How to write descriptively – Nalo Hopkinson


We read fiction for many reasons. To be entertained, to find out who done it, to travel to strange, new planets, to be scared, to laugh, to cry, to think, to feel, to be so absorbed that for a while
we forget where we are. So, how about writing fiction? How do you suck your readers
into your stories? With an exciting plot? Maybe. Fascinating characters? Probably. Beautiful language? Perhaps. “Billie’s legs are noodles. The ends of
her hair are poison needles. Her tongue is a bristly sponge,
and her eyes are bags of bleach.” Did that description almost make you feel
as queasy as Billie? We grasp that Billie’s legs
aren’t actually noodles. To Billie, they feel
as limp as cooked noodles. It’s an implied comparison, a metaphor. So, why not simply write it like this? “Billie feels nauseated and weak.” Chances are the second description
wasn’t as vivid to you as the first. The point of fiction is to cast a spell, a momentary illusion that you are living
in the world of the story. Fiction engages the senses, helps us create vivid mental simulacra of the experiences
the characters are having. Stage and screen engage
some of our senses directly. We see and hear the interactions
of the characters and the setting. But with prose fiction, all you have is static symbols
on a contrasting background. If you describe the story
in matter of fact, non-tactile language, the spell risks being a weak one. Your reader may not get much beyond
interpreting the squiggles. She will understand
what Billie feels like, but she won’t feel what Billie feels. She’ll be reading, not immersed
in the world of the story, discovering the truths of Billie’s life
at the same time that Billie herself does. Fiction plays with our senses: taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight, and the sense of motion. It also plays with our ability to abstract
and make complex associations. Look at the following sentence. “The world was ghost-quiet, except for the crack of sails
and the burbling of water against hull.” The words, “quiet,” “crack,”
and “burbling,” engage the sense of hearing. Notice that Buckell doesn’t use
the generic word sound. Each word he chooses evokes
a particular quality of sound. Then, like an artist laying
on washes of color to give the sense
of texture to a painting, he adds anoter layer, motion,
“the crack of sails,” and touch,
“the burbling of water against hull.” Finally, he gives us
an abstract connection by linking the word quiet
with the word ghost. Not “quiet as a ghost,” which would put
a distancing layer of simile between the reader and the experience. Instead, Buckell creates
the metaphor “ghost-quiet” for an implied,
rather than overt, comparison. Writers are always told to avoid cliches because there’s very little engagement
for the reader in an overused image, such as “red as a rose.” But give them, “Love…began on a beach. It began that day when Jacob saw Anette
in her stewed-cherry dress,” and their brains engage
in the absorbing task of figuring out what
a stewed-cherry dress is like. Suddenly, they’re on a beach
about to fall in love. They’re experiencing the story
at both a visceral and a conceptual level, meeting the writer halfway
in the imaginative play of creating a dynamic world
of the senses. So when you write,
use well-chosen words to engage sound, sight, taste,
touch, smell, and movement. Then create unexpected connotations
among your story elements, and set your readers’ brushfire
imaginations alight.

100 thoughts on “How to write descriptively – Nalo Hopkinson

  1. "Her friendly face and honey hair looked strange compared to her spidery fingers. It was almost as if there was mask plastered onto her face… Was it makeup or botox? Or maybe she sucked the blood out of her students to stay young… She does look quite pale compared to a polar bear…"

    Was that alright? It's a bit boring isn't it?

  2. This is literally how NOT to write descriptively. Why do you need to condescendingly explain your pathetic purple prose writing process? Please…

  3. One answer is to pray. Do you think you can influence things by making a pact with some greater thing?

  4. The part about Billie was interesting. Because the first one was too complex for me and disassociated me. I liked the second one better. If I saw the first one in the book I would put it down and find a new book. To me it almost reads like a novice writer who just is trying to sounds fancy.
    Edit: The third example too for that matter. It was just overly done.

