Writing Descriptions

Have you ever watched the movie, “Charade”? If not, go and watch it. This movie keeps you on your toes after scene after scene takes you in different directions. The movie stars Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

When I taught writing, I showed part of this fast-paced movie to my students and had them write down what they saw. This made them pay attention. What often happens is we observe the world around us without really studying our environment.

Many years ago I took a course titled, “Writing for Children and Teenagers.” In their lessons, they told you to keenly observe the people in your life. Watch them and listen to the way they respond to you. Look for such items as the way they speak, what color are their eyes – really are – not just green but a grey-green – to how they grasp your hand from strong to weak or what?

When you “keenly observe,” you notice those hidden things you take for granted. Jot these down. Take a notebook and go outside and just watch life. As I drove Saturday to a writing-group event, I glanced at the sky. It was blue but not just blue it was aqua-blue with pure-white clouds. Notice I used specific words here, and this is what you need to do in your writing.

A place becomes “real” in writing when readers see and feel it. This includes the five senses – sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Of course, not every scene allows you, for instance, to have a character sip tea, for example. However, when you can incorporate all of these, it adds “reality” to your work. Here is a scene from Lockets and Lanterns, which critique readers said made them feel as if they were there:

“Florence pulled her cuffs over her knuckles. Her fingers cool [touch] to the spring breeze, which drifted in from the window behind her. The pot roast smothered in gravy sat on the china platter. [taste] She inhaled [smell] the potent onion aroma and passed the plate to her left.”

Descriptive scenes are important. It lets readers know if the work is an imaginary place, such as in science fiction and fantasy, or something they are familiar with either in today’s world or in the past. In Ruth Ann Nordin and my anthology, Bride by Arrangement, I set the scene for my novella, She Came by Train, included in the anthology as such:

“The train chugged toward the station. Smoke bellowed from the engine’s stack. Standing underneath the roof of the brick-and-mortar depot, Opal gulped as she watched it approach.”

What words give you clues to the time period? They are the smoke bellowing from the engine’s stack (denoting a steam-engine train no longer in existence) and her standing underneath the roof of the brick-and-mortar depot (giving you the impression of a past railroad station).

Thus description brings in your audience and helps them experience that period. However, you do not always need a long span of descriptive words to set a scene. In Ruth Ann Nordin’s Return of the Aliens, you learn through a few choice words that the setting is contemporary.

“‘Thanks for the reminder.’ She walked over to the closed door of the dressing room in the bridal shop.”

How do you learn to make scenes come alive? Write, write, write and learn to add such items as a breeze (touch), a fragrant flower (smell), a food (taste) and a character’s voice breaking as he/she remembers or experiences something tragic. You cannot do this in every scene, but you can, as previously stated, do that in a lot of them if you make an effort. Lead the reader in and let them truly “live” with your characters, and you could do this by simply watching your surroundings and remembering to choose specific words and include the senses.

Remember also to use your thesaurus whether it is the old printed copy or online.

Below is a simple observation test to get you started.


Observation Test 

 Ask yourself questions as you watch your everyday life. Do you see the details and/or remember them?

1. What specific colors are the sky and the clouds today?

2. How many doors are there in front of the school nearest you?

3. In a traffic light, is the red or the green on top?

Now, come up with some of your own to stimulate your mind. Have a pleasant day and many of the Lord’s blessings to you.

12 thoughts on “Writing Descriptions

  1. rami ungar the writer January 28, 2014 / 7:14 pm

    This mirrors advice that a lot of writers I’ve read and even worked with have given: be thorough and detailed in your description. Heck, JK Rowling went into detail about this in her biography, saying for the Sorting Ceremony and Feast she went into all sorts of details on even the most inane things, like food and the dripping candles, to give it a sense of reality and place the reader there with Harry.

    • janetsyasnitsick January 29, 2014 / 10:01 pm

      Thanks Rami. Yes, it takes work to incorporate description into your work, but it does place the reader in their imagination at the scene with Harry. God bless.

  2. Harliqueen January 29, 2014 / 8:47 am

    I need to work on my description more. I tend to get bored with it and move onto the action which is not good! Great post 🙂 Gives me lots to think of when I next write 😀

    • janetsyasnitsick January 29, 2014 / 10:04 pm

      Harliqueen, it is all right to move to action but after that try working in a little description. Perhaps you need to do that first. Each writer has their own method and maybe that is your way. See how that works for you. God bless.

      • Harliqueen January 30, 2014 / 5:33 am

        That’s a good point, it might work better for me that way. Thank you 🙂

  3. dwhirsch January 29, 2014 / 12:45 pm

    I attempt to do this is all my writing because specifics are what attract and grasp hold of the reader. I journaled a lot (still do) to capture setting, but the “In a traffic light, is the red or the green on top?” made me stop and think. 🙂 I still have an old paperback thesaurus that I use and adore, beaten black cover and all. Nothing like the original.

    • janetsyasnitsick January 29, 2014 / 10:05 pm

      Good for you and I still use my paperback thesaurus, too. God bless.

  4. M T McGuire January 29, 2014 / 5:01 pm

    Fine post and excellent advice. My art teacher at school once gave us a lesson about looking at paintings. He put up a picture and just pointed out details, techniques for handling paint expressions, etc. I could not believe how noticing he was, how much he could see. It was like scales from the eyes. I doubt any of us looked at the world in the same way ever again after that.



    • janetsyasnitsick January 29, 2014 / 10:13 pm

      Good for your art teacher in getting you and your classmates to visualize this. I have two autistic sons and with that experience I went years ago to a parenting program on how to work with my sons. The place where it was held was an autistic school at the time. You could not believe what this one student drew – not only the interstate signs, the exit numbers, etc. but the brand names of the company trucks which traveled on it the day he drew it. What an amazing experience. He had a photographic memory! Look at all we miss on a daily basis? God bless.

  5. Joleene Naylor January 31, 2014 / 3:53 am

    Great post! Now I want pot roast :p

    • janetsyasnitsick January 31, 2014 / 3:37 pm

      I know. In fact, I thought maybe I would make that for Easter dinner. God bless.

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