Writing Descriptions that Wow

Description in writing has to be one of the hardest parts to get just right. Give readers too little description, and they are unable to experience the story world. Write too much description, and readers get lost in all the details.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s take a look at ways a writer can balance description in writing:

Rule of Three

My good old Rule of Three is a great starting place for any writer. Describe a character with a, b and c, and readers get a solid picture along with a pleasing rhythm. By limiting a description to three, you can narrow down a setting or character to the three most outstanding things. More importantly, by listing three descriptors, you manage your reader by pointing to the details you need to be highlighted for the story. For example, if you mention that a woman is tall, thin and wears designer clothing, you signal to readers that status or class matters to the story. If you describe a cowboy’s bunkhouse as dark, musty and with mattresses a porcupine couldn’t get comfortable sleeping on, you’re managing your reader to imagine a much different kind of story than the first example.

If you begin with three descriptors, you can always edit them down later. Even though the Rule of Three is handy, you don’t want your prose to sound sing-song. Start out by choosing three descriptors and then later, in editing, choose the best of them to keep. Less is more, remember?

First Impressions

Another way to make your descriptions count is to understand how we react initially to places and people. When you observe strangers at a mall (I know I do!), you generally don’t take in every detail about a person. Instead, a few things will stand out.

Let’s say you see a guy who is middle-aged, balding and wearing red suspenders. He’s probably also wearing a shirt and shoes, and other details. Yet if you have just seen him for the first time, it’s doubtful you will notice all the ordinary things about the man. The most striking or unusual or even stereotypical attributes will catch your attention first. So it is with readers. Describe the things that a person would remember when seeing him for the first time.

Pace is Balance

In writing description, balance is paramount. You want enough description to give readers a clear picture, but you don’t want to over-describe. If you do, lingering over details must be very important to the story. With every word or descriptive phrase, you slow down the pace of the story. The hierarchy of story pace is, from fastest to slowest: Dialogue feels fastest, then Action, followed by Description or Narrative and finally, Expository or Info Dump. Info Dumps clump all the descriptions together instead of letting them unfold naturally in the scene. Good pacing feeds readers details as they need them instead of asking them to remember descriptions given pages before.

If you force readers to linger over a description that is minor to the story, they will mistake the length for the message that it’s very important. If you breeze over very important intimate moments with little description, readers automatically assign the passage as less important to the story. To attain Balanced Description, use the Rule of Three, give readers First Impressions that describe where you’d like their attention to be and finally, vary your descriptions so that they are more detailed in intimate or important scenes and less detailed or dense in the connecting scenes.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “Writing Descriptions that Wow

  1. There’s a lot of power in description. It’s easy to forget that. The most important thing for me is understand who my characters are. Not only their personality but their style. Are they a T-shirt person? A hat person and so on.

    Whatever it is my goal is to make it consistent throughout the story.

    As always, thank you. Excellent advice.

  2. Bryan,
    As always, you make excellent points. Description done well is key to communicating your character to readers.
    Keep Writing!

    • Hi Laura,
      Thanks so much for your comment. Writing toward excellence takes a lot of practice, but it’s nice to have a “concise” help now and then too.
      Keep writing!

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