  5. A story needs a good plot to begin with and characters that really attract you. You can snap crackle pop all you want but if the story is not your cup of tea, another important factor, it makes no difference.

  6. Reading a book is reaching for your imagination …so even if you don't put senses in, unless it is very important, the reader is capable of extrapolating things for himself

  7. I see what you’re saying but there’s a certain way of doing this.
    This is from Neil Gaiman’s book Anansi Boys: “his eyes were too tight in his head and all his teeth twinged and his stomach burned and his back was aching in a way that started around his knees and went up to his forehead and his brain had been removed and replaced with cotton balls and needles and pins”. Gaiman’s description demonstrates the character’s sickness in an engaging and imaginative way that the reader can really feel. It’s much better than “Billie’s legs are noodles”.

  8. I think both descriptions of the sick girl, were done poorly. The descriptive one was overdone, the matter-of-fact one was boring. Concise and descriptive are not Mutually exclusive. You have to find something in between, that is simple but also paints a clear image that communicates a feeling to your audience. I know I’m late, but I just wanted to say this for the small chance that some other beginner is going through the comment section.

  9. so i want to make it emotional. i’ll use emotive language to show how the author feels.
    okay make the reader feel how character feels

  10. Billie's stomach retort of an pain staking jolt, she held it as her wispy legs could no longer support. Her face thin as soaked sheet as she cling onto the walls.

  11. A reminder purple prose isn't necessary, matter of fact it's look down upon by many. Straightforward sentences are just as powerful this video is saying. Of course you could do it, trust me, it's hard to pull off.

  12. Finally stopping, he carried the rest of his bucket of water to a small island of flowers. Pink cherry blossoms stood out, fragile yet hopeful. The blossomed opened as if they were the pupil of the flower, and with one gaze, it was easy to read. Color that was obviously painted by hands with precision: a story told with meticulousness, carefulness, one that descended under the rose's meaning of true love. The common Crocus paled in comparison, but still, it was important. It befitted the role of royalty, by being one of the first to bloom each spring.

    Although the sakura and the crocus were important, each flower, especially the smaller ones, reminded him of his loved ones; they would grow so quickly, then disappear because of him. The scent they had, breathtaking. If properly cared for, the children would be an equal measure to the adults even though they started off smaller, due to their treatment before they bloomed. As he grabbed the flowers from his pocket, finally moving on, he put each one on a grave. One marked red. Another marked blue. The last marked pink. As his eyes grew frail, they started to water up, without warning. Soon, he would have to build one for himself, letting his scent drift off into the wind, never found again.

  13. Watching the TED-Ed talk, Jack's hopes ripped in half, shredding his dreams for literary praise. Then he realized the talk was wrong. He knew that terse prose is best.

  14. its hard to understand when there are a lot of metaphores. it will always make me stop and look for its description in dictionary and google. i prefer the story to be prose simple ,and the story complex .

  15. I am working on a book, this is the beginning so far:

    Aaron had been on his knees there for minutes, hours, suffering under the man's soul grasping magic, for it felt to Aaron that he was being stabbed in the stomach every gut-wrenching second. He felt as if his body was a ragdoll, had felt the pain made his whole body go completely deprived of sensation. At this moment, he had closed his eyes, hoping all the pain would end soon, wishing he could just be back home and never opened that door, dreamed that maybe, just maybe, he would live after the traumatizing pain and torture he had been through.

  16. Descriptive writing should be used in moderation. Too much of it makes a story sound complicated and hard to follow. Yes, use descriptive language but also use simple language at other times.

  17. The comment section taught me more than the video itself.
    If I hadn't come across this video, and read the comments, I would have never realised that my writing was way too over the top in the "colourful" aspect of things.
    Like I was so confused as to why I preferred the 'Billie feels nauseated and weak.' over the other one. That's the opposite of how I've always written things. I would write everything in an overly metaphoric way, why would I prefer the less descriptive sentence over the more descriptive one? Because it's unpleasing to the reader, its over the top and draws them away.
    So thank you, for showing me what I shouldn't do when writing.

