4 Tips for making your descriptions shine. People watching included by Megan Higginson

We have all read them. You know what I’m talking about. Those books with passages and passages of description of what can be seen, heard, felt etc. You either skip over these until you get to the story, or you persevere, trying to find why on earth did the author feel it necessary to write it the way they did? And why so much detail? 

As writers, we are encouraged to 'show don't tell.' But some authors seem to go overboard. There is one series of books I really like… except for the author's scene descriptions. (Please note that it is not a recent series). I would skip pages and pages of description of the land that the people were traversing, until I got to the story. I mean, I really don’t care how many types of grass there were, the mating habits of all the local creatures, or how many… well you get my point.

Or it may have been the way the author describes a character. They do it in such detail that nothing is left to your imagination, and as an inventory list. It makes you want to shut the book and walk away.

The cliché:

He was six foot tall and had big muscles. He had long blond hair, square chin, and blue eyes. He wore a long dark green trench coat, black pants and thick boots. A fob watch hung out of his pocket.


He was a tiny boy. He was thin with thick dark hair and thick glasses. He wore blue jeans and t-shirts most days. He wore shoes that had holes in them.

I don’t know about you, but I was bored writing that.

A Writer’s Group Challenge: People watch through the month. Write down dialogue, setting, and descriptions of some people.

Oh how boring were some of my descriptions. Here are just a few examples.

Old guy – tall, slender, mirror sunnies on his forehead, black t-shirt, blue jeans, grey hair cut short except for a pink Mohawk.

Young woman – Medium height, multi-coloured hair that looks professionally done. Short skirt, boots, tattoo on thigh and one on her calf. She drew looks as she passed by.

Old man I met on a park bench outside a bank. It was a warm sunny day. His work clothes that were badly stained, stained work jumper and I think his shirt was white at one stage. Now it looks shades of brown and grey. 

 If I were to use these in a story, I would have no readers. They would be the ones shutting the book and walking away.

Stephen King, in his memoir, On Writing, states on page 201.

 “Description is what makes a reader a sensory participant in the story… Description begins with visualization of what it is that you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page.”

The reality is that it comes down to a few well-chosen words and to engage the senses of hearing, smell, touch, taste, and sight.

Let’s have another look at the previous examples, and see how I have changed them to make them more interesting.

You get leftover hippies, well this guy looks like he just time travelled from the eighties punk rocker movement. With his mirror sunnies and bright pink Mohawk, I had to double check. Yep! He had shaven grey hair around the sides. His face had as many wrinkles as a bulldog. He must have been sixty at least.

The young woman looked like she had stepped out of an art fashion magazine; with her model looks, Van Gogh hair, and wearing a short skirt that showed off log slender legs and the dragon tattoo on her thigh. All eyes in the crowded food court were riveted on her, and conversation was effectively silenced. But she either did not notice, or did not care to acknowledge that she shared the same existence as the rest of us mere mortals.

The old man sat on the sun warmed park bench outside the bank. He looked like he had walked out of work twenty years ago and had never bothered to change or wash his clothes since. I think his shirt was white at one stage. Now it looks many shades of brown and grey.

“You out shopping today,” he asked, as I plopped down next to him.

“Nope. Just doing a couple of things, and then heading home. I’m putting off shopping as long as I can this week. I just don’t feel like doing it.”

“I eat out. The café down the road has good food. I eat breakfast there every day. I had a really nice egg and bacon sandwich with a nice cup of coffee this morning. I don’t shop.”

With that he lit up a cigarette which successfully stopped all conversation.

“Say what you see, and then get on with your story.” Stephen King

So you need just enough description to peak your readers’ interest, set the scene and visualise the person. But not so much as to bog them down and they get bored.

Let's sum it all up.

  1. Visualize what it is that you want the reader to experience
  2. Engage the senses of hearing, smell, touch, taste, and sight.
  3. Use a few well-chosen words
  4. Translate what you see in your mind into words on the page.

Just as a talented artist can paint a beautiful scene with a few well placed strokes of the paint brush, so too can an author with a few well chosen words.

And in the words of Stephen King. “Say what you see, and then get on with your story.”

Happy writing!

Adapted from original post from Megan’s blog.


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Friday, 26 February 2021

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