Improve Your Descriptive Writing
Bring Your Story To Life
When writing fiction, vivid prose and amazing descriptions can breathe life into your story, sucking the reader in, making them feel like they’re right there next to the characters, the story unfolding just an arms length away. However, conjuring to life new places and different characters with only words isn’t easy.
Describing what is happening in a story — whether it be short, long, or 3,000 paged —is one of the most important parts of a written piece, and while every writer chooses to write prose a little differently, there are a few tips that can help turn your words into sprawling forests, and your decent story into a masterpiece of fortresses, beaches, and mountains.
Tip One: Figurative Language
Pull out your favorite novel and I bet you you’ll find some figurative language used. See how it adds to the description of the story, and how it helps to paint a picture in the reader's mind.
When describing something in your story, whether it be a setting or a character, there are three main types of figurative language that have the most vivid effect on your descriptive language: personification, similes, and metaphors.
Personification is giving ‘human qualities to inhuman things’, like animals or forces of nature. For example, instead of saying a more dull, ‘The wind was loud as we walked down the path’, you could use personification and change it to, ‘The wind whispered and clawed at our ears as we walked down the path, the shadows twisting and flickering menacingly around us.” When personification is used right, it adds a whole other layer to the description. It’s also good for setting the mood, as shown above, when the figurative language defined a scary, horror atmosphere as opposed to a more adventurous tone.
Simile/Metaphors are ‘comparing two unlike things together’. The only real difference between them is that similes use ‘like’ or ‘as’, while metaphors don’t. Using these forms of figurative language can also help to set the mood, and clarify what something looks or sounds like. One instance of metaphors and similes is, ‘The flowers were gold sparkling in the sunlight like jewels, a carpet of rich, warm color and soft, velvet petals.’
Tip Two: Sensory Language
Which one is a more vivid description?
‘The tall trees sparkled in the pale golden sunlight around me as I stepped into the forest.’
‘The tall trees sparkled in the pale golden sunlight around me as I stepped into the forest, the soft mud giving away beneath my sneakers with a muffled squelch. A light layer of mist surrounded me, the cold biting at my bare arms, the taste of mint on my tongue. The crowing of birds and the soft, constant humming of insects grew louder as I made my way deeper into the woods, the wrinkled smell of city smoke replaced slowly with the rich, musty scent of damp wood.’
You probably chose the second option as your favorite. While at first glance it might seem like it’s only more descriptive because it’s longer and has more words, there’s another thing at play too. Sensory language.
The first example focuses solely on sight. For most of us, sight is our most important sense, and when we’re describing something, we’ll only describe what we see. However, the second paragraph has all five senses. Along with sight(trees) the reader knows smell(city smoke; damp wood), touch(mist and cold; mud), sound(birds; insects), and taste(mint). Now, instead of having only one sense on alert, we have all five, which allows the reader to have more detail to use to imagine what the setting looks like. The more senses you describe, the better they will be able to imagine the setting.
Tip Three: Expand Your Vocabulary
Depending on the type of voice you’re going for, you may want to expand your vocabulary.
If you have more words at your disposal, you can have a more professional-seeming story, and more words to work with when you’re crafting your sentences.
While expanding your word-knowledge organically through reading other stories and articles is a good way to do it, don’t feel ashamed to use a thesaurus. Every time I’m writing something, from a blog post to a novel, I use a thesaurus to help me choose better words. Thesaurus’s are databases of synonyms, both physical in book form, and online in website form, like the one linked above. They’re tools to help you choose the perfect word.
No matter how you choose to discover more words and expand your vocabulary, once you do, make sure to pay attention to how different words affect your tone.
For example, a ‘confident and proud’ character has a more positive connotation, while a ‘boastful and arrogant’ character has a negative connotation. The larger your vocabulary, the more options you’ll have to choose the just-right word.
While reading and learning about writing is great, the best way to grow as a writer(or at anything, really) is to actually do it.
Here are some simple exercises to help practice your descriptive writing:
Search up some sort of photo on your browser. It’s best to practice with describing settings as there’s the most to describe, but if you want to search up a person or a thing to describe, that’s fine too.
Try writing a long paragraph describing the photo. Play around with word choice to set the tone. If you want an extra challenge, write another paragraph about the same photo, but try to make the mood of the words as different as you can from the previous paragraph.
For this exercise, you’ll need a partner. Friend, sibling, parent, aunt, as long as they’re willing to play a little guessing game with you.
Now, choose an object in the room(or in the world, if you want to make it harder). Try describing this object in as few words as possible, without saying what it is, of course. The goal of this is to practice pinpointing the key characteristics of an object.
To make it harder, you can add limitations to what you can describe, sorta like the game Taboo. For example, you can make a rule that you can only use metaphors to describe it, or forbid any describing of how it looks.
Get one, semi-random word. You can use an adjective generator online, or text your friend asking for a random descriptive word. It can be as common as ‘pretty’ to as specific as ‘favillous’(I searched that one up, it means ‘resembling ashes’).
Write it down, or type it, on a blank page/file. Now, write. Write write write write, describe a scene or a person or whatever you want to write about, inspired from this one word. Make sure to include it at least once in your paragraph. When you’re done, re-read what you wrote, and see which parts you were able to nail(maybe you can hear it so vividly you cover your ears) and the parts which you struggled with(maybe you can’t hear anything).
This is a fun ‘spontaneous-writing’ sort-of exercise to do when you just want to get something down on paper and practice your descriptive writing.
You’ve read this article, or maybe just some parts of it. Now, go write! Apply what you learned here(or just in general) to your in-progress novel or short story you want to submit to a contest! It’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of reading all about writing, but the whole point of it all is to write. Create. Imagine.
So stop reading, open up your notebook or Google Doc, and start writing.