The sunset filled the sky with a deep red flame, setting the clouds ablaze.
In descriptive writing, the author does not just tell the reader what was seen, felt, tested, smelled, or heard. Rather, the author describes something from their own experience and, through careful choice of words and phrasing, makes it seem real. Descriptive writing is vivid, colorful, and detailed.
Good descriptive writing creates an impression in the reader's mind of an event, a place, a person, or a thing. The writing will be such that it will set a mood or describe something in such detail that if the reader saw it, they would recognize it.
To be good, descriptive writing has to be concrete, evocative and plausible.
- To be concrete, descriptive writing has to offer specifics the reader can envision. Rather than “Her eyes were the color of blue rocks” (Light blue? Dark blue? Marble? Slate?), try instead, “Her eyes sparkled like sapphires in the dark.”
- To be evocative, descriptive writing has to unite the concrete image with phrasing that evokes the impression the writer wants the reader to have. Consider “her eyes shone like sapphires, warming my night” versus “the woman’s eyes had a light like sapphires, bright and hard.” Each phrase uses the same concrete image, then employs evocative language to create different impressions.
- To be plausible, the descriptive writer has to constrain the concrete, evocative image to suit the reader’s knowledge and attention span. “Her eyes were brighter than the sapphires in the armrests of the Tipu Sultan’s golden throne, yet sharper than the tulwars of his cruelest executioners” will have the reader checking their phone halfway through. “Her eyes were sapphires, bright and hard” creates the same effect in a fraction of the reading time. As always in the craft of writing: when in doubt, write less.
The following sentences provide examples of the concreteness, evocativeness and plausibility of good descriptive writing.
- Her last smile to me wasn’t a sunset. It was an eclipse, the last eclipse, noon dying away to darkness where there would be no dawn.
- My Uber driver looked like a deflating airbag and sounded like talk radio on repeat.
- The old man was bent into a capital C, his head leaning so far forward that his beard nearly touched his knobby knees.
- The painting was a field of flowers, blues and yellows atop deep green stems that seemed to call the viewer in to play.
- My dog’s fur felt like silk against my skin and her black coloring shone, absorbing the sunlight and reflecting it back like a pure, dark mirror.
- The sunset filled the sky with a deep red flame, setting the clouds ablaze.
- The waves rolled along the shore in a graceful, gentle rhythm, as if dancing with the land.
- Winter hit like a welterweight that year, a jabbing cold you thought you could stand until the wind rose up and dropped you to the canvas.
Because descriptive text is so powerful, many examples of it can be found in famous literature and poetry.
The mystery novelist Raymond Chandler was one of American literature’s masters of descriptive language. This sentence from The High Window strikes the perfect notes to embody its subject:
“She had pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak, and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones.”
Notice the vivid description of smoke in this excerpt from Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills:
"The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river--clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front, the two faded poplars, the faces of the passers-by."
In this excerpt from Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, notice the writer's choice of adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. Granite. Mizzling. Du Maurier’s choice of words allows the reader to almost feel the weather occurring on the page.
"It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o'clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist."
In Alfred Tennyson's "The Eagle," he conveys power and majesty in just a few lines:
"He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls."
Descriptive text examples can also be found in many songs, since songs are meant to capture your emotions and to invoke a feeling.
Some of the most vivid and effective descriptive writing in music can be found in rap. The evocation of alienation and the need to create in “Through the Strings of Infinity” by Canibus is truly poetic.
“I was born in an empty sea, My tears created oceans
Producing tsunami waves with emotions
Patrolling the open seas of an unknown galaxy
I was floating in front of who I am physically
Spiritually paralyzing mind body and soul
It gives me energy when I’m lyrically exercising
I gotta spit ‘til the story is told in a dream by celestial bodies
Follow me baby”
The heavy metal band Opeth uses vivid descriptive writing to evoke loneliness in their song “Windowpane.”
“Blank face in the windowpane
Made clear in seconds of light
Disappears and returns again
Counting hours, searching the night”
In her hit song “Blank Space,” Taylor Swift uses concrete, evocative descriptions to evoke two very different impressions.
“Cherry lips, crystal skies
I can show you incredible things
Stolen kisses, pretty lies
You’re the king, baby, I’m your queen”
“Screaming, crying, perfect storm
I can make all the tables turn
Rose gardens filled with thorns
Keep you second guessing”
Now that you have several different examples of descriptive text, you can try your hand at writing a detailed, descriptive sentence, paragraph or short story of your own. If you need help with powerful descriptions, try some figurative language to help to paint a picture and evoke emotions.
If you need inspiration, explore the authors linked above, or check out our quotes from poets like ”H.D.” Hilda Doolitle and Gerard Manley Hopkins, novelists like Angela Carter, or songwriters like Tori Amos and Tom Waits.