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The Devil is in the Details: On Descriptive Writing

We’re often told our writing should “show, not tell” — but how do we actually do that? Follow these four guidelines to bring your descriptions to life.

We often hear that we should “show, not tell” — that we should paint a detailed picture for our reader that lets them see what’s happening, rather than simply narrating.

Easier said than done! All details are not created equal: some detail throws a barrier between the reader and your story, and some detail is (ironically) not detailed enough. How do you tell whether a detail helps or hurts? Here are four things to keep in mind when you’re writing descriptively, and some writers who illustrate them perfectly.

Good detail is relevant.

Including every detail is the written equivalent of your friend who can never get to the point of a story because he can’t remember if it happened on Tuesday or Wednesday, or if it was 1 PM or 2 PM, or if the car was red or blue. Good detail is relevant to the point of your post.

Writer beware! Not all relevant detail needs to be lumped together. You can introduce details throughout a piece of writing to build a mood and keep the reader engaged in your world. Sprinkling details as you write keeps the reader hooked and avoids long, heavy paragraphs of description that might turn a reader off.

Of course, you’re the one who gets to decide what’s relevant — the redness of the car might be the point on which your post hinges, or describing it might help paint a stronger picture of a character. Paring down details to what’s relevant doesn’t mean stripping every descriptor out.

Today there is no one here but me. I’m ten minutes early. The wallpaper is broad stripes the exact color of Pepto-Bismol. It clashes with the painting of a watermill opposite me, mostly browns and greens. The furniture is pseudocolonial, but there’s a pretty nice rug, some kind of soft Persian carpet, and I feel kind of sorry for it, stuck here in this ghastly room.

From The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

On one hand, the plot of the book doesn’t depend on whether the wallpaper in this room is striped or flowered. On the other, describing the wallpaper does help us conjure the lonely feeling of a hodge-podgy doctor’s office, so these details are important for keeping us immersed in the story. A detail can be key to the plot, your thesis, a person in your story, or a mood — but it’s always relevant in some way.

Good detail is precise.

When we say, “show, don’t tell,” we really mean “show.” If you’re writing a post about a family dinner, we want to see your particular kitchen. Compare these two sentences:

Writer beware! Too much specificity can be distracting. Remember to keep it relevant — a precise description of a detail that doesn’t matter won’t help your post along.

  • “My mom was tired as she cooked at the broken stove.”
  • “Mom slumped, sighing in frustration as the back-right burner went out yet again, the sauce congealing in the pot.”

One is A Kitchen, the other is Your Kitchen.

For more inspiration, check out these masters of precision, one fiction, the other non:

Out of the gravel there are peonies growing. They come up through the loose grey pebbles, their buds testing the air like snails’ eyes, then swelling and opening, huge dark-red flowers all shining and glossy like satin. Then they burst and fall to the ground.

From Atlas Grace, by Margaret Atwood

The women — shifting babies saddled on their backs in rebozos — sat in groups by the mission walls, wordless for hours, drinking the weekly Coke, watching as the faithful went to attend mass, young men shot hoops, and the older men hovered around benches at the back of the plaza, waiting for the weekly outdoor meeting of the community cooperative. Pigs wandered down the road in idle joy, and the dogs fought on cue outside the small shop.

From “Searching for El Chapareke,” by Jeff Biggers

These writers could have just said, “There were red flowers growing in the garden,” or, “The plaza was full of people of all ages,” but that’s not why they’re great writers. They’re great because they showed us these flowers, this plaza, those people.

Good detail activates multiple senses.

Descriptive writing isn’t just about what we can see — bringing in other senses paints a fuller scene. Smells, textures, and even tastes can be evocative additions to a post.

Inside, the school smelled smartly of varnish and wood smoke from the potbellied stove. On gloomy days, not unknown in upstate New York in this region south of Lake Ontario and east of Lake Erie, the windows emitted a vague, gauzy light, not much reinforced by ceiling lights… We sat in rows of seats, smallest at the front, largest at the rear, attached at their bases by metal runners, like a toboggan; the wood of these desks seemed beautiful to me, smooth and of the red-burnished hue of horse chestnuts.

From “Inside District School #7, Niagara County, New York,”  by Joyce Carol Oates

We can see the light and the rows of desks, but we can also smell the stove, and feel the shiny surface of the wood, worn by countless students. Don’t forget about your readers’ other senses; they have more than just eyes.

Good detail gets figurative.

Simile and metaphor are fantastic ways to meld emotion with description in your writing. They do double duty, helping set a scene and a mood:

The wind outside nested in each tree, prowled the sidewalks in invisible treads like unseen cats.

Tom Skelton shivered. Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve. Everything seemed cut from soft black velvet or gold or orange velvet. Smoke panted up out of a thousand chimneys like the plumes of funeral parades. From kitchen windows drifted two pumpkin smells: gourds being cut, pies being baked.

From The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury

Writer beware! Including too much figurative language or pushing a metaphor too far makes your writing overwrought, giving the impression that you’re trying to sound “writerly.” Let your topic and mood dictate your description, and remember — straightforward descriptions are a style choice that reflect your voice just as much as extended metaphors.

As with each of these tips, this isn’t merely a tool for fiction writers. Non-fiction also benefits from going figurative:

The depth of the feeling [grief, loss] continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it, like a nicotine craving, I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. After a while it was like an inside shower, washing off some of the rust and calcification in my pipes. It was like giving a dry garden a good watering.

From Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott

The next time you’re ready to publish a post, give it another read and see where you can strengthen your description. The farther you can pull a reader into your world, the more likely it is they’ll stick around.

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  1. A very informative post Michelle! It is always a great refresher to read something like this that can remind us of the tools we writers have at our disposal. These tips are key to getting readers engaged, and definitely things we should keep in mind if we want to hook people on our writing. I think we often forget to look at the way details are utilized to get this done, and this is a great brief on ‘stepping back’ and spotting the so called Devil in those details.

    Best,
    I.V.

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  2. Maybe because I am a non-native English speaker, these descriptions are difficult to visualize.

    I think authors could “show” as much as they want, but please write in simple English that everyone can understand. Unless you are adamant about winning the Noble or Pulitzer.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I am writing Norwegian but have some posts in english also – simply because I find some things easier to express in a more poetic way in english, than my own language, and I want to keep my english a bit.. fresh. But I agree with what you are saying, it takes a bit more work for us who haven`t been fed the english language since birth…! 🙂

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  3. There is a balance between too much detail and too little. We must engage our readers but not lose the impetus in carrying them forward in the narrative. Excellent post – thank you. I will be reblogging on my Wednesday re-blog feature.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I find the best way to increase your vocabulary is by reading, reading, and reading some more. I find Victorian fiction to be extremely good at describing in ways that they mentioned here. I have had the advantage of having English be my first language, but I gained my large vocabulary through reading. Find authors that inspire you, and you can relate to. Then when you read, don’t read just for the story- really look at how they use language. A book that goes in depth on how to do this is “Reading Like a Writer” by Francine Prose.

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    2. There are a lot of ESL sites online like lanternfish, read theory and English for everyone that have downloadable activities like crosswords, word searches, sentence correction, the use of common English expressions and other valuable skill builders. When I was in high school I did grammar and vocabulary activities every evening from one of my English text books. It was invaluable. You could see if bookshops that sell to teachers have anything similar.

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    3. Certain authors will inspire you to have a thesaurus or dictionary nearby. H.P. Lovecraft is a great example. If you can get through one of his books without the need to look up a single word then you, my friend, have an excellent vocabulary.

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      1. Thanks! I would surely read him and see where i stand. By the way when i try to read the classics, everything goes blurry inside my head, and it seems that i am reading chinese and i have to look up for every word. 🙂

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  4. One of the BEST books for this (the one that rocked my world!!!) is Francine Prose’s “Reading like a Writer.” Her coincidental last name is an ironic twist. This gal knows her way around word choice and gives incredible, fully dissected and understandable examples. This is one read that really changed the way I look at the written word–I now see them as art and magic mixed together to make pictures out of words!

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  5. What an awesome post, chocked full of great tips. The descriptive examples were on point. I found the examples of being descriptive in non-fiction extremely helpful. Will definitely think about how to take a post further before posting!

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  6. I tend to skip descriptive passages when I’m reading. This horrifies my husband. I only really care about the plot. It’s probably why I like crime fiction. Thank you for the good advice. I could probably describe things a little more in my writing!

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    1. Yes, crime fiction does tend to hurry one along. My skipping through the descriptive bits to find out who’s who, even horrifies me! But, when I’m reading other works, I appreciate being pulled in through great word pictures.

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  7. I love the relevant examples that perfectly illustrate the point that is being made – excellent and informative article, I’ll definitely be using these ideas in my writing! I tend to add too much irrelevant detail which distracts from the skeleton of my story and garbles the message I was trying to get across.

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    1. WOW!!! That is awesome! sounds fabulous. Yep, this definitely is what it’s all about; listening and being your authentic power. Nice(: Georgia, is good, I’m off today, so once a week I go have lunch with my youngest grand daughter at her school. I pack myself a lunch and meet her at the school’s cafeteria. I love the fact, I’m creating my intentions for the greater good with my grand girls. Although, I would say my intentions are not to be always here. The more I think about doing the Camino Del Santiago trail in Spain. I hear more pilgrimages being done. Though, I came across a writers group convention in Taos, New Mexico, next July. Ah, the possibilities. Let me know how things settle for you. Thanks for responding, and may see you in mid December; details to follow. Nina

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      1. Yeah, it seems we are getting messages crossed for some reason?? Perhaps, there is something else needed to be unveiled why my messages or posting all of a sudden keep coming your way (:

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  8. Great post. Can I add a footnote, though? When I started writing fiction, I took “show don’t tell” so literally that I had trouble cutting myself loose from the detail–the showing–to use my thinking, which seemed too much like telling. Once I realized that with the grounding that showing gave me, some telling would give me a richer story, I found I could also allow myself to summarize–to tell–when I wanted to speed past spots that would otherwise drag the story down. But without the showing, all that would blow away like dust.

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