For Dan, How to Be Descriptive.


I don’t offer writing advice. Mostly because I don’t feel like an expert, which I know may seem weird as an author and English teacher. But, largely, that’s because I’m always questioning what I know, which may be fundamental to learning anything. The second, and more broad reason I don’t like to give advice, is because I think the process of writing is different for everyone. So the caveat that always applies is the following: this is what works for me, and it may or may not work for you.

And so, with that said, let me offer some advice 🙂

Recently, following a school visit, I received letters from the students, thanking me for visiting, which was awesome, but also asking for writing advice. One particular student, let’s call him Dan, asked the following:

“How do you write with such description? I just can’t.”

Huh, how to be more descriptive. That’s a knotty question, and one I think is excellent for every writer, regardless of his or her stage in the game. However, I think the question is better framed as “How do I provide just the right amount of description?” For some, like Dan, this may mean more is necessary. For others, possibly less. But for all, it is always about hitting the sweet spot of details for each scene. And every scene has different demands. And every writer has a different way of meeting those demands.

For me, I don’t go for extensive character description. I don’t like to completely paint physical characteristics. I enjoy leaving that up to the reader, because, I feel, it can engage the reader more fully with the story. They have to do a little work, and that’s important. Being involved and not passive is exactly what should be going on in good writing.

Therefore, my focus for detailed description falls to character action and setting. I am a firm believer that seeing what a character does is for more important than how a character looks. And providing a vivid backdrop on which this action takes place is simply necessary.

So, the question is how that is done. My answer: close your eyes and be the character.

When we write, we are not ourselves. Sure, we’re the person in the chair, hammering away at the keyboard, but we are also the girl or the boy, the villain or the hero. We have to be. We must get inside not only their heads, but become them, mind and body.

With your eyes closed, you can envision the scene unfolding, much like a movie. What do you see? What do you hear and feel? Is there anything to be tasted or smelt? It is not that you have to incorporate all of the senses, but it is important that all description not be limited to sight. The word “imagery” can be deceptive. It is truly about all five senses and creating that real-world, 3-D like quality. The reader does not feel distant from the story. The reader is in the story, and to do that means proving just enough detail, exactly as it needs to be, but not too much, nor too little.

Yes, it sounds a lot like a recipe. It is. And that is how you should build your story, ingredient by ingredient, for each scene. Some need more noise, others, touch. If you are living your character’s life, you’ll know intuitively.

Of course I could be blowing smoke, so let’s take a look at Dare Me. The following excerpt is from the first few pages, where Ben is about to perform the first dare.

I turn and look. Nothing but cornstalks and pavement, blue sky and puffy white clouds. Perfection. I focus on that image and the stillness, the quiet. If I don’t, I’ll chicken out. My mind’s already filling with scenarios for how this will end badly. But school starts tomorrow, and I agreed to this, however it goes.

I pull the ski mask over my face and slide out the window.

The wind whips even though Ricky’s only going like thirty miles per hour. I can’t hear what John’s saying. His mouth’s moving, but it’s like being in a dream, all background noise, nothing real. He jacks his thumb into the air, an obvious sign for me to get on the roof. I take a deep breath, steady my elbows, and push myself up.

My feet tingle and my heart hammers, but I keep going. I grab the roof rack and pull and am flat on top. The wind pours over me now, but the space around my face is calm. Unreal.

I would suggest that as a reader you were very much with Ben there, not merely watching him. You felt his anxiety, juxtaposed to the beauty of the day. He’s doing stupid things and you understand his terror as it unfolds against the whipping wind.

So, if that works for you, Dan, and any others, cool. If not, there are excellent books out there like Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Pick one up and see if the advice there strikes a chord.

If you liked this advice and would like more, please don’t hesitate to ask.

And, as always, keep writing.


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