Description 101


The definition of describe:

  • To transmit a mental image or impression.
  • To trace or draw the figure of, to outline.
  • To give a verbal account of, to tell about in detail.

Description enables the reader to experience the “fictional dream“, being pulled into a story so deeply that it becomes more real than the chair the reader sits on. Description is the language used to bring attributes of a thing or person to the reader’s mind. It makes impressions, using all the senses. It is also known as word painting.

Description goes hand in hand with exposition and narration, as these three are the foundation of any story. From a theory point of view, description may seem like a stand-alone aspect but practiced writers will know it is intertwined with exposition and narration, never alone. They form a trinity.

General thumb rules

  • Describe something in highlight in the first 5 sentences
  • Continue to sprinkle (not list) descriptions across the pages.
  • The first page can hold more description than the other pages of the same scene
  • No 100+ word blocks highlighting something after the first page
  • No 300+ word blocks of description, ever, anywhere.

The uses of description

  • Providing information.
  • Moving the plot along.
  • Creates the illusion of reality.
  • Engages the reader.
  • Establishes your characters and the setting.
  • Frames the point of view.
  • Act as gear shifts, changing the pace.
  • Links scenes, time and places.
  • Serves the underlying theme.

What description is not

  • It is not mere embellishment.
  • It is not optional (it is a necessity).
  • It is more than how things look: it is how they smell, how they feel. Memorable description uses at least three senses.
  • It is not only the description of pretty things.
  • It is  not necessarily poetic.
  • It does necessarily elaborate (use horse, instead of equine animal).

Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.
Hall, R. (2014) Writing Vivid Settings.
McClanahan, R. (2004) Word painting