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I'm careful with the phrasing of this question as it is dangerously close to be opinion based. Everyone has their preference regarding the amount of description they expect to find in a work of fiction.

I tend to write with a first person narrator, as I find it more dynamic and more personal. However, I'm having a hard time (no matter the style I favor) to describe things lengthily. I tend to go from point A to point B in a very straightforward way, which provides only the essential information and does not add much to the narration.

That said, what tips and tricks one can use to force oneself to describe more, and in a more extensive way?

  • I also struggle with describing enough. If I don't pay attention to what I'm writing, I find I have a tendency to write a story that is 99% dialog, swapping back and forth between speakers just by indicating a speaker finished with closing quotes on their last paragraph of verbal spew. It's been years since I've actually saved one of those to disk, but only due to being really mindful about it. That said, I still feel I need to improve a lot. In real life, I'm always struggling for the right words to say, and this focus really seems to come out in my work. – Ed Grimm Jan 27 at 22:49
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While I'm not the OP, I struggle with this, too. I've written a 500 line story with four or five lines that were not exclusively dialog or blank. I'm autistic and I imagine visual elements visually, rather than in words. It took me decades to realize that isn't something that most people do. I've been working on writing up this very question for a few days, so thank you, Nyakouai, for beating me to it.

I have some rules I try to stick to and I try some techniques as well. I don't know how well these are overall, but it seems to work better for me than nothing. I am excluding some of my dialog limiting rules from this, as this question doesn't state that the issue is excessive dialog. I would of course welcome constructive criticism on these points. There are probably issues here. But this is what I have, so I'm using it as a starting point.

  1. Never leave a multi-line quote stand unadorned. Someone is saying it. Who are they? What tone of voice are they using? (This is particularly difficult for me, because I often miss tones.) Are they doing anything as they are talking?

  2. Never pass dialog back and forth between two characters without mentioning who is saying what for more than half a page. It may be helpful to limit your screen size to better be able to judge this distance.

  3. Periodically look back at what has been written so far, especially whenever I've gotten to the point of a scene change. Has it been explained why the scene change has happened? Have the characters performed any actions that haven't been stated? Most of the time, semi-involuntary actions like breathing and swallowing go without mention, but if there is a significant change to them, that's important to mention.

  4. There must be action before dialog. This action doesn't need to be a lot; it could just be somebody preparing to speak. But before the first double quote of the section, the identity of the first speaker must be firmly established. Since you've only said you need to describe more, you may not need this rule, but my characters talk a lot. I tend to be frustrated in conversations, especially if there's more than one other person in the conversation, and it tends to come out in my characters.

  5. When actions happen during dialog, sentence boundaries are a good place to break to describe it. Longer descriptions can often wait until the current speaker finishes speaking. If someone is speaking when an object comes out that might need to be described, it may make sense for them to have a pause in speech to examine it. You can describe as much as you want between conversations or action scenes, and should at least consider whether there is anything that could bear describing that hasn't been described.

  6. Fight scenes or other high action do not need to describe as much if the characters in the scene would be distracted from the things you might describe. This is ok, they're busy. However, next rule:

  7. Main characters are not allowed to run into the void. You must describe where they are going before the characters actually arrive, unless they're teleporting. (Teleporting is something that happens in a small portion of my stories.) However, even when teleporting, they either need to be going to a previously described place, or they must not be aware of where they're teleporting to. If a character teleports to an unknown location, describing their new location must happen next if they have any senses active (that is, if they're unconscious, you get a freebie here.)

  8. Similarly, the main character in a scene can't interact with anything non-standard in that scene without having at least some minimal description of it. (Why/how is it non-standard?)

  9. Use an editor that autosaves files to a temporary name. You're not allowed to save the file to its proper name without reviewing to make sure there's enough description, or there are at least tags to remind you to put descriptions in places later. On writing this one down, I realize I haven't been following it enough lately. Sigh.


There's a book called The Wind in the Willows. It was written to be a children's bedtime story book. Unlike most books in this genre, it doesn't have a lot of pictures, instead it tries to describe with words. It was adapted into a TV series that ran from 1984 to 1990 which started off each episode with a paragraph or two of descriptive narration. For those episodes which were directly adapted from Kenneth Grahame's written works, this narration was at least sometimes directly from the books.

The technique I've tried that seems to work best for me is to start each chapter with one to two full paragraphs establishing the scene, and imagine that text being spoken aloud by Ian Carmichael (the narrator from that series). In that opening, there's no action or dialog allowed. If there's a significant change of scene within a chapter (this is rare for my stories, as I tend to make significant scene changes be chapter breaks), there may be another one to two paragraphs of required description.

I'm not recommending that one goes to the extent of this book. I'm figuring, if you're like me, there's no risk of that happening. I am instead more trying to push you to taking note of books which do describe things. I'm also not necessarily saying that you would have to use this book as a reference. You can take any book that you think is described really well and use it instead, and you can use any narrator's voice that works for you.

I think Reading Rainbow is probably another good source for examples of well read stories that describe things well, although I'm not as familiar with it as I'd like. I was just over the target demographic age when I first heard about it, and I don't have kids. I do think LeVar Burton has an excellent reading voice.

There are undoubtedly fine narrators in any language; I'm just sticking with people who narrate in English because I'm unfortunately monolinguistic.

--

Another technique is to imagine you're telling the story to a three year old. Like many three year olds, this child's favorite question is, "Why?" You're not allowed to just say "because". The child's next favorite question is, "What does that look like?"

--

My final technique is to imagine that after you finish writing this, somebody is going to turn it into a film. And they're going to depict everything that you haven't described in the worst way imaginable. This technique never works for me; the thought of my work actually getting that level of recognition is just too funny to me. I'm just including it because I remember someone having suggested it to me at one point.

  • Terrific answer. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 28 at 16:50
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    Thank you. Much of this was taken from that question I mentioned I was working on - I know researching our own questions is important on stack exchange sites, so I was explaining everything I already have tried for this issue. Apart from that, and the work I'd already come up with to adapting it to be an answer instead of a question, all I really did from the time you suggested my comments would be a good answer was figuring out what of those I could infuse in. Thank you for your assistance. :) – Ed Grimm Jan 28 at 22:37
  • @EdGrimm So far, the answer providing the most tips and tricks. Each could work with different writers (think I'm going to try the last one a lot, it's a particularly horrific idea). – Nyakouai Jan 29 at 13:19
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Do you actually need to write longer narratives?

A sparse writing style can often work well. Here, every word is important. You must carefully choose what you say and how you say it because you have fewer words to carry the meaning.

Other times, being too sparse can keep the reader from understanding or immersing her/himself into your story.

Find readers and ask them to describe your story.

A critique group can be invaluable here. If one isn't available, ask a teacher or friends/family who will be completely honest with you. You don't want people who will say "it's great." Just like with writing, sometimes you can be too sparse with feedback.

Don't ask them if it was okay or if they understood it. Ask them to describe it. Ask what they think happened in the scene or what they think the motivations of the characters were.

Even if your writing is spot-on perfect, you'll get readers with different interpretations of it. That's okay. What you want to watch out for is when readers are confused or simply can't figure out what's happening.

Instead of trying to describe more in general, focus on the areas your readers tell you aren't working.

It's very hard to make yourself change something when you think it's already okay. But if a couple readers tell you a part was problematic, you can focus on that. I find that much easier than a general "describe more things."

For example, if your readers get that it's a dismal rainy day but they are confused by why your character went to her ex's house, you don't want to waste your time beefing up descriptions of the weather.

Or maybe your readers have no problem understanding your brief explanations of your character discovering that her ex cut managed to cut off her internet and phone service and why she chose to confront him in person, but they'd like to see more about her reactions to the inside of his house, about whether he's recreated their old home together or left her and her influences behind (which all helps her understand why he pulled that dirty trick).

Once you get feedback a few times for multiple problem points in your work, you'll start to anticipate them. You likely don't want to make yourself go on more about every aspect of a scene.

Choosing few words carefully is a fine approach. The trick is not how to write more, but how to know which parts need more attention.

