Descriptive language appeals to the reader's five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing. When used correctly, descriptive words can help the writer entertain, persuade, inform, and educate.
List of Descriptive Words
In order to take away the potential of such a list to become overwhelming, let's first break them down by parts of speech.
When people hear the phrase "descriptive words" they tend to think of adjectives. Adjectives modify nouns to describe their specific characteristics. Remember all adjectives are descriptive words, but not all descriptive words are adjectives.
An adverb is a word or phrase that is used to modify or qualify an adjective, verb, other adverb, or word group. Adverbs can be used to describe concepts such time, place, circumstance, manner, or degree.
A gerund is a word that is derived from a verb, but functions as a noun. In English, gerunds end in -ing. Gerunds can be descriptive words because are often used to describe the actions of an individual.
Using Descriptive Words in Your Writing
Descriptive words help paint a picture in the reader's mind. They can:
- Bring characters to life in a novel or short story
- Sell an item in a product advertisement
- Explain the setting of a news story
- Provide instructions for a DIY project
Words Describing People
Descriptive words can be used to describe physical appearance as well as personality traits. Some words carry positive connotations, while others show the subject in a more unflattering light.
Words Describing Things
Words to describe things can refer to size, color, shape, condition, or function. Some of these descriptive words can also be used to describe people.
The basic shades found in a child's box of crayons are just the beginning when it comes to describing colors.
Knowing the names for the most common shapes can help you more accurately describe objects in your writing.
Instead of simply stating the temperature, help the reader imagine the setting by choosing descriptive words for the weather.
When it comes to using descriptive words, variety is key. Instead of resorting to the same overused words, challenge yourself to come up with new ways to appeal to your reader's senses. Effective use of descriptive words will paint a vivid picture in your reader's mind and make your manuscript impossible to put down.
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“When writing short fiction, you want to make sure the reader experiences the story as vivid and continually as if he or she is watching a film.” (Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop)
The writer has a number of techniques that he/she can use to create a story that comes alive, a story that is compelling like a good film.
For instance, the writer can use “sensory language”, concrete and specific details, or figures of speech to narrate the story.
In this post, I’ll explain how to use description that creates a vivid, continuous dream inside the mind of the reader, a dream that seems believable. The following will be covered:
- The power of vivid detail
- Sensory details
- Specific details
- How to choose the best possible words
- Figurative Language
- Lyrical language
- Telling Details
The Power of Vivid Details
What is detail? It is a “picture in words.” The writer paints a picture with words in the mind of the reader. It is anything that creates a picture in the reader’s mind, such as sensory language or similes or metaphors or telling details. In writing fiction, your task is to write a story with vivid details in order to create a vivid, continuous dream inside the mind of the reader, in order to make the story seem believable in the mind of the reader. Two techniques you can use are sensory details and specific details.
All great writers use sensory language to provide vivid details to their stories. They choose language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, touch, smell, sound, taste.
You must show, not tell the reader. You can use sensory details to describe a character, setting, plot, scene, and much more.
Example: Walking down the desolate gravel road, filled with pot holes, I could see the tipped canoe and paddle floating near shore, hear the call of the loon in the distance, the wind rustling the maple trees, sense the wet rain soaking through my windbreaker, evoking a sense of hopelessness.
By deploying sensory language, you make your story come alive.
Details must also be concrete and specific to create a dream inside the mind of the reader and to make the story believable. All good writers use specific and concrete details, not general, abstract language.
When writing a short story, you must paint a picture using concrete and specific language. To do this, follow these suggestions:
Use of adjectives and other modifiers selectively. Write with specific nouns and strong verbs instead.
Example: If the character drives a car, tell the reader what kind of car. If the reader owns a home, tell the reader what kind of home. A condo? Bungalow? Palatial estate? Three story house? Trailer home?
Also, always choose the best possible word. The difference between the right word and nearly right word is like lightning and thunder. Always choose the best possible word to convey what you are intending to describe in your story. Choose the best possible word to create an accurate and realistic picture in the mind of the reader.
Use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. They clutter and create wordy sentences. A single well-placed adjective in a sentence have a powerful effect. The selection of a the right action verb can often eliminate the need for an adverb, which modifies a verb.
Use the best possible nouns and verbs. Nouns should be specific. If the guy is a teacher, tell the reader what kind of teacher the character is. If the character is walking, tell the reader how the character is walking…Is the character trekking, meandering, strolling, sauntering…
To help you choose the right words, use a dictionary to find the meaning of words and thesaurus to uncover synonyms.
You must also use language that entertains your readers and describes your story in new and exciting ways. Often you will need to use a smile or metaphor to describe something abstract with something concrete, or something known with something unknown. Figures of speech, such as simile and metaphor, are powerful techniques for doing this.
Figure of speech in which two unlike things are compared using “like” or “as.”
- His stomach was as big as barrel.
- Her life was like a book with a sad ending.
A metaphor is a figures of speech in which two different things are compared, without using “like” or “as.” Often the writer combines two different nouns, or uses the word “is” to make a comparison, Example: He is a monster. She is a witch. Or use the proposition “of” to make a comparison. Example: He was a man of many different colours.
As writer of fiction, you want to create similes and metaphors that are surprising, entertaining, original.
Don’t use clichés or hackneyed expressions as metaphors or similes. They’re dull.
Sound and Rhythm
The sound and rhythm of your languages choices can also create vivid details. Choose lyrical language that sounds and moves like the words of a poem. How can you do this? Here are a few suggestions:
- Rhythm. Focus on the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables when writing a sentence. For instance, the sentence “The dog barked…” has “three syllables” where as “The pit bull bit his finger off” has “eight syllables.” Ask yourself: How does the sentence sound? Flat? Energetic? Poetic?
- Alliteration (two or more words placed close together with the same initial sound) Example: The dreary, rainy day evoked a sense of dread.
- Repetition. Repeat key words. Example: He walked slowly down the hill, waded slowly into the water, began to swim slowly in the icy water.
- Onomatopoeia. Use words that sound what they describe. Example: The killer bees buzzed around his face.
How much detail should you include to create a dream inside the mind of the reader?
According to Anton Chekhov, the writer should use “telling details.” A telling detail does what it says: It tells the essence of what it is describing. A telling detail can create a word picture in a very short time. The goal is to use as much detail as necessary— to paint a picture in the mind of the reader. A guideline you can follow is that “telling details” are “significant details.” Remember: Too much detail can be distracting and too difficult to envision.
When writing short fiction, you want to make sure the reader experiences the story as vivid and continually as if he or she is watching a film. You can do this by using sensory language, concrete and specific details, figures of speech, and telling details.
For more information on how to use vivid details to craft an entertaining and memorable short story, read the following:
- Writing Fiction (Gotham Writer’s Workshop)
- Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich
- Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway