DescriptionNovel writing

The art of description–Part 3

From Rick:

Recently, Scott did two posts on description. I also did one back in late April of 2015 as well. I’ve put the links to all three below.




But we’re not quite done. I wanted to summarize the advice we’ve given you. It’s a short post this time, but I hope it leaves you with a lot to consider.

As the title of this series says, description is an art form. It’s also one that few writers have mastered. In fact, some of those who write about writing description haven’t mastered it and maybe should not be writing those articles. I found one example of such an article (which I’m not going to link to) that, while the advice was good, the examples were poor. The author first gave “bad” examples then “better” ones—except the “better” ones weren’t much better. They certainly were not ones I’d recommend as patterns for your writing. So, beware of following the advice of any single article. Always look at several sources to be sure you are getting good advice.

I’m not saying that Scott and I are masters of description, either. We aren’t by a long shot, but we do know good description when we see it, and we won’t give you bad examples and claim they’re good.

Here’s one superb article I found that contains excellent advice and which echoes many of the things Scott said in his two posts and summarizes all the good advice I’ve ever heard about descriptions. Consider this advice the next time you write a description.


I’ll close with a couple of examples. The first example is one I’ve used before, but it bears repeating for those who haven’t been following this blog for long. It’s one of my favorite story openings, and it’s a masterpiece of descriptive prose that draws the reader into the setting. This is the opening of Bleak House by Charles Dickens:

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.


The second example is the opening from “Like Shooting Skeet” by Gareth Frank and was published in Fabula Argentea issue #11 ( Note how the author blends Lincoln’s emotions with the descriptions of the setting and car to form a powerful whole, following the advice in that last article above to “make description an active part of the story.”

Lincoln Rush drove out Willow Grove Street in his black 1964 Nova SS, thinking thoughts the color of his fender. Unnaturally hot and humid air enveloped him, and he wiped the sweat from his forehead. Hot as the jungles of Vietnam, or at least he imagined so. The dread of being drafted overwhelmed him. As he drove past the American Legion Hall, he pressed his fingers on the blinker and moved it upward slowly until the signal engaged, then he depressed the clutch and lifted his foot from the gas pedal in the same plodding way. The racing-tuned 283 cubic inch V8 loped and the Cherry Bomb glass packs rumbled loudly in that telltale off-kilter rhythm of a street rod. The sound lifted his heart for just a few seconds and it quickened his motions as he turned the steering wheel, hand over hand. He imagined others hearing his car, knowing it was him and being jealous. He drove on past the Legion and alongside the ball field that followed, grasping at the fading emotion. The green grass, clay infield, and cinder-block dugouts of the baseball field provoked a deep longing for his childhood, the kind of ache that some would call a symptom of depression. He craved that simpler time.


Follow this advice in crafting descriptions in your own writing. Don’t just stick the description in. Blend it into the story as if you were cooking something and description was one ingredient in the recipe.

In your reading, look for examples of where authors have blended in the descriptions effectively. When it’s done right, you’ll find it difficult to separate the description from the rest of the story.


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