5 Tips for Writing Vivid Descriptions

This article is by George Clark.

vivid-writing

In this modern age of the internet and self-publishing, the literary world is being flooded with new entries, in every genre, every day. Distinguishing yourself from the fantasy writing crowd can be a difficult feat to accomplish.

Today, I am going to be discussing a particular aspect of fantasy literature: writing convincing descriptions. Your characters will undoubtedly go through some harrowing, some beautiful and some foundation-shaking experiences; and I think it can be difficult to fictionalise some of these experiences without having had them yourself. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

Michelle Paver

Michelle Paver is the author of the incredibly popular Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series set in the stone age, a period rife with superstition, prehistoric warfare and ancient spiritualism. Michelle is an absolutely fantastic author and I think this is because her descriptions are so vivid that they totally immerse you in the world she has imagined. I have never read a book that brings characters so totally into my mind. For those of you who haven’t read the first book in the series, Wolf Brother, our protagonist Torak is living in the forest with his “Fa” when a demon bear attacks and kills his dad. Damn. It’s okay though, because Torak makes friends with a wolf cub thoughtfully named “Wolf” (who Torak was originally intending to eat) and the pair become fast friends, once Torak realises that he is able to speak wolf. Let me provide you with a short extract of Michelle Paver’s description of Wolf a little way into the tale:

Wolf had his own moods, too. Sometimes he was the cub, with a puppyish love of berries and an inability to keep still: like the time he’d wriggled incessantly when Torak had held a naming rite for him, then licked off all the red alder juice daubed on his paws. Unlike Torak, who’d been nervous about performing so important a rite, Wolf had seemed unimpressed: merely impatient for it to be over.

See what I mean? How does she create such vivid description?

Michelle Paver rode in excess of 300 miles through the forests of north-eastern Finland, slept on reindeer hides, made friends with wolves at the UK conservation trust, ate elk heart (apparently delicious when fried) and even looked inside of the mouth of a bear, all as research for Wolf Brother. On Michelle’s website, she said that she “want[ed] the reader to feel that they’re right there with Torak and Wolf.” She certainly succeeded.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you have to necessarily live in the mountains like a fur-trapper for months or impale someone with a sword for research purposes. But as an author, it might be worth spending some time getting to know the creatures and environments that your characters will be surrounded by in your fictional universe.

So, how do you put it into practice?

1. Know Your Surroundings

If your novel is taking place in a fictional universe based on where you live, then really take some time to study your surroundings. Understand the nuances of the world around you. And if a particularly important passage in your book will be based in the mountains, or a big city, or a castle, then go to a mountain range, a big city or a castle and learn the nooks and crannies, get a sense of how life (human or otherwise) works there now or would’ve worked in ancient history.

2. Know The History

This is perhaps one of the less important tips, but still just as useful in my opinion. In the same way that Michelle Paver researched the stone age: everything from customs to buildings to warfare, if one of the key passages in your novel is based on a real place, then research the setting. Maybe you can use the history of the location to your advantage. An open expanse of plain where a real or mythological battle took place, a castle which was the site of a massacre, a lake that harbours a monster (yes I’m using Loch Ness as an example!) or a forest where spirits are said to reside. Using history to your advantage might help inject some more detail into your narrative.

3. Know The Climate

Whether you are basing the climate and weather conditions of your world on a real place or just making it up yourself, make sure that you can succinctly and accurately describe the weather. Listen to the sound of the thunder bellowing in your ears. Watch the violent lightning striking the earth, then vanish in an instant. The smell of damp from the street as the relentless rain dilutes the world around you. It will all help you to add a real sense of impending doom to that oncoming storm. Of course, you don’t have to describe the weather and climate in any real depth if you don’t want to, but I personally feel that it helps me to set the scene for the reader.

4. Know The Inhabitants

Know the animals, know the people. Know what kind of animals, and what kind of people. If the location you are researching is no longer home to anyone (except tourists) then Google it, find out who used to live there and what kind of lifestyle they led. It might help you to understand the general population of your fictional world a little better. Also, don’t forget to find out what kinds of creatures stalk the landscape, a chance encounter with a mountain lion or a mythical creature that you have conjured up always makes for a saucy twist to a fantasy tale.

5. Know Yourself

Finally, let’s suppose that you have been fortunate enough to be able to visit a mountain range, say the Alps. You’ve spent some time there getting to know the natural world around you. That’s all well and good, but now you need to relate it back to your fantasy. If your character is on the run, how are the surroundings going to mess with their mental state? Do the looming cliffs look ready to topple and flatten them? Is the relentless howling of the wind now a tortured spirit seeking revenge? You don’t just want to describe your surroundings; you want to describe the surroundings of your character.

