Knowing how to describe well is sure to immerse readers in your world. Read a complete guide on describing places and characters, different types of description, descriptive writing examples from popular genres, and more. Use the links above to jump to what you want to learn more about now.
What is description? Definitions and terms
Description is writing that tells your reader what a person, object or place is (or isn’t) like. As Oxford Learner Dictionaries define it: ‘a piece of writing or speech that says what somebody/something is like; the act of writing or saying in words what somebody/something is like’.
- Creates tone and mood (for example, whether a scene is bright, dark, cheerful, ominous)
- Shows, infers or implies personality and emotion (for example, a character speaking very fast may imply fear or excitement)
- Colors in the story so that scenes that could feel grey or beige become imbued with specificity and the potential for drama, events
- Draws your reader’s attention to significant or important objects and events: For example, a treasure being lost overboard in a sailing expedition may set up a storyline in another timeline where explorers dive for sunken treasure
These are just some of the important uses for description in storytelling.
Descriptive writing: useful terms
Useful terms in descriptive writing include:
- Mood: Describes that which is evocative of a specific state of mind or feeling
- Tone: The general attitude or character of a piece of writing (e.g. ‘The tone of the opening description is cheerful, matching the sense of excitement of guests about to arrive at a party’)
- Tableau (plural tableaux): A picture, as of a scene. For example: ‘In the first scene, we see the tableau of a family dinner at Thanksgiving, where the main characters are all seated together’
- Mise en scène: A French term meaning ‘the action of putting onto the stage’. It’s the arrangement of actors and scenery in a scene. Cambridge gives the example, ‘The general mise en scène – solitary figure, moving down gloomy Victorian streets at twilight – brings to mind Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’
- Figurative language: Figurative language such as metaphor and simile (more on this under descriptive writing devices) is often used to compare, contrast, and breathe fresh life into familiar ideas and images (e.g. ‘He blushed as red as a bottlebrush tree in spring’)
Why is description in writing important?
In all kinds of writing, but in fiction especially, description draws readers in and creates immersive character, specificity. The opposite of bland, beige writing.
Description is important in writing because it:
- Establishes setting to create context. If you describe an old cobbled street, your reader knows they’re not in Dubai’s modern CBD.
- Helps to create tone and mood. The emotional state of a narrator or the emotion of a scene is deepened by evocative description.
- Draws attention to important symbols or themes. For example, in the opening description in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, the main character dwells on heavy-drinking workers which calls to mind the post-war setting and echoes the story’s core themes of society, class and trauma.
- Makes writing more engaging. Instead of reading being like watching paint dry, description pigments your world.
- Implies and infers. A shrug, a sigh – small gestures and signs may create exact or ambiguous implications, so that description adds narrative suspense to a scenario and creates intrigue.
- Supports plot and story development. For example, a gun concealed in a glove compartment at the start of a story warns us it may fire.
- Distinguishes and differentiates. One character may wear their hair down mostly, another up. The small details that differentiate people and things create realism.
- Evokes emotions or elicits empathy. For example, a kid sitting alone at the back of a school bus may suggest loneliness or exclusion. A tableau has great power to elicit empathy or other emotions, as visual artists understand.
Types of description: Ways to bring worlds to life
There are many types of description you could use to make your story a tapestry of vivid detail:
Clear, precise physical description gives your reader a more detailed sense of your world. Succinct description doesn’t necessarily sacrifice pace, either. It may include elements of physicality such as:
For describing characters, you might describe a person’s:
- Facial features
- Body language
See description examples for descriptions that represent several of the above qualities.
Emotional description suggests a character’s emotional state or mood. Voice and action contribute emotion too (and types of physical description such as posture or body language).
Ways you could show a character’s emotions include:
- Adverbs: These should be used sparingly, though. For example, ‘”Of course,” he said happily.’
- Actions: A useful substitute for adverbs. Compare the above to: ‘”Of course.” His smile reached all the way to his eyes.’
- Deep POV: The way a character describes their surrounds may be indicative of how they’re feeling. For example, ‘I sat down on my stupid bed and opened my homework book.’ This character is clearly not enthused by homework.
Filtering passing description through your character’s viewpoint and state of mind is a great way to indirectly describe their emotion.
