I'm writing my very first short story. a romantic fantasy, and sometimes when I try to describe the actions of characters, their body movements and hand gestures, and their eyes and facial expressions, I find it really hard to find the right words to communicate my imagination and what I see to the reader.

Do you have any tips about that? What do you personally do in a situation like this?

Update: Thank you all for your answers, it helped a lot. To give more details about the situation, I am trying to write a scene where the hero is stabbed in the heart by a dark angel and I don't know the verb for that scream of pain he will let out once he's stabbed, I tried searching the thesaurus for synonyms and found some verbs like groan and wail but when I searched their sound, they were not the verbs I'm looking for (English is not my first language so I googled it)

Another situation is when the heroine is rescuing the hero and bringing him back to the healer, I wrote: " 'Guardian help...' she said in a panicked voice" I don't know if there is a verb to shorten "she said in a panicked voice" description.

I am sorry if my question sounds silly, it's because this is my first story writing piece.

  • Hi Yostina! This is a very broad question, a bit hard to answer in a site like this. It will be probably flagged as too broad or too opinion based, if you don't provide more details or specific context.
    – FraEnrico
    Jan 9, 2018 at 14:25

5 Answers 5


Based on your descriptions of two examples, you can try a few different things.

. . .

1. Adjectives and time.

What I do is throw everything on the page that I want, and then prune back to the proper focus progressively, in each revision.

Example: I had about 8 adjectives describing one character's situation. (Are you using adjectives yet? A panicked voice sounds nicely evocative to me. Please don't overuse them, but they are fantastic in the right dosage.)

For your hero being stabbed by a dark angel, he might be:

Exhausted, angry, afraid, repulsed, weakened, drained, tortured, despairing, etc. (or he may be none of those things depending on his character.). But, that's way too many adjectives. Still, putting them on the page gets my brain into that space, and on each revision I'll play with it until I am down to one or two adjectives that are perfect. This approach doesn't change the verb, but it does modify it into the form that might be better for you.

In addition to modifying him, or the stab, you can modify his cry. Try a tortured wail or a piteous howl or an agonized groan. Those are shaded variations of what you are trying to convey. . . ...

2. Embellishment that stands separately from the action. This allows you to do some development of character, which is nice.

Keep the verb as simple as can be and the action as direct as possible, then embellish through metaphor and simile.

The angel stabbed him.

^That's it for the action but then you say something like:

It was a fearsome blow, as though all of the rage that had led to the angel's downfall in the first place was focused into it, and he saw the gates of hell open into his heart in that very moment. He did not know if he could fight back but he knew he must try, and he placed all of his own self doubt and anger into a mighty howl.

^That needs a lot of work but gives you the idea.

  • Thank you I really like your approach to just put everything out on the paper and then select what best fits.
    – Yostina
    Jan 10, 2018 at 16:54

In many ways, this is just the basic work of writing, and every writer will handle it differently. However, in general, details are more vivid when they are emotionally charged. In other words, try to see it through your character's eyes, even if you have a third-person narrator.

Descriptions can also play double or even triple duty, giving the reader all kinds of clues about mood, symbolism and history. Compare "her skin was brown," with "her skin was the same rich brown color as the fertile, newly turned-over earth on her father's farm in rural Georgia." The first is just a flat description, the second tells you a bit of her past, hints at her socioeconomic level, foreshadows a possible pregnancy, gives you a sense of the observer's attitude, and so forth.

Of course this kind of thing can easily be overdone. But again, that's the core work of writing --finding the balance. If you just need to convey the info, you can do it simply and directly, and it will fade into the background for the reader. If you elaborate it, on the other hand, it should serve a function to advance the story, the understanding of the characters, or the overall mood. Remember, the writing should always be in service of the reader's experience, and never the other way around.


Try speaking into a voice recorder. Just say what you want to happen. Describe it to someone, if that helps.

I suspect you're trying to get too wordy. Your story can just say what happens and what people say to each other. Just put characters together and have them interact. If you find that difficult, then I'd suspect that you're trying too hard. If you describe every hand and eye movement your characters make, then I bet you'll delete those bits when you edit and revise.

Simplify. Just tell the story.


Most readers have strong, vivid imaginations. As readers, we often appreciate a certain lack of details so that we can imagine them as we see fit (how many time have you placed a favorite actor as a character in a book you are reading?).

If you describe a characters emotional response, usually the reader will add most of the physical details themselves.


The problem you have is that you try to hard to give an exact representation of your mental image.

You think of someone with a certain hair color, and what you really want to do is give an RGB value that exactly represents the color you have in mind. You think of a facial expression, and what you really want to do is give the action units from Paul Ekman's facial action coding system so there can be no mistake on the reader's part about what facial expression you were thinking of.

What you really want to do is take all freedom of imagination away from the reader and minutely prescribe to them what they must visualize.

That is both boring to read and stifling.

A superior approach is to describe only what is essential to your story and allow the readers to fill in the rest to their liking.

For example, it might be important to your story that one character cannot move his fingers independently, because he has a neuropsychological disorder, so he points at the door with all four fingers, but if it is not, it is enough to write that he points and allow the readers to think of whatever guesture they want.

Also, only an Autist would think of a facial expression in terms of how much the brows are lifted and how far the corners of the mouth are pulled down, while every normal person will think of a facial expression in terms of what it might mean. For example, it is perfectly fine to write that someone "looks at her pleadingly" or "with an expression of both happiness and guilt", while something like "he raised his eyebrows" will leave the reader wondering whether the raising of the eyebrows signifies surprise or fear or something else.

  • Hello user 28777, I am not trying to describe everything in the story but only in one particular scene where it gets a bit romantic and intimate. As Chris Sunami said, I actually tend to give those flat descriptions with telling more than showing.
    – Yostina
    Jan 10, 2018 at 11:53

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