The Challenge

Michelle Paver says on her website that “The challenge is to put in just enough to make the reader feel they’re there, without clogging up the story.” Having some of the same experiences as your characters might not make or break your book, but it will let you truly immerse your readers in the fictional world that you have created.

For Further Thought

Which fantasy world have you found to be most believable?

What technique do you use for writing descriptions?

What is the most evocative description you’ve ever read?

About the Author:

George Clark is a student, blogger and fantasy writer planning to study English Literature at Cambridge University. He has been writing his own fantasy novel for over two years and running a blog for just under one. You can find his blog at myheadisintheclouds.org.

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Melody Daggerhart
4 years ago

Nice article. 🙂 I envy writers who can go to their source when it comes to location. It’s much harder to try to get a feel for location when you’re half a world away. If you’re making it all up, then you’ve got some leeway. But if it’s based on a real place that real people might recognize, yet you can’t afford the travel, you’re stuck with Google maps, TV shows, and attempts to pull together history and culture without first-hand experience. How to hone research on locations you can’t visit might be a good follow-up topic.

I think I don’t want my fantasy worlds to be too believable. I want to immerse in them, but I also want them to be “fantastic”. And I think credibility preferences vary because some people want more realism than others. I’m a huge Elder Scrolls fan, and I’ve done some modding in the past; and I’ve learned that it’s best to put disclaimers with mods letting gamers know whether something is “lore friendly” or not. Sometimes it’s obvious: I remember someone once made a camera mod for Oblivion and got shredded for it being unrealistic” for the setting. But it was a beautifully crafted camera model and a unique idea. So, the author of the mod basically told everyone who didn’t like it to not download it and bugger off. 🙂 If someone wants to play in a Medieval fantasy world that has cameras, what’s to stop them? It’s fantasy. We’re talking about a world that has talking cats and lizards and chain-mail bikinis that somehow manage to protect vital organs. So why would a camera be illogical? Maybe the camera works on illusion or conjuration magic? Magi-tech and technomancy are “things” in alternate worlds.

Plus, whether there should be a lot or only a little description is something writers and readers seem to constantly argue about. I have a friend that falls into the “don’t ever describe your characters; let the readers imagine them” camp. She hates it when romance authors describe burly men with washboard abs because she doesn’t find that attractive. Neither do I, but I’m of the opinion that it’s not the reader’s story; it’s the characters’ stories. It doesn’t matter if she’s attracted to him; what matters is if the other lead character is into that. It’s their story. So, I’m the exact opposite: I know exactly what my characters look like, and I’m going to tell readers when one of them has a mole under his left eye. Anything less is not my character.

So, fantasy credibility, including descriptions, is objective to a large extent, just like with any other art. But the author is still responsible for subjectively suspending disbelief within the world setting. So, it is possible for a fantasy world to have a camera. You just have to consider the technology available to build it, and then describe a different kind of camera. 🙂

For creating descriptions I like to fall back on the 5 senses and something I call “stage props” or “acting”. I tend to draft the “meat” of the story first, so I don’t worry about descriptions at all unless it’s something key to the plot. In fact I often put in highlighted notes like “fight scene” and then space down and keep writing because I can always come back and write the descriptive scene later and give it the attention it deserves. Then in the second or third draft as I’m checking consistency and flow and plot holes, I start questioning descriptions. To me, description is the finishing details that bring a painting to life.

Most evocative description … That’s a tough one. 🙂 I’ve read so many good ones. Or maybe I just have a very vivid, overactive imagination. But a recent one I remember was a battlefield during a rainstorm. The driving wind and rain, the mud-soaked ground, the horse’s wet flanks, the steam rising from the exhausted mounts, the blood mixing with the mud … I “felt” clammy and chilled to the bone reading it. I thought it was an excellent choice for elaborating the texture of the story and what the characters were experiencing.

George Clark
Reply to  Melody Daggerhart
4 years ago

I absolutely agree with you 🙂 I mostly wrote this article to give anyone struggling with writing description a starting point but you absolutely should embellish the content with fantastical descriptions relevant to your world. I find that when I write descriptions that I will write it in a lot of detail then remove any extra aspects which don’t contribute to the storytelling or the atmosphere 🙂

Ibrahim
4 years ago

nice!

I find that whilst writing descriptions, burning through to first thoughts is the biggest hurdle that I have to cross personally.
The points that you stated, most definitely will help me in writing descriptions 🙂

George Clark
Reply to  Ibrahim
4 years ago

Yeah, I find it really hard to visualise how to start out with a description as well xD and thank you for the kind words 🙂

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