As an exercise, take the same scenario and setting, write down four or five different emotions, and have your character describe the same scene so that it is colored by each of those emotions in turn.
Historical description is narrative that shows what time and place are like. For example, the way Dickens’ description of Coketown in Hard Times (1854) conveys what a rapidly industrializing town is like, with its miasma of smog:
Seen from a distance in such weather, Coketown lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun’s rays. You only knew the town was there, because you knew there could have been no such sulky blotch upon the prospect without a town. A blur of soot and smoke, now confusedly tending this way, now that way, now aspiring to the vault of Heaven, now murkily creeping along the earth, as the wind rose and fell, or changed its quarter: a dense formless jumble, with sheets of cross light in it, that showed nothing but masses of darkness.Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854), full text public domain on Project Gutenberg.
This type of description is especially common in historical fiction which seeks to create an authentic sense of a period or era and its notable features, changes and developments.
This type of description is not as concerned with accurate (or rather literal) representation as it is with capturing the essence of the described thing.
Think of this as the way Cubism may represent a person in a portrait as having both eyes on one side of their face.
If you wrote, for example, ‘she was all hard edges and acute angles’ to describe a severe, unforgiving character, you might not literally mean that they’re like a line-drawing. Yet the metaphor in this geometrical description creates the impression of sharpness, hardness, stern qualities of character.
Another example: In this quote from The Great Gatsby (1925) where the character Nick Carraway gives a romanticized view of New York City, he says that to see the city from a specific vantage point is always to see it for the first time:
The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925. p. 67.
The narrator does not mean this literally, of course. It is an impressionistic description of what this specific vista feels like, emotionally.
Impressionistic description relies on devices such as metaphor, metonymy, simile, personification and hyperbole (more on these under descriptive writing devices).
Read more about types of description:
- Descriptive verbs: 7 tips for avoiding weak adverbs
- Direct vs indirect characterization: How to show and tell
- How to describe clothing in a story (with examples)
Describing characters: Not shoe size (but where he’s off to)
In her poem ‘Writing a Résumé’, the Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska pokes fun at the characterless language one has to use sometimes in, for example, writing a CV or bio or other document for bureaucratic purposes. She gives dry instructions about what to do (implying the wealth of humanity that we have to skip over in doing this exercise).
It’s a great example of what not to do in writing more rounded, complex – i.e. fully human – characters:
Write as if you’d never talked to yourself
and always kept yourself at arm’s length.
Pass over in silence your dogs, cats, birds,
dusty keepsakes, friends, and dreams.
Price, not worth,
and title, not what’s inside.
His shoe size, not where he’s off to,
that one you pass yourself off as.Wisława Szymborska, ‘Writing a Résumé’, Poems, New and Collected (1957-1997)
Describing characters well brings them to life. It’s the opposite of a dry, everywoman CV.
What are some ways you can describe characters better?
- Make first introductions count. A vivid first line, gesture, outfit, attitude – what will cement your character in your reader’s mind?
- Favor concrete over haziness or abstraction. Not, ‘She was kinda tall’ or ‘sometimes, she was mean’. How tall? Under what circumstances was the character typically mean?
- Show more than just appearances. For example, ‘his eyes were blue’. Many people have blue eyes (though the gene is recessive). How blue? and what do the man’s blue eyes suggest about his character (are they kind, alert, critical?).
- Use viewpoint and voice to imply mood and emotion. Part of why Salinger’s teen narrator’s voice is so memorable in Catcher in the Rye is his narration is filtered through how jaded and deeply frustrated he feels.
- Build character description over your story’s course. Does a character’s limp get worse or better, a country woman who moves to the big city lose (or keep) the rural sound of her accent? How might description change subtly (or dramatically) to echo the life your character’s lived?
See the recommended reading below (and the description examples further on) for more on how to describe characters with vivid acuity.
- Character writing: Complete guide to creating your cast
- How to describe a person vividly: 8 ways
- How to describe hands: 6 ways to make characters real
- Describing characters’ first appearances: 6 tips
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Describing settings: Making place a character
Illustrating your story’s settings is vital to make your world feel real and lived in (rather than like so much empty green screen). Setting description is a crucial part of worldbuilding.
Types of description that tell places’ stories
There are so many details, like with characters, that define what a place is like. You can describe a place via its:
- Physical qualities. See for example that description dense with smog by Dickens in the example above.
