“Show, don’t tell” may be the most common piece of writing advice in the English language. Details on how exactly a writer should do that are often in shorter supply. This course will cover what descriptive writing is and why writers use it, the principles of how to employ it in your writing, and techniques that writers can use to include more descriptive language in their work.
The purpose of descriptive writing is to create vivid imagery that immerses the reader in the story, making them feel like they’re “actually there”. It uses the five physical senses (and sometimes more) to allow the reader to fully picture events in their mind instead of remaining detached from “something they were told about”.
Many writers and writing coaches will argue that every piece of fiction should use at least some descriptive language. This is good advice, because it draws the reader into the story and makes them more likely to stick with it. In particular, there are three situations in which descriptive writing is useful as a narrative technique: highlighting important content, pacing a scene, and to deepen characterisation.
Audiences of all kinds are used to the idea that a character, location, object, etc. must be important to the story if the creator bothered to spend time and effort describing it in detail. Think of how many times you’ve guessed that an unfamiliar character in a story was significant because the author gave them a name, or how you’ve realised that a particular object was important because a director gave it an easily-visible spot on the screen. Audiences being aware of the fact that “more effort spent describing them = more important” allows a writer to draw the reader’s figurative eye by giving them more to look at.
Descriptive language is an important tool in controlling the pacing of a story. Generally speaking, scenes that are more description-heavy will feel “slower” to the reader, while scenes that are lighter on description will feel “faster”. The reason for this is that when a reader is immersed in a scene (by processing more of the descriptive language the writer uses), the scene takes up more of their attention, and makes them feel more engaged with the writing. By contrast, when a reader is less engaged in the scene, they’re more likely to skim through it.
This use of descriptive writing depends less on the language itself and more on the contexts it’s used in. When writing from a particular character’s point of view, a writer can use descriptive language to show where the character directs their attention. For example, a group of characters attending a public event may all focus on different things. Writing from a socialite’s perspective might focus on how the other attendees are interacting with each other, including whether any one person seems to be the centre of attention. Meanwhile, a bodyguard’s perspective might feature more “physical security” descriptions like the placement of potential cover and whether routes to exits are clear or blocked, and a character who suffers from acute overstimulation and social anxiety might perceive the event as nothing more than a stampede of noise and bodies.
There are two main techniques for using descriptive language: sensory language and figurative language. (Imagery is sometimes included as a third technique, but more properly represents a writing style that uses figurative language to evoke images in the reader’s mind. Since it overlaps heavily with figurative language, we won’t cover it separately in this course.)
Sensory language creates images in the reader’s mind by directly describing the object in question (including events, people, locations, etc.). It involves using adjectives, adverbs, and substituting words with specific meanings in place of words with general meanings. (If you aren’t familiar with the terms “adjective” and “adverb”, check out the Shadow Academy’s Grammar Studies course.)
Figurative language creates images in the reader’s mind by indirectly describing the object in question. It involves using figures of speech like similes, metaphors, and allusions (indirect references) that parallel the circumstances of the scene.
Visual artists often practice seeing the subjects of their art in purely visual terms (including edges, lines, negative space, relationships between objects, and so on) instead of automatically categorising them by their names. Writers can use the same technique by referring to an object through descriptive language instead of immediately identifying it. For example, most Star Wars fans would be able to guess that “a metallic cylinder with an aperture at one end and several buttons and switches running up the side” is probably a lightsaber, without the writer ever having to use the word “lightsaber”. (This kind of language can also be used to fool the reader into thinking an object is one thing when it’s actually another. That description of a lightsaber hilt could apply equally well to a hydrospanner.)
Here’s some advice on, and examples of, how you can apply each technique.
The way writers use adjectives and adverbs can be summed up as describing differences in the quality (type, or “what kind”) and quantity (number, or “how much”) of an object or action. A light can be described by colourfulness (“what kind”) and brightness (“how much”). A sound can be described by pitch or timbre (“what kind”) and duration or loudness (“how much”). Likewise, touch, scent, and taste can all be described by both their quality and quantity.
While adjectives and adverbs are useful in writing, varying your choice of words will often create a more immersive experience for the reader. A “scowl” or a “snarl” is a more powerful image than an “angry expression”. Saying a character “screamed” or “shouted” has more impact than saying they “spoke loudly”, and “slamming” a door is more vivid than “shutting [it] hard”.
Many Star Wars characters, particularly Force-sensitives, have senses that extend beyond normal human perceptions. Although a writer probably won’t know exactly what those senses look/sound/feel/smell/taste/etc. like to their users, those senses can still be described in terms of quality and quantity. The key is to make sure that the character’s perceptions are internally consistent and described vividly enough for the reader to imagine it. For example, if a thermal camera is set to display heat on the colour spectrum—with, say, red objects being the hottest and blue objects being the coldest—the viewer will always see hotter objects as being closer to red and colder objects as being closer to blue.
Another useful technique for non-standard senses, which verges into figurative language, is to compare them to senses that the reader has (or is assumed to have). The most common Star Wars example of this convention is probably “Miraluka sight”. In a similar vein, Luke Skywalker described the Dark Side cave on Dagobah as feeling “cold” before ever setting foot inside it.
At its best, figurative language can be immensely useful as a shorthand for descriptions that would otherwise take significantly more time and effort to write. However, using figurative language carries the risk that the reader doesn’t understand the reference, or understands it in a different way than the writer intended it. (This also applies to in-character conversations; an Imperial and a Rebel might have very different understandings of a situation described as “another Endor”.) Thus, it’s best to choose figures of speech that either contain generally well-known references, or are obvious enough for the reader to decipher the meaning even if they don’t know the context.
It’s possible to have too much of a good thing, and descriptive language in writing is no exception to that rule. Here are a few examples of times it might be better to leave your adverbs and similes at home.
Like we said above, adding descriptive language to a scene slows the pace down by making the reader take more time to absorb it, while avoiding or removing descriptive language allows the reader to skim through the scene more quickly. Thus, it’s best to leave the detailed descriptions for the most important scenes, and stick to high-level views of anything that isn’t critical to the plot. If the perspective character travels from one location to another without advancing the story, there’s no need to describe every bump in the road.
This pitfall is a special case of descriptive language affecting pacing. Many writers have a bad habit of throwing a lot of information at the reader—hence the name “info dump”—in the earliest scenes of a story. Sometimes, the writer even forces the reader to wade through the entire info dump before the plot moves ahead, even if the reader doesn’t need to know all that information in order to understand the story. A badly-timed info dump can bring the story to a screeching halt before it ever begins, as the reader gets bored with how “nothing’s happening” and goes off to do something else.
Instead of subjecting the reader to an info dump, sprinkle descriptive language organically throughout the scene. Describe a character’s hair colour when they run their hand through their hair instead of at the beginning of the scene. If they’re wearing armour, wait until they impatiently tap their foot against the floor to call the reader’s attention to their beskar sabatons.
In this course, you have learned the basics of descriptive writing, how to use descriptive writing, and how to avoid some of the difficulties that come with descriptive writing. We hope these skills will serve you well in your future writing endeavours. When you’re ready to do so, take the course test by clicking the link below. Good luck!
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