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How to avoid writing generic descriptions

Do you ever write descriptions and feel like it is bland, uninspired or just boring? Do you dread it when you know you have to write a part describing your location? Well, if you're bored writing it, we're going to be bored reading it. Here is how to avoid writing generic, boring descriptions.

1. Description v reaction

Read the following passage from Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. Think about what this passage makes you feel, what mood it evokes, and how well the images stick in your mind.

I've highlighted the descriptions in yellow. What is highlighted in blue is the character's reaction to the environment. The mistake in Bardugo's descriptions is that she is merely telling us what everything is rather than what it feels. Most of the time, there isn't very many new or original ways to describe a castle or a tree or flower — which have not already been used before. However, what makes your description unique is your character's reaction to their environment.

Here is an example:

Jane's gaze viewed the top of the great pine tree. It kissed the sky, taller than anything around it. The bark was brown, crackled, peeling off the trunk in large chunks.

As Jane's gaze viewed the top of the great pine tree, her stomach twisted with fear — as a child, she'd broke her arm falling from an identical looking tree and the scar never healed. Jane's gaze wandered lower and saw how large chunks of bark peeled off the trunk; it reminded Jane of the cracked skin on her Grandmother's hands — weathered by age but still beautiful.

In the first example, we're just told that the tree is taller than anything around it and the bark is falling off. In the second example, we learn that Jane broke her arm falling from a tree and is now afraid of large trees. We also learn that Jane finds old age beautiful as she most likely believes beauty comes from within.

Take this example for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I've highlighted in yellow the descriptions, and in blue Mr Dursley's reaction to the environment.

Balance out your descriptions with a character's reactions, feelings and memories. Now, your character isn't simply seeing a new world, they are experiencing it, connecting it to their existing bank of knowledge and growing. But.... (see point two)

2. ... you need interesting character to begin with

To describe how something feels, you have to have an interesting character with interesting thoughts — a character' thoughts are shaped by their personality and experience.

For example, imagine your character hears a jazz song: are they angered by the disturbance? Do the find the chord progression disconcerting? Does the light melody remind them of their first kiss? Do they wish it was rock music instead? Each reaction tells a different story and reveals more about the character.

3. Be very, very specific


  • Being specific creates a more accurate image in the reader's mind. Instead of calling it a tree, name what type it is: a redwood, a cedar, a pine or willow tree? Don't say the dress is blue: is it royal blue, navy, midnight blue, cerulean, azure, teal, turquoise, cyan?

  • Being specific reveals more details about a character. For example, it could mean something different for your character if they're wearing polyester as compared to if they wore silk and rabbit fur.

  • Being specific reveals more details about a location. When writing description for a building or place, think about what has happened at that location previous. Think way back into the past, and then to what happened five minutes before your character arrived. It's not just an old building — it could be location where the declaration of peace was signed 500 years ago, with a statue to commemorate, or maybe there is fresh spray paint there and discarded cigarettes; each tell a different story and force your mind to get creative.

Google is your friend here! If you find yourself describing a piece of "artwork" google different types of artwork: it could be a watercolour picture, an oil on canvas, or a acrylic painting or a simple charcoal sketch.

Remember — especially if you're writing from first person — to stick to using words only the character would know. For example, if your character is a musician, they may know the music they are listening to uses suspended chords and is in the key of C minor. It would be unbelievable if a character, who isn't a musician, to use these words — maybe they describe the music as "unsettling" or "dramatic". Likewise, a regular person may be able to identify and describe a flower as "pale pink rose crawling with tiny green bugs", but a botanist may describe it as a "damask rose infested with aphids".

4. Don't seperate descriptions from the rest of your writing

When writing, don't think: "now let me insert a 50 word description of the castle here and then move on with the exciting bits like dialogue and romance and fights!" Stop thinking like this!

Descriptions are not the "break" from the story or plot; they are integral to the story. Think of descriptions as a way to build your characters as they explore their new environment, or see an old environment with new eyes, they're not just seeing it, they're experiencing it, interpreting it, showing more about themselves to the reader by how they perceive the world around them.

5. Apply this...

Here is a good formula:

  1. Name what it is your character is looking at

  2. Describe any unique properties to the object or location

  3. Write about how your character feels about it

  4. Write about how they react to their feelings in point 3 (action as a result of reaction).

For example:

As John's eyes beheld the Siena Cathedral, his gaze was drawn to the gargoyles near the west façade; their unfeeling demonic faces smoothed over by centuries of rain and wind. John's arm slung protectively over his wife's shoulders; Father Matthew used to frighten him with tales of hell, but now, looking at these ugly little things, John knew he could leave his childish fears behind.

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