Write Better, Right Now is a weekly post helping writers understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level.
Write Better, Right Now’s topics for April:
- What is Descriptive Writing (4/4)
- Descriptive Writing in Dialogue (4/11)
- Descriptive Writing to World Build (4/18)
- Descriptive Writing Action (4/25)
I know that in January, I went over how to describe certain things. But I never really went into descriptive writing as a whole, just aspects of it. Descriptive writing is often stated as show don’t tell. While that’s a part of it, descriptive writing does involve telling. Writers tell the reader many things but dressed up in fancy clothing.
“Brad took the trash out back.”
Like replacing sense words, descriptive writing calls for the writer to decide what aspects of a moment they want to color for the reader. A writer can choose to leave the above line as is. Or they can decide they want to show another aspect of the story or the character’s world.
“Brad inched down the icy steps of the back door and tossed the small plastic bag over the fence into his neighbor’s already overflowing large black trash bin before carefully scurrying back inside.”
“Brad tossed the trash out the back door into the night.”
“Brad took the shiny black trash bag out back to the garbage.”
Each example is correct, depending on what the writer wants to tell or show the reader. Mentioning the shiny black bag may relate to another moment in the character’s life the writer is trying to compare to garbage or something Brad needs to get rid of. The character tossing trash out of a back door may suggest to readers the type of neighborhood or world the character lives in and how they operate within it. The only way to do descriptive writing wrong is by using the most basic form of describing something and rushing by all the good stuff to tell ideas instead of moments.
It takes the servants several days to make their way to the storerooms. They blame it on the tragedy (not that the servants regard it as entirely a tragedy, but they know better than to say that out loud) and the resulting chaos: after all, they cannot enter the storerooms without authorization, and who can authorize that entrance, now that the queen is dead, and her successor unknown?
The truth is, they are terrified of the contents of those storerooms.
The first crack of the door confirms their worst fears.
Not just an apple. Barrels of apples, shining as if freshly picked, almost glowing in the torchlight.
Let’s get into it more below!
So what is descriptive writing anyway? Descriptive writing is when a writer uses distinct techniques to color or paint a moment for a reader. These techniques can be imagery, metaphor, figurative language, sharp details, and using all five senses to show the reader the full depth of an experience.
Descriptive writing: In the sun heat, Sally sits down, smearing grass all over her yellow jean overalls.
Not descriptive writing: Sally sits down.
Descriptive writing uses a mixture of showing and telling to convey a complete image. The above descriptive sentence broken down into what parts tell and what parts show would look like this:
Showing: In the sun heat, smearing grass
Telling: Sally sits down, yellow jean overalls
Showing usually has energy while telling is pretty static, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tell action and you can’t show ideas. Tellin action is simple and the way many writers start. They write about how someone goes about their routines or the motions of the story without showing any aspect of the world that would stick in the reader’s mind. Showing ideas usually relies on using figurative language, emotive writing, and a strong voice.
Often, writers will go overboard when trying to perform descriptive writing. They will add colors and words and extensions to their sentences to try and showcase what they think is a distinct image. These over-complicated moments are easily spotted because they are confusing and tiresome to read.
Editors or readers may even call heavily descriptive writing dense because it conveys so much information to the reader. Dense writing isn’t bad, but it requires more effort and energy for the reader to digest what is happening. Many writers have a naturally lush style or voice. They are very successful because they are skilled at other aspects of writing that take the heavy pressure off their dense use of language, like they have wonderfully poetic prose or interesting story events.
If you’re trying to write descriptively, decide on the sentence, paragraph, and scene level what you are trying to show and tell your reader. If you want to show them the countryside but want to tell them about the main character, think about how you can break down each paragraph into its own universe of description, both showing and telling your reader what you want.
Maybe you write a scene where the character is walking along and thinking about their past while gazing at the landscape. You’d mix the showing of the landscape with the telling of the emotions or vice versa. Or perhaps you do something different. May you introduce a character painting alongside the road and they give the reader a new way of looking at the landscape while telling the character’s reactions to the painting and the emotions it brings up.
Find two pages of description from a published work that you really don’t like. I’m talking about a scene where you had no idea what was going on, didn’t connect to the action, or felt lost throughout the two or so pages. Read it over, marking every sentence or section that you cannot picture in your mind or find lacking description.
For each section or sentence you highlight or mark, state what the writer is doing and how they fail to show you what is happening. There are no wrong answers here. This exercise is getting you to identify weak descriptions and analyze them.
Write Better, Right Now’s topics from March:
- Finding Our Characters’ Voices (3/7)
- Developing Our Characters’ Voices (3/16)
- Dialogue as Exposition (3/21)
- Inner Voice (3/28)
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Please don’t forget to leave a comment and tell me your thoughts on using your character’s internal voice or your struggle areas with it in your writing! I’d also love to know how you made out with the exercise. Catch you next week for our Write Better, Right Now post on descriptive writing in dialogue.
10 thoughts on “Write Better, Right Now: What is Descriptive Writing?”
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying your posts these past few months, and after last month’s bit on voices, it actually helped improve my writing substantially. Now, you just hit upon my other Achilles heel as a writer, and I’m happy to say I can’t wait to see what you post next on descriptive writing. Thank you.
Thank you! I’m glad you improved because of some of these posts. That’s what they are here for! Feel free to suggest a topic you’d like to cover. I haven’t decided on next month’s topic, so I’m open. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.