Three Paths to Compelling Descriptions


The term “self-indulgent” is a cringe-worthy appraisal, but here’s the rub: writing is innately self-indulgent; it requires a certain level of excitement and theatrical flair.

An honest writer knows he is equal parts egomania and crippling self-doubt. The lines between engaging and self-indulgent writing are plentiful but difficult to identify.  Descriptions – good or bad – are one of these lines.

Here are a few ways to anchor readers to the tangibles of your story without committing the reprehensible crime of oversharing:

1)     Don’t Saturate, Reinforce

When in doubt, avoid long paragraphs of descriptive text. Every page of your story should move forward. Drawn out descriptions stagnate; they don’t let the characters do anything.

Flipping through the pages of National Geographic, you probably wouldn’t spend more than a minute inspecting one photograph. Neither would your audience.

Use palpable language to reinforce the action, not detract from it. This not only keeps readers turning pages, but also gives the story cadence.

Consider the following example from Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome:

But at sunset the clouds gathered again, bringing an earlier night, and the snow began to fall straight and steadily from a sky without wind, in a soft universal diffusion more confusing than the gusts and eddies of the morning. It seemed to be a part of the thickening darkness, to be the winter night itself descending on us layer by layer.

In two sentences, Wharton provided the details readers need to envision the scene.

2)     When in Doubt, Choose Similes Before Metaphors

Why shoot for comparisons before metaphors? Because similes are easier to write. This sounds like a cop out, and it might be if you apply it to the wrong scenario, but it’s also a great way to avoid flowery exaggerations. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Metaphors are a part of common speech. Unless you’re writing a really good one, it’s a cliché.
    • Examples: “Life is a journey.” “Writing that paper was a breeze.” “The birds were music to his ears.”
  • An effective metaphor is powerful and thrilling; a botched metaphor is equally languid.
  • Metaphors are, generally speaking, deeper than similes. Too many will bog down your writing.

This isn’t to say you should avoid metaphors. In fact, they can breathe life into your descriptions in ways similes cannot. Just be careful how you use them. Save them for the right moment. Make a conscious effort to avoid clichés, and the right metaphors will appear naturally throughout the pages of your book if they need to be there.

3)     Appeal to Readers’ Senses

Your character is in the desert: How does the wind feel against her skin? If she’s waking up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, what sounds does she hear first? Keep the five senses in mind. What does your character see, smell, hear, taste, and feel? Specific details give readers a tangible reference point to imagine the action in your scene. You can find a bit more about this in the example here.

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