Communication demands description. Incorporating it into narrative, however, can be tricky, especially when writing for entertainment. Linear storytelling demands that action occur and characters interact. Much of the art of writing requires description not only convey information, but also induce emotional connection and psychological force. Straight description, or line on line of information (however unique and creative), often trips the audience up, neglecting necessary action or not holding up to the sensory standards necessary to catch and hold attention.

Understand, first, that description is only one of several rhetorical modes, and only one of still more narrative modes in fiction. Description, defined in a scholastic sense, is “the act of capturing people, places, events, objects, and feelings in words so that a reader can visualize and respond to them.” ( Breaking down the elements of a story can be the subject of a master’s thesis, so here all we need to remember is that description, while a major element, is often blended successfully through several other modes. Rather than discussing straight description, here are a few ways to make description earn its place.

Description communicates strong development in a story’s setting and the characters that act in it. There are several lenses through which the same story can be seen, and character is one of the most direct lenses to describe. Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams and lecturer for How Writers Write Fiction 2015, communicates her perspective this way (taken as printed in the transcript of her lecture):

“I used to have a writer friend with whom I would talk about this idea of heartbreak sunglasses, by which we meant, the way that whatever the emotional reality is for a character in your story, that’s going to completely set the terms of how they’re engaging with the physical landscape of that story. So, if you’re in the midst of heartbreak, you’re essentially wearing a pair of sunglasses that is shading and inflecting everything around you with the kind of force of that emotional experience.”

There’s a wealth of detail in any scene. The lens of a character’s emotion can narrow down what should be shared with the reader.

Description of an emotion, then, can come from more than just trying to put that emotion into words. It can be described through the selective observations of a character. For the heartbreak example she shares, that character may see a blanket and notice their lover’s smell still on it, or their lover’s fingerprints only smear, not disappear, as they try to wipe them off the refrigerator handle. In this case, details allow for this heartbreak to be fine-tuned to longing, pain, resentment, victory, etc. Focusing on the details gives far more specificity to the emotion than, “He was heartbroken.”

Sometimes detail is more difficult to uncover. The mental image of the scene may be only vaguely sketched out, you (as an imaginative writer) may be writing about something you’ve never experienced or a place you’ve never visited. Developing your skills of sensory observation can help, focusing on breaking down what you’re experiencing every day into distinct sensory detail. The following is instruction by Paul Harding (taken from the printed transcript of his lecture), author of Tinkers which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2010, on detail and observation:

[T]he best style of writing is always precision. It’s always exactitude. Sometimes this sort of mingles or synthesized with voice in interesting ways, but for me, in my experience, the best thing to do is worry about voice second, worry about precision first. Try to bring yourself down into the fictional world. In this case, if it’s setting, try to just calm yourself down and sit and be very quiet, and look and listen and don’t be too willful. Don’t impose what you think you should be seeing. Don’t hurry to what you think the reader really wants. There’s a certain quietude that you need, and a certain type of intensity of observation, and cultivating a certain discipline of sustaining the intensity of that observation. And as you’re doing that, just try to render precisely exactly what it is that you see.”

Describing precisely what you see is not just a matter of reciting objects and facts, it’s also about identifying patterns, details that stand out first, things that come out later, general shapes of color and sound, etc. Harding describes his happy attraction to sound and color, often using musical rhythms in his description as well as visual effects, attention to how color, brightness, and line develop depth in written description as well as painting. The more ways you have to see things, the more rich and purposeful are your descriptive tools.



Harding, Paul, and Leslie Jamison. “Session 6: Setting and Worldbuilding.” How Writers Write Fiction 2015. Iowa. 5 Nov. 2015. Novo Ed. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.


Paul Harding:

Rhetorical Modes:




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