- Environment and Geography. Terrain, biomes – in historical, fantasy and science fiction in particular, geography is often important because it may determine how long travel takes, where character’s can or cannot go, the rules of engagement in war or trade, or other plot factors.
- Architecture. Architectural description may create a sense of scale, wealth, age of a city or society, what raw materials are available, and more. See Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities for inventive descriptions of imaginary cities, as recounted by a fictionalized Marco Polo.
- Historical events. If you narrate a paragraph describing the history of a city, for example, that place immediately gains further historical character.
- Social makeup. What proportion of inhabitants are wealth, and what proportion are underprivileged? Class, culture, religion and other elements of society help us understand a place’s diversity (and often also the lines of difference that explain historical or present tensions).
- Political elements. The political system in a place may have far-reaching effects from public life (e.g. whether there is a curfew or not) and infrastructure to the happiness of its people. Under a corrupt dictator, roads and public services may deteriorate faster, for example, as autocrats redirect public funds to a private purse.
How can you describe place in your story so that it has vivid character?
Ways to describe place in fiction
To create a more immersive sense of place:
- Brainstorm key place details. What you describe will be determined to an extent by the plot and character arcs of your story. For example, if your story is about a sheltered country dweller who travels to the big city, you might brainstorm what would be awe-inspiring (or terrifying) about a big city upon arrival.
- Create vision boards of similar settings. Use Pinterest (follow Now Novel while you’re there) or another image sharing platform to curate a library of images connected to your story locations. This is a great way to gather visual inspiration for scenes and ideas for objects or moods and atmospheres.
- Use precise adjectives. This applies to character description, too. Find the concrete word that compresses the most meaning (instead of ‘very small’, you might say ‘tiny’ or ‘minute’, for example).
- Think about who, what, why, where and when. Who (or what) would you be likely to find in this place? What is great or awful about it? What is its atmosphere, tone and mood? Why does this place exist? What does it tell us about your world, its where and when (period, era)?
Read more about how to create vivid story locations, places, worlds:
- Story setting and worldbuilding: Complete guide
- How to describe setting: 6 ways to bring setting to life
- Novel settings: 7 tips to get setting description right
- Setting the scene: 6 ways to introduce place in stories
- Vivid story setting description: Examples and insights
Descriptive writing devices
Descriptive writing devices such as figurative language bring in the freshness of unexpected comparisons and get playful with language. Learn more about descriptive writing devices that add depth, humor, surprise and other good things to descriptions:
Metaphor and simile: Comparing unlike things to describe
Metaphor and simile compare unlike things to create striking imagery.
The key difference between the two is that metaphor removes the comparison words, simile keeps them in.
- ‘His stork legs poked out of baggy yellow swim shorts.’
- ‘The moon was a silver platter, more beautiful for its antique, tarnished patches.’
Compare to simile which makes the act of comparison more obvious:
- ‘The spacecraft was as dark as a moonless desert, save for the blinking lights of the control console.’
- ‘She got up from the table without a word, as difficult to read as a seasoned croupier.’
Metonymy: Making part stand for the whole
Metonymy is a figurative device where the part of something stands for the whole (the way we say ‘The Crown’ to refer to a queen, for example).
Examples of metonymy:
- “Mouth over here won’t shut up,” my sister said, casting a dark look my way.’
- “I will call this House to order, and you will be orderly,” the Speaker said, glaring at the back benches.’
Hyperbole: Exaggerating for effect
Another figurative language device, hyperbole is often used for either dramatic or comical (for example, mock-heroic or arch) effect.
- “This sandwich is a masterpiece and belongs in the Louvre,” my brother said, mock-retching at the days-old sub I found under the car seat.’
Personification: Bringing the non-human to life
Personification is another common descriptive device in figurative language. Here, human-like characteristics are attributed to objects or non-humans.
- ‘The old oak stood sentinel over the entrance to the town, cautioning horseback arrivals in its gnarled, ancient presence that this was an old place where people took their time and took even longer to warm to strangers.’
There are many other rhetorical and figurative devices you can use to play with description.
