Debate Magazine

The Write Stuff: Secrets to Writing Descriptions Your Readers Will Love!

By Eowyn @DrEowyn




In his book “On Writing”, Stephen King says, “Description makes the reader a sensory participant in the story.” That’s a wise statement and I agree with it. When describing anything in your novel, whether people, places, or things, try to use as many senses as you can. Sight is the obvious one, but don’t overlook sound, smell, taste, and touch.

Just past the start of the divided highway, the sky grew almost black and several enormous drops spattered the windshield. Sarah sat straight up. “Let’s hope it doesn’t rain, ” she said.

“I don’t mind a little rain,” Macon said.

Sarah sat back again, but she kept her eyes on the road.

It was a Thursday morning. There wasn’t much traffic. They passed a pickup truck, then a van all covered with stickers from a hundred scenic attractions. The drops on the windshield grew closer together. Macon switched his wipers on. Tick-swoosh, they went – a lulling sound; and there was a gentle patter on the roof. Every now and then a gust of wind blew up. Rain flattened the long, pale grass at the sides of the road. It slanted across the boat lots, lumberyards, and discount furniture outlets, which already had a darkened look as if here it might have been raining for some time.

“Can you see all right?” Sarah asked.

“Of course,” Macon said. “This is nothing.”

They arrived behind a trailer truck whose rear wheels sent out arcs of spray. Macon swung to the left and passed. There was a moment of watery blindness till the truck had dropped behind. Sarah gripped the dashboard with one hand.

That’s from “The Accidental Tourist” by Anne Tyler, and if you’ve ever driven a car in the rain, you can feel just how accurate those paragraphs are. The visual descriptions are excellent, but what really makes this passage sing are the sound descriptions: The word “spattered” to describe the first drops of rain hitting the windshield (spattered is a great word, describing both sight and sound); “Tick-swoosh” for the windshield wipers; “a gentle patter on the roof.” While reading, didn’t you feel you were right inside that car?

The author even gets in a quick sense of touch with “Sarah gripped the dashboard with one hand.” She doesn’t describe the feel of the dashboard, but she doesn’t have to. We’ve all gripped our dashboards at one time or another and we know exactly how it feels. In fact, by not describing the feel, the reader is able to particularize it for themselves with the memory of their own car’s dashboard in their mind.

Slaight just stripped, eased himself into the stainless steel tub and sat on the wooden bench on the bottom, dialed 105 on the thermostat, flipped the Jacuzzi switch, leaned his head back on a rolled towel, and blew out a long breath of hot, stinky air, area air, air full of sweat and gritty concrete dust and the rank stench of his sweaty f***in’ gray wool dress coat, barracks air, West Point air. The hot swirling water pounded him like a soggy jackhammer, going to work on his legs first, down there at the spot where the jet nozzle stuck into the tank. Then he felt the water at the base of his back, rooting around in his muscles, tugging at the knots of tension he brought over with him from the area, pulling that god***n M-14 off his shoulder, floating those eight pounds of steel and wood and leather up over the edge of the tank and away. Then he felt his neck let go. It was a slobbery, lazy feeling, like somebody had landed a good one on him in plebe boxing, and he had brushed the edges of consciousness, swimming around out there in that gray area where your legs are rubbery and your balance lurches in and out of contact, like a New York subway pulling away from the station platform – wham! clank! – the cars banging together as the train picks up speed … balance slipping and swaying and rushing away….

He felt good. He’s stay in the whirlpool until his toes felt like they were growing together, they were so waterlogged.

That’s from Dress Gray by Lucian K. Truscott. I don’t recommend the book for moral reasons, but it contains some of the best descriptive passages I’ve ever read. This sample relies heavily on the sense of touch. Didn’t you feel like you were right there in that Jacuzzi while you were reading?

Notice how the author employed a sound description technique very similar to how Anne Tyler did. For her, it was tick-swoosh, for Truscott it’s wham! clank!

Suddenly he felt cool fingers of air lifting the wet, fair hair on his forehead. The perspiration under his arms, dripping down his chest, evaporated and the prickly sensation was delightful.

Isannah cried, “The wind, the wind! Blow, wind, blow!”

It did not blow, but flowed over them and cooled them. The three sat in a row, their feet dangling over the water below. They sat well apart at first, with arms outstretched, soaking themselves in the freshness of the sea air.

That passage, from Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, also relies on the sense of touch. “Cool fingers of air” is a great choice of words.

On the other side of the wall, Jeffrey led them into the cemetery. The grounds were dotted with naked trees and carpeted with dead leaves that cracked and crumbled under their shoes. It smelled of cold earth and rotting wood crucifixes. Before them, in sad disrepair, lay thousands of headstones and monuments.

