How to Write Vivid Descriptions

Author Eli K.P. William offers advice on how to write vivid descriptions while still being mindful of pacing and plot in a novel by using examples of the balance between the two.
Author:
Publish date:

"Whenever you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you - a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little squeeze of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene in front of you." - Claude Monet

I first encountered this quote in Oliver Sacks’ book An Anthropologist On Mars. It is advice on how to break free of cliche approaches to painting, but it applies almost just as well to writing.

The first step to vividly describing a place, person, or thing is to imagine it in your mind’s eye. Alternately, if it actually exists you may prefer to look at it or a photograph directly. Either way, you’ll start with some scene before you without dividing it into objects or attaching any words to it. Just form a “naïve impression” of the colors, textures, shapes, feeling, of whatever it is while refraining from your impulse to name them. Simply picture and observe.

(5 tips for building a house or setting that comes alive for readers.)

The next step is to carefully select the right words to convey it. If the words that come to mind don’t seem adequate, look in a dictionary, ask around, or do some research if necessary, but be sure to keep searching until you have the closest match possible between experience and language. While it’s okay to stop short of perfection, since words and thought inevitably fail to capture perception anyways, keep revising until you can’t think of any way to improve your description further. At this point, your gut instinct should be telling you it’s ready.

What I’ve said so far may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how easy it is to get these two steps mixed up. Instead of allowing the meaning you want to express to decide the words, you are seduced by alliteration, rhythm and other sonic features, or fail to escape from customary phrasing, and allow language itself to decide what it is you want to say. But this approach, as George Orwell cautions in his famous essay Politics And The English Language, traps writers in trite, conformist modes of thinking, which drains their images of vividness.

how_to_write_vivid_descriptions_eli_kp_william

Examples of How to Write a Vivid Description

So now that we have a basic method, let’s try to describe a lake at sunset: "The lake glittered in the light of the setting sun."

There is nothing wrong with this sentence. It might work well in many a story depending on the context. But it doesn’t capture the particularity of the moment.

(Stretching the Tension: Keeping Threats Alive.)

"As the tip of the sun was about to slip below the green hills stretching in layered curves along the horizon, the lake caught its setting light, and glittering streaks of mauve and orange squirmed across the black surface with the undulations of the waves like worms of celestial fire."

Our second example may be slightly overwrought. The simile at the end adds precision to the image but may carry unwanted symbolic baggage, and we might find other ways to simplify it, but at least it transports the reader’s awareness into the moment. This is not just any sunset on any lake at any time, but the particular phase of a particular sunset on a particular lake. You can see the effort made to envision a definitive scene and give it a commensurately definitive expression.

Balancing Description and Pacing

You’ve probably noticed that the word count for the second example is much higher than the first, so once you’ve become proficient at writing with naïvety, the next point to consider is pacing.

(25 Plot Twist Ideas and Prompts for Writers.)

You don’t want to describe everything in meticulous detail all the time as this can overwhelm and potentially bore your reader. Even in my novel Cash Crash Jubilee, in which I set out to describe every moment of my protagonist’s experience over the course of three days, I decided to cut out and simplify many descriptions in the interest of moving the plot along. On the other hand, excessively barebones writing with insufficient detail may get to the action quicker but will deprive the story of originality and impact. This quote from Raymond Chandler, commenting on the way readers react to detective fiction, illustrates this point:

"The things they remembered, that haunted them, was not, for example, that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death."

Remove the details of the paper clip and the look on the man’s face, and this murder is liable to fade from the reader’s memory like a clear, blue sky. The key to writing memorably is effectively balancing action and particularity. But the ideal balance varies from story to story—with short stories tending to weight action more heavily than novels—and also depends on personal style. In this sense, writing with naïvety is a tool to help you discover what proportion works for you and the stories that only you can tell.

*****

the art of storytelling 101 story mapping and pacing

Discover how the seven core competencies of storytelling—concept, character, voice, plot, theme, scene construction, and style—combine to create compelling narrative.

Click to continue.

Mary Alice Monroe: On Writing the Family Saga

Mary Alice Monroe: On Writing the Family Saga

Award-winning author Mary Alice Monroe discusses what it's like to draft a series that spans generations and storylines.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Final Competition Deadline, Short Story Virtual Conference, and more!

This week, we’re excited to announce the Self-Published Book Awards deadline for 2021, details on the upcoming Short Story Virtual Conference, and more!

John B. Thompson | Book Wars

John B. Thompson: On Researching Changes in the Book Publishing Industry

John B. Thompson, author of the new book Book Wars, shares the research that went into his account of how the digital revolution changed publishing for readers and writers.

From Script

Supporting AAPI Storytellers and Tapping into Mythical World Building (From Script)

In this week’s round-up from ScriptMag.com, meet South-East-Asian-American filmmakers and screenwriters, plus interviews with screenwriter Emma Needell and comic book writer/artist Matt Kindt, TV medical advisor Dr. Oren Gottfried, and more!

What Is a Personal Essay in Writing?

What Is a Personal Essay in Writing?

In this post, we look at what a personal essay (also known as the narrative essay) is, including what makes it different from other types of fiction and nonfiction writing, examples of effective personal essays, and more.

FightWrite™: How Do People Who Don’t Know How to Fight, Fight?

FightWrite™: How Do People Who Don’t Know How to Fight, Fight?

If your character isn't a trained fighter but the scene calls for a fight, how can you make the scene realistic? Author and trained fighter Carla Hoch has the answers for writers here.

April PAD Challenge

30 Poetry Prompts for the 2021 April PAD Challenge

Find all 30 poetry prompts for the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge in this post.

The Problem of Solving a Mystery When You're the Prime Suspect

The Problem of Solving a Mystery When You're the Prime Suspect

Mia P. Manansala, author of Arsenic & Adobo, explains how writers can help their main character solve a mystery when they're the prime suspect.

Mistakes Writers Make: Not Using Your Spare 15 Minutes

Mistakes Writers Make: Not Using Your Spare 15 Minutes

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake writers make is not using your spare 15 minutes.