in the face. Cold, slimy fingers grab at my neck. I can feel them, even through the balaclava. Sharp talons scratch at my cheeks. I fight to get free. But I get more tangled. I gasp for breath. I’m going to be choked to death. (P. 51)

5. Detail should be original but resonate with the reader

No one wants to read a cliche (especially not your English teacher or publisher), so descriptions need to be original. Detail should offer a fresh view on something well known. When it comes to describing something unusual, metaphors and similes are a good way to compare something unknown to the reader with something they do know.

In another story from the bat attack coverHazard River series, Bat Attack, this is a  description of a ghost bat (which most readers wouldn’t be familiar with). I compare it to a character from Star Wars.

It has long ears and what looks like a piece of salad on the end of its nose. I’m being attacked by Master Yoda with wings! I’m in the middle of a Star Wars battle zone. (p. 40) I felt confident my readers would know Master Yoda, but it’s essential to avoid using similes and metaphors that add confusion  not clarification.

Here’s an example: Jodie was as lazy as my Aunty Hilly.  If the reader doesn’t know Aunty Hilly, then the simile doesn’t add anything to our understanding of Jodie.

6. Use detail to reveal how the character feels This is the one that often gets forgotten. Descriptive writing should tell us something about the character so we get to know them better and have a chance to identify with them.

In Shark Frenzy, Jack is forced to go into the water, where he thinks there might be sharks.

Panic rises inside me, like a battalion of hairy caterpillars, marching through my chest. (p. 25) Hopefully from this, the reader knows Jack is terrified of sharks. The information is revealed rather than directly stated. This is what some people call showing – not – telling.

Good luck with adding detail to your next story.

I leave you with this quote from best selling author, Stephen King:

“We’ve all heard someone say, ‘Man, it was so great (or so horrible/strange/funny) … I just can’t describe it!’ If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.”

BUY The Hazard River series


Published by Julie Fison

Julie Fison is a Brisbane writer and travel lover. Her debut novel for adults ONE PUNCH is a compelling and thought-provoking family drama that follows two mothers forced to make impossible decisions after one life-changing night. Inspired by real events, the story is a sharp study of the complexities of family life and the consequences of being blind to the faults of our loved ones. Julie’s other work includes books for children and young adults – the Hazard River adventure series for young adventure lovers, stories in the Choose Your Own Ever After series that let the reader decide how the story goes, and a play for secondary school students As the Crow Flies. Julie is also a committed traveller and loves sharing tips for midlife adventurers.

3 thoughts on “6 key ingredients for Descriptive Writing

  1. good tips Julie, I’ll be hanging on to those.

    Looks like you have been busy, your books look great.

    I have had a reply back from Penguin to say they are interested in my book ‘A Patch from Scratch’. They originally said Feb 2015, but are now saying Feb  2016. It seems a very long way away. It’s a funny kind of business isn’t it.

    1. Thanks Megan. Great news about Patch! I know. The long wait is a killer, (especially for someone who was used to hourly deadlines), but hang in there and keep on with your illustrations. The independent publishing houses tend to have a quicker turn around with books, so give them a shot, too. Good luck!

  2. One of the most useful things that writers can do is to read a lot. This will expose them to various writing styles and help them develop their own voice. Take a look at some of the books that you’ve read recently. See if you can find a descriptive passage in one or more of them. Read the passage carefully. Which senses does the passage evoke? Does the author make you feel like you’re really in the scene, experiencing the action with the protagonists?

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