Descriptive writing can be as simple as the use of one word or as complex as a long detailed paragraph. Either way, the goal is to add life into the sentences and put the reader closer into the scene. The right descriptive words can bring a flat uninteresting sentence to life and frequently answers the who, what, where, when, why and how questions. Descriptive words that enhance the image, emotion or experience will provide a more memorable experience for the reader.
I’ve read many articles and even books on descriptive writing, and the best advice I found was to appeal to the five senses. My favorite example is from an old I Love Lucy episode when Lucy tries to describe to Ethel what Charles Boyer looks like. “It’s like he just walked into a room where a big pot of cauliflower is cooking,” she said. Say no more.
Here are some examples of descriptive phrases that have the potential to pull the reader into the story.
Tight red dress, beer belly, brandy brown eyes, red-orange evening sky, chewed fingernails, dense foliage, two-foot whitecaps.
New car smell, too much cologne, apple pie, hot tar, stale cigarettes and beer, newly mowed grass, the coppery smell of blood.
Vinegar, sweet dark chocolate, rock salt, sour milk, ripe vine-picked strawberry, chili pepper, garlic.
Hammers banging, screeching seagulls, a baby crying, crunch of an apple, distant owl, native drums, determined steps, Thwap!
Limp handshake, smooth skin, wiry hair, rabbit’s fur, cactus plant, slippery rocks, corduroy, adhesive tape, sandpaper, Vaseline.
Here is an example of a simple flat sentence growing into a descriptive one.
He sat at the desk.
The thin balding man slouched in the chair behind the desk.
The thin balding man slouched in the chair behind the desk ignored the brawl going on behind him.
The thin balding man slouched in the chair behind the desk stroked his wiry beard, ignoring the brawl going on behind him.
The thin balding man slouched in the chair behind the desk stroked his wiry beard, ignoring the brawl going on behind him, the cigarette dangling from his mouth defying gravity.
- It helps if you can form a mental picture first, putting yourself in the scene, and then describe what you see, hear, smell, taste or feel.
- Be selective. Too many details can bog down the sentence or the action. If the words don’t add to the storyline, don’t use them.
- Avoid clichés unless it’s one of the character’s personality traits to use them. Examples: As good as gold. Work like a dog. Greener pastures. Pass the buck.
- As part of your editing process, review each sentence to decide if you’ve included enough description. For example, it may add to the story if the character grew up in a twenty-room mansion in Beverly Hills rather than a house in southern California, or drank a tankard of Dortmunder rather than a can of beer, or drove a 1936 Auburn Boattail Speedster convertible, dark blue with a tan interior rather than an old car.
Adding the right amount of description is a balancing act, and everyone has a different opinion of what is the right balance. Just be aware that too much will bore the reader and not enough will leave him confused.