The Second Pillar of a Story: Description

Previously from the category On Writing


There are quite a few things to be noted when it comes to the art of describing what you see in your imagination while writing. A few things to keep in mind as you read this is that, unlike the narrative of the story, there is no real order that any of these details can come in.

When describing anything, just keep in mind that whether or not you’re giving too much or too little detail while in the folds of composition. It’s important to describe what you see, but at the end of the day your reader will be the one you’re trying to show your world to through written word.

Sensory Participation

When you’re describing something within your story, caves, hospitals, or an entire world, it’s important to keep in mind the senses that your readers have and can easily recall so your work is easily transcribed from your pen to their minds.


Taste, in my opinion, would be the easiest to tackle first. Unless your character is eating something or you’re using a simile, metaphor, or perhaps a misnomer to describe something, taste won’t appear very often.

This doesn’t take away its importance by any means.

If you’re describing an oceanic scene, for instance, and you believe your readers could recall the taste of salt, it may go something like this:

As the rolling breeze thwarted the sides of the cliff, Ava could taste hints of salt that only the air of a home on the ocean front could offer.


It’s important to keep in mind the importance of blending a good mixture of sensory involvement without giving too much of the scene away.

Touch, for instance, mixed with a pleasant smell could be used to described bed sheets. Keep in mind that you can make this experience as pleasant or as unpleasant as you like.

A pleasant example could be as follows:

Ava’s stride quickened towards the bluff, the soft grass prickling the bottoms of her feet.

An unpleasant example:

Ava’s stride was halted as a brief shout of pain curled its way up her leg. She looked down to notice she had walked over a pricking plant.


Sounds, much like sight, are a very important factor when involving your reader in sensory participation. A well-delivered sound can not only hint of coming events, but can also recall past ones as well. Sounds given in the present will give the hue of the atmosphere you want to paint within the reader’s minds.

A good example could go something like this:

Ava closed her eyes, listening to the melodic waxing and waning of the waves below.  


Smell is a bit tricky in the sense that it can easily be confused with taste when you’re in the folds of composition. It’s important to distinguish whether your character is tasting or smelling while being indirect about it.

One thing to remember when writing in a sense of smell is to use similes often to refer your reader’s minds to something relevant.

For example:

The aroma eased her mind, like a cool breeze on a warm day, as she closed the door.

In most cases, if the reader knows how comforting  a cool breeze is, the simile will go through quite well. If, on the other hand, your reader’s cannot relate, you have let go of their hand while guiding you through your story.


Finally, we arrive at what could be argued as the most important of all the senses. Giving your reader a brief yet concise visual description will help pull their imagination inward. It can lead, helping guide the rest of your sensory participation, or become your coup de grace when describing an important object within the story.

Imagine, if you will, describing a scene in which the protagonist finally meets the beast he or she has hunted the entire book, but there’s never a clear sight of what it is we’re looking at. All the other senses are involved; however the sightings of the beast are never clear.

When describing it in its entirety, you may recall some of the other ways used to describe it, but the imagery is what you’ve wanted to save for your readers might go something like this:

Ava, realizing she was not alone in the cellar, witnessed a pair of ruby eyes moving forward and upward until the beast’s snout showed its mangy tufts of silver hair. It hunched, scraping the ceiling with little regard for its own hide, pacing slowly with intent toward her.

*Note: It would serve best to never use any of the senses directly. When attempting to keep the lines between the reader’s imagination and your written work blurred, it’s best to be as indirectly direct as possible. Hell, the reader is there to indulge in their own imagination as well as yours.  Guide them responsibly without hurling them into the next exhibit by giving too much detail; some things are better left to imagination anyways. (This doesn’t mean you can always avoid doing such things, but it is a good rule of thumb to keep in the back of your mind while writing.)


Thin vs. Thick Description

Talking about description as a whole, sometimes it all boils down to asking yourself, “how much description is really needed?”

The answer will vary depending on a number of things: the importance of what you’re describing, the skill level of the writer, or just the writer in general.

Giving good description does not mean to paint every exact detail, but it also doesn’t mean you should skimp out on the important features of something, or someone.


Locale & Textural vs. Physical & Mental Features

Stephen King’s On Writing is very clear when it comes to it comes to differentiating between good writing and bad. One thing that he touches on briefly is the importance of giving a general atmosphere in which the reader can relate to while still using their own imagination.

Something that he, and I, look down upon is the act of directly describing physical features for the characters within a story. In a nutshell, he goes on to say that if you have to directly describe your character with exact traits, you lose.

For instance, if I have to tell you that our character above, Ava, is a beautiful young woman, I will have lost at least some, if not, most of your interest; however, if I were to tell you that the beast’s eyes glimmered with intent, just as the young men in town, for her flesh, you could draw the conclusion that she is very beautiful because young men are lusting after her.

When describing a character, remember that being as indirectly direct as possible can make your story seem much more appealing as opposed to this:

Ava, with her vivacious curves and her flowing dark hair, stood two and a half feet shorter than the beast.

It’s much more important to focus on locale and texture when trying to describe something important to your story.  Always remember, the scenes and circumstances can and will change drastically, the characters, in the sense of how they look or feel for the majority, if not all, will not.



Keeping all of these things in mind, and sticking to the story as it pops into your head, will help you in describing the beautiful, or downright revolting, worlds you cast your characters into.

You’re the one penning down these places, and, as an end result, you want your readers to feel like they are in this world, too. Don’t skim the surface of what you see, but never throw too much detail in your reader’s faces. I’m sure they won’t appreciate it whatsoever.

Find the thin line, and walk it. After you find the right amount of details that bring your story to life, do what King suggests: “Practice the art, always reminding yourself that your job is to say what you see, and then get on with your story.

It’s as simple as that.

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