That’s from a middle-grade mystery novel I just finished. It uses sight, sound, and smell. The third sentence was originally “The smell of cold earth mingled with the stench of rotting wood crucifixes.” I really liked the word stench and tried every which way to make it work, but in the end the shorter and more immediate version sounded better. That’s part of the trade-off you’ll have to engage in as a writer.

Is it possible to overdo sensory description? Absolutely. This passage is by Barnaby Conrad from The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction. It’s his “improvement” on the sentence “Jess, dressed like a cowboy, went into the barn and began to milk the cow, the first time he’d ever stooped to doing it.”

Jess strode off with the bucket toward the barn in that peculiar rolling gait that was just short of a limp, his spurs ching-chinging, his bat-wing chaps flapping against his bowed legs, and his black hat with the rattle-snake band tilted back on his thatched head. The red door squealed in protest when he swung it open, and the ammoniated stench of the wet hay stung his nostrils. He found the cow in the darkness, her muley horns lit by a Rembrandt shaft of light, and patting her bony rump gingerly, he grunted: “Amelia, this here might be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.” She answered with a wary and unconvinced moo.

To me, that’s overkill. In fact, it’s just plain awful. Description is meant to move your story along, not grind it to a halt. It’s this kind of bad writing that leads to cookie-cutter imitations where every book sounds the same: boring. So use sensory descriptions, yes, but don’t overdo it! (Conrad may have purposely exaggerated sensory stimuli in order to make a point, however he doesn’t mention this in the book.)


Describe through motion whenever you can. We saw this in the above samples: “drops spattered the windshield,” “rain flattened,” “Sarah gripped the dashboard,” Slaight “eased himself into the stainless steel tub,” the air “flowed over them and cooled them,” etc.

It’s especially important to use movement when describing what your characters look like:

Bland: Jeffrey had blue eyes.
Better: Jeffrey blinked his blue eyes.
Best: Jeffrey stared at the paper on his desk and blinked his blue eyes.

Bland: Her eyes were green.
Better: Her green eyes danced with rebellion.
Best: She grinned up at him and her green eyes danced with rebellion.

While Cortes was inert and semiconscious, one of the Spaniards deft at surgery amputated two fingers from his crippled left hand, cauterized the stumps of the two fingers with boiling oil, and removed splinters of bone or stone from Cortes’s head. Cortes’s knee was purple and swollen to double its size. His whole body was covered with bruises, arrow-wounds and cuts. Almost dead on an Indian pallet, prostate and in a coma, lay the conquerer of Mexico.

That’s from Cortes: The Great Adventurer and the Fate of Aztec Mexico by Richard Lee Marks, a non-fiction work, and one of the most exciting books you’ll ever read. Note how in the first sentence the author describes through action and movement.


Last week, we saw how James T. Farrell created a powerful opening to his novel Studs Lonigan through the use of verbs. Verbs add spice, action, and creativity to your work.

One strong verb is always superior to the combination of one weak verb and an adverb.

Bland: He quickly wrote the license plate number on his palm.
Better: He scribbled the license plate number on his palm.

Bland: He fell clumsily from his perch.
Better: He tumbled from his perch.

Bland: He ate his lunch quickly.
Better: He gobbled his lunch.

Bland: He ran quickly across the yard.
Better: He sprinted across the yard. Or: He raced, he hurried, he galloped, etc.

Get yourself a good Thesaurus and learn to love verbs.


The more unique you can be in your descriptions the better. Below are two descriptions of a woman, both by different authors. Each description emphasizes the woman’s mouth.

There was a silence. The woman waited, facing him and wearing a perky smile, with her fingers laced together on the counter. She had painted her nails dark red, Macon saw, and put on a blackish lipstick that showed her mouth to be an unusually complicated shape – angular, like certain kinds of apples.

Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

The first description is from The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, and the second is from The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. They’re two of the most unique descriptions you’ll ever read anywhere, yet if you read them again, you’ll see that they could easily be talking about the same mouth!

Develop your own unique and look for interesting and unique ways to describe people, places, and things in your novel.
Don’t worry about being perfect. Nobody gets it right all the time. (I’m currently reading a novel from a major publishing house by a famous, bestselling author, and it’s riddled with amateurish mistakes. If I told you who the author was, you wouldn’t believe me!)

Tune in next week for more. In the meantime, do you have a favorite descriptive passage or opening to a novel? If so, I’d love to hear it.

(For the first two parts to this series, visit the Write Stuff tab at the top of the page!)

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