For example, ‘zeugma’, which combines unrelated images in one sentence (e.g. ‘That day changed it all, the day she opened her door and her heart to an imploring kid who rocked up shoeless and afraid and wouldn’t say a word.’) The verb ‘opened’ applies to two different nouns, one use of the verb literal, one figurative.
Read more about writing descriptive sentences and using figurative language devices:
- Writing descriptive sentences: 6 simple rules
- Adjectives for description: 60 precise words
- Artificial intelligence for writing: 10 helpful AI uses
Description pitfalls: What to avoid in descriptive writing
Description has its pitfalls. As Rick Riordan says in the quote above, lots of spurious description may lose a reader. Read ideas of what to avoid in description:
Overused, on the nose or dead language
‘Tall, dark and handsome’ – that’s an example of the kind of phrase you might find in a Barbara Cartland or old Mills & Boon title that might make modern readers groan. Sites such as TV Tropes can help you keep track of what is overdone and troped to death.
Tautology (redundant words or phrases)
Tautology is saying the same thing twice in different words. A ‘pleonasm’ is using more words than necessary to convey one meaning. For example, ‘The shower’s wet water was a relief after the day’s grueling work.’ The reader knows water is wet, so the adjective isn’t needed in that sentence.
Lack of sensory details
Effective descriptive writing involves the senses: Sight, touch, sound, smell, even taste. This isn’t to say that every sentence has to draw on all of the senses, but if the reader never hears or feels the touch of anything, the story’s world could read more drab and nondescript.
Telling far more than showing
Although ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a common adage, stories need both.
‘Telling’ is useful for what Ursula K. Le Guin calls ‘leaping’ in narrative. For example, skipping over an uneventful sequence of time. ‘They rode hard for three days and eventually reached the city.’
It’s showing though, ‘crowding’ a scene with the detail of the senses, of what viewpoint characters experience, that really puts your reader in the film-like quality of a scene in 4K definition.
Stereotyping or generalizing
Saying ‘all the women in the bar had dolled up for the night’ might draw readers’ ire, an example of a generalization that is also stereotyping. The idea that all women, men, non-binary people, or other categories behave a similar way (or hold similar interests or behaviors). Think about how descriptions can speak to the variety that is inherent to a space.
There are cases, of course, where certain places are very homogenous in culture, inhabitant or type. A fancy club on a beachfront might attract a very specific type of patron. Yet if context does not help to explain a generalization, it’s best to avoid it.
Watch a concise video with further tips to write stronger description:
How to describe: Writing clear places and charactersLearn how to describe places and characters well, using precise adjectives, stronger verbs in place of adverbs, and other devices.
What are some of your descriptive writing pet peeves? Let us know in the comments.
Read more about descriptive issues and how to avoid them:
- What is cliché? Cliché examples (and how to avoid)
- Choosing description words: 10 questions to ask
- ‘Show, don’t tell’: Examples from books balancing both
Description examples: Descriptive writing across genres
Here we gather effective description examples across a range of genres: Fantasy, romance, historical, science fiction, mystery, thriller and more. Share one of your favorite descriptions and the author and book title it’s from in the comments and help us grow this resource for description examples.
Introductory descriptions for scene-setting
Description at the beginning of a story can set the scene in a wide variety of ways. See below how it can establish tone and mood (the levity of Pratchett’s style, for example), or the inside/outside of a detective’s world where peace or violence are always just over the hedge.
See in the example from Julia Quinn how description of an activity typical of an era (Regency women doing needlework) can create a sense of time and place. Or reference to interplanetary spectacle or a woman tailing a man create intrigue in a sci-fi and thriller novel respectively.
Fantasy/humor description example
Local people called it the Bear Mountain. This was because it was a bare mountain, not because it had a lot of bears on it. This caused a certain amount of profitable confusion, though; people often strode into the nearest village with heavy duty crossbows, traps and nets and called haughtily for native guides to lead them to the bears. Since everyone locally was making quite a good living out of this, what with the sale of guide books, maps of bear caves, ornamental cuckoo-clocks with bears on them, bear walking-sticks and cakes baked in the shape of a bear, somehow no one had time to go and correct the spelling.Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad (1991), pp. 16-17.
Mystery description example
“Hell is empty, Armand,” said Stephen Horowitz.Louise Penny, All the Devils are Here, 2021 (p. 3)
“You’ve mentioned that. And all the devils are here?” asked Armand Gamache.