  • I'm curious why you are so confident that the OP isn't asking this question due to feedback from a beta reader or writing group. I'm remembering back to when I first sought help for this particular issue, due to teachers and friends telling me I should describe things more, and I would generally get responses like this. It didn't help at all that my autism has made me prone to slink back in the corner after I've been denied help, rather than attempting to seek help further. – Ed Grimm Jan 28 at 0:26
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    @EdGrimm You're right, I don't know. My aim was to start off my answer with a frame challenge (maybe this isn't what you need) then move into how to get specific feedback if there is indeed a problem, and then how to translate the feedback into change. What I heard the OP asking was about how to force her/himself to describe things more, which to me sounded like s/he was overwhelmed by the task. I hoped to break it down in a way that reduced the workload. I hear you saying I did not succeed. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 28 at 0:34
  • I'm not the OP, but I feel I need to force myself, too. But I think you would probably understand why one might use that word if I showed you a 500 line story I wrote that had one line with no dialog at all and three or four lines that had some non-dialog bits like, she said on them. For some people descriptions are hard. As I'm reflecting a bit more on this, I also had the observation that describing things is particularly difficult for me, because I don't describe in my mind, I visualize. If I could draw, I could do that in lieu of describing. But I can't draw, either. – Ed Grimm Jan 28 at 0:40
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    @EdGrimm these are really good insights. My answer may work well for people like me (I sometimes tend towards sparse writing myself, then other times write too much) but not for people like you. It would be extremely helpful if you wrote your thoughts up into an answer, even if it was just your 3 comments with a light edit. We don't know what will work best for the OP but questions/answers are up for anyone to see and your answer will help someone. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 28 at 0:43
  • I've been working on it already. But words are hard and distractions are plentiful, so it will be a while. – Ed Grimm Jan 28 at 0:47
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Coming from a very short, scene and dialogue oriented style, I struggle with this too. I'd argue that sometimes you want brevity and a few quick lines of dialog between two characters are all that is needed to carry the plot forward.

But since managing the pace of a story is a whole other can of worms, I'd just leave her some suggestions to add more meat to your descriptions; at least, the same things I follow when I'm stuck in your situation.

Sensory information

this is probably an advice heard from Brandon Sanderson (either from Writing Excuses or his video lessons on youtube). The point being, most human beings have five senses. We are always subconsciously aware of what is happening around us thanks to those five "channels", but as writers, we often forget less "direct" senses like smell, touch and taste. Hearing gets kinda a bad treatment too, since it mostly comes in handy where's dialogue to be heard. But dialogue doens't happen in silence - silence, truth to be told, is a rare commodity.

So, sensory data can be used to convey the idea of a place or of a situation. From a first person POV, this can be easily done (since you're describing what your character is feeling directly).

To wrap it up, if you want to add more beef to your descriptions, include sensorial data from all the senses. It works and it adds immersion.

Describing behaviour

As above. When two people speak, a lot of the communication travels in a non verbal level. Everything we do carry information - from our body stance to the tone of our voice, from where we are glancing at to what we are doing with our hands or feet. This is, more or less, a corollary of the infamous "show don't tell rule". Often, a line of dialogue will look like this:

"I don't want you to leave" Martha said, nervously.

but if you're going for a more lenghty description, it's more rewarding to show the reader that she's nervous through her behaviour, rather than just shorthanding emotions like that. Consider:

"I don't want you to leave", Martha said in a quiet, almost whispered tone, as her gaze raced to the tips of her shoes. He noticed she was fidgeting with the lower end of her shirt. Her white, long fingers were tugging the cloth so harshly that it seemed on the verge of being tore apart.

Of course don't take my extract as an example of superb writing, since I'm pretty sure it's not, but it is an example of showing, in a way. The audience knows what a nervous person will look and sound like: if you show a character acting that way, they will make the connection. And even possibly bad, possibly cliché descriptions like mine are somewhat more informative than a single adjective or adverb.

Write first, return later

This is something I often do when I'm not in the mood for lenghty descriptions or well crafted sensorial hints. Sometimes, it's perfectly fine to drive the story forward and to just zip from point A to point B. Learn to write it down even if you know it's not the best you could write.

One of the most useful things I've learned nowadays is that I don't have to write it perfectly the first time. If something doesn't feel right as you write it, but don't know how to fix it, it's way better to avoid getting stuck and go on. Just take a note and fix it later.

Personally I mark in yellow on my word file everything that feels odd or needs more work. This way, when my eyes scroll down the page, I see those yellow stains and I'm inclined to go back and see what the problem was (you could always leave a comment also, if need be). Those days when I don't have the strenght to write forward, I can always fix those yellow marks, and it's somewhat rewarding.

This is somewhat akin to editing, of course, except that you don't have to do it on your second draft. Leaving marks and notes as you go forward will help the revision process later, however you do it. This, of course, is more a general advice, but I think it's relevant as you can always write quick dialogues iff you're in the mood for it and work on expanding later.

  • Outdated: humans have more than five senses. Proprioception is the less well known sense I know best, as my ex-wife has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, so her proprioception is really poor. Sit with your hands in your lap. Close your eyes, and touch your nose with your finger. Did you manage that on the first try? Then you have good proprioception. It's basically awareness of how your body parts are positioned relative to the rest of you. I've seen somewhere there's at least 8 total, but I'm blanking on the others. – Ed Grimm Jan 29 at 0:34
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    @Liquid The last part hit true, especially since I really struggle to do just that. Feel like I can't move forward unless it's the best I can write. Ed provided a lot of tips and tricks, but had I phrased my question differently, I would have chosen your answer. – Nyakouai Jan 29 at 13:26
  • @Nyakouai Don't worry, we're all here to help and learn after all. – Reinstate Monica. Jan 30 at 10:25
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This is also my problem. The trick to solving it is to understand WHY description is necessary. You're not just checking a box or jumping through a hoop. Description puts the reader inside the perspective of the character, giving a vital context for the dialog and the plot. The best descriptions engage all of your senses, thus giving a fully immersive experience.

All your description should do double or triple duty. It should describe the setting, so the reader can picture being there, but it should also illuminate the POV character's personality and mood. "The trees were gentle maidens, their arms stretched out in a warm embrace..." versus "The trees were stern soldiers, guarding the path..." versus "The trees towered over the pathway, threatening and dark..." Those are three different descriptions of a walk in a forest, but they also tell you information about the POV character and how she is feeling at the time. Description can additionally tell "mini-stories" that illuminate the main plot. For example, the "gentle maidens" version might be for a love story, the "stern soldiers" version for an action adventure, and the "threatening" version for a horror story.

If your first instinct is to skip over all the descriptions, you might be unobservant. We tend to write more and better about the things that we love and that fascinate us. Luckily there are ways to make up for this. Spend some time observing the things around you, and coming up with creative ways to describe them. Picture how the descriptions would change if you were a different person, or in a different mood. Once you understand the role descriptions play, they'll become more fun and easier to write. (With all that said, however, you might also consider that your talents might best be suited to another form: plays or screenplays, which are mostly plot and dialogue.)

  • For what it's worth, my difficulties are more with how to describe the things that I imagine. If you think that poor describing skill is the same as poor observation, then you probably are much better at figuring out what words you want to say relative to how well you visualize than I am. – Ed Grimm Jan 29 at 0:43
  • @EdGrimm - It's more that I think we all tend to be best at writing the things we love and pay attention to. I love conversations and stories, so I'm good at dialogue and plot. I'm very unobservant, so my descriptions are shallow. Admittedly it's a generalization and might not hold for everyone. // I'd guess if you are observant, but not good at putting it into words, you might want to spend some more time with poetry. – Chris Sunami Jan 29 at 1:30
  • Different people are different. If you think in words, what you say follows. Not everyone thinks in words. I've learned to do it a bit, but I find it tricky. Poetry is a mixed bag. Some of it may describe things well enough for the author's purpose, but much of it thinks that poetic license is something poets should have, while I look at what they've done with it and have another opinion about whether most of them should've gotten it. – Ed Grimm Jan 29 at 2:44
  • Having thought a bit more about my last comment, I'd like to retract my second sentence and replace it with, "If you think in words, I feel it's likely that what you say follows." – Ed Grimm Jan 29 at 3:52

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