“Well, maybe not here, here” – Stephen spread his expressive hands-“exactly.”
“Here, here” was the garden of the Musée Rodin, in Paris, where Armand and his godfather were enjoying a quiet few minutes. Outside the walls they could hear the traffic, the hustle and the tussle of the great city.
But here, here there was peace. The deep peace that comes not just with quiet, but with familiarity.
(Regency) romance description example
“Look at this!” Portia Featherington squealed. “Colin Bridgerton is back!”Julia Quinn, Romancing Mr Bridgerton (2002), p. 3.
Penelope looked up from her needlework. Her mother was clutching the latest edition of Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers the way Penelope might clutch, say, a rope while hanging off a building. “I know,” she murmured.
Science fiction description example
At 09:46 GMT on the morning of 11 September, in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky. Within seconds it was brighter than the sun, and as it moved across the heavens – at first in utter silence – it left behind a churning column of dust and smoke.Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama (1973), p. 4.
Spy thriller description example
The quality of the light was the first thing that struck her when she went to Madrid in the spring of 1960. The afternoon shadows were the deepest and darkest she had ever seen.
Like all old men, the doctor was a creature of habit. He always shopped for groceries on Saturday afternoons. She tailed him to a place near Atocha station that sold international food. He bought black bread, beer and slices of cured sausage that resembled Westphalian salami.Patrick Worrall, The Partisan (2022), p. 7.
Character description examples
Read examples of character description across a range of genres. See how voice can describe a character’s age and outlook in Rick Riordan’s example, or how an ensemble description can evoke the character of an era in Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Read how Colleen Hoover creates the portrait of a person through their name and the hyper-specific conditions of their being fired from a restaurant. Or Alice Munro’s portrait of a music teacher who throws recitals she doesn’t call recitals (and an invitee’s attempts to get out of attending them).
YA/fantasy character description example
My name is Percy Jackson.Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2005), p. 8.
I’m twelve years old. Until a few months ago, I was a boarding student at Yancy Academy, a private school for troubled kids in upstate New York.
Am I a troubled kid?
Yeah. You could say that.
I could start at any point in my short miserable life to prove it, but things really started going bad last may, when our sixth-grade class took a field trip to Manhattan – twenty-eight mental-case kids and two teachers on a yellow school bus, heading to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at ancient Greek and Roman stuff.
Literary/historical fiction character description example
There seemed to be no entertainment that did not involve great swarms of people. Trains and steamers and trolleys moved them from one place to another. That was the style, that was the way people lived. Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting.E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime (1974), p. 3.
New adult character description example
“There was that guy who did the dishes before you hired Brad. What was his name? He was named after some kind of mineral or something – it was super weird.”Colleen Hoover, It Starts with Us (2022), p. 3.
“Quartz,” I say. “It was a nickname.” I haven’t thought about that guy in so long. I doubt he’s holding a grudge against me after all this time. I fired him right after we opened because I found out he wasn’t washing the dishes unless he could actually see food on them. Glasses, plates, silverware – anything that came back to the kitchen from a table looking fairly clean, he’d just put it straight on the drying rack.
Literary character description example
Miss Marsalles is having another party. (Out of musical integrity, or her heart’s bold yearning for festivity, she never calls it a recital.) My mother is not an inventive or convincing liar, and the excuses which occur to her are obviously second-rate. The painters are coming. Friends from Ottawa. Poor Carrie is having her tonsils out. In the end all she can say is: Oh, but won’t all that be too much trouble, now?Alice Munro, ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ in Selected Stories (1996), p. 16
Science fiction character description example
Lenar Hoyt was a young man by the Consul’s reckoning – no more than his early thirties – but it appeared that something had ages the man terribly in the not too distant past. The Consul looked at the thin face, cheekbones pressing against sallow flesh, eyes large but hooded in deep hollows, thin lips set in a permanent twice of muscle too downturned to be called even a cynical smile, the hairline not so much receding as ravaged by radiation, and he felt he was looking at a man who had been ill for years. Still, the Consul was surprised that behind that mask of concealed pain there remained the physical echo of the boy in the man […]Dan Simmons, Hyperion (1989), p. 11.
Read more character description examples:
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