  18. In MANY instances, simply writing, "Billie is nauseated," works better than a long metaphor where the writer gets lost in the art of metaphor. Their is much to be said for an economy of language in storytelling. The "show, don't tell," rule has been overemphasized, leading to graduate writing workshops across the country producing these overwrought works of fiction that sacrifice story for style.

  19. I thought this was pretty good. By no means comprehensive, but pretty good. One thing we can do now is take advantage of technology to help our writing. For example, the thing she said about how the guy used 'gurgling' and a few other words instead of just saying 'sound'. So, what we can do now that writers back in the day couldn't is we can just enter the word 'sound' into the 'FIND' function in Microsoft Word, go to each and every time we used it and ask ourselves if a more vivid word would be appropriate. We can even go to thesaurus.com and see what other words exists for sound, go to lists of onomatapeia (sp) and pick out the one we think would drive home the feeling we're going for the most. And then we just do that for all other plain words (sound, feel, taste, put, hold, sit, happy, sad, et cetera) and just switch them out for better, more visceral words where appropriate. Then, we can enter the word 'very' in the find function and go through the manuscript getting rid of it each and every place we can. Same thing with adverbs and so on. It's still as hard as ever to be a great writer, but it's much easier now to not be a horrible writer, at least as far as word choice is concerned. Word choice isn't going to sell your book, of course. It's story; it's making your reader feel something they want that does that. If you can do that, you can be a totally lousy writer and still be top of the heap. But, some of us enjoy fine craftsmanship too. And don't sleep, word choice can have tremendous power. The right word in the right place at the right time…that is no joke. Cheers!

  20. This was fantastic. I stopped halfway through to rewrite the intro to a new story. Really catalyzed my understanding. Thanks.

  21. The Noodles, poison needles and bags of beach description is just really weird?? I don't see anything poetic about that at all. If you really wanted the readers to feel sorry for Billie the you could've used different choice of words.

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  23. Why does that reading girl reminds me of Michelle Jones, that is, MJ from Spider-Man. She loves reading actually

  24. Is having more dialogues than descriptions okay? If not, how to make or rather develop the description paragraphs? What should we cover? Anyone?

  25. the first description sounded riddiculous, the second at least made sense lol
    but I prefer Nazareadain's.

  26. This video is cool but there are no rules or limits to your story your storytelling ability and your imagination.

  27. They taught me this at school – a very long time ago – and I loved writing that way. Much later, I was being told not to describe too much as it stops the reader from having to use their imagination. How do we balance it?

  28. so i just experienced my first defeat in writing and i just feel so devastated with myself because i wasn't able to meet my expectations…

  29. I agree with what the video is trying to convey, but I think it's guiding people in the wrong direction. The whole noodles thing, I can't stand that. Metaphors should be sprinkled like salt, sparingly. Direct writing is very effective. In this day and age readers are also visually-saturated, shows and movies and the internet. If they take the time to read, they are much better at imagining their own version of a space. So I would have lessened the language. "Wobbly" rather than "noodles" – The poison needles thing? YOU know what you are trying to convey, but the reader doesn't. If you add too much metaphor, you will force the reader to take time away from reading in order to translate. I imagine that her hair was wet? After about five minutes of thinking about it – you've lost me. Descriptive words should be quick and to the point, and act as a mental "guide" for the reader. Often things come in a theme. So if you describe one thing, the reader can put the rest together. An ancient door with carved wood? I would suspect that the rest of the front porch looks regal.
    if its not, then say that, but only to make some greater point. (Maybe the owner of the house was an eclectic woodsman who bought fancy doors)

  30. I believe that this type of writing should be reserved for horror and mystery because it sets an unsettling feeling in the readers.

  31. Descriptive writing is definitely what immerses a reader in the story, but like most commenters have said, it's best to omit it when you want the reader to be a bit more imaginative. It's great when some details regarding landscape or character's appearance are left out, because it allows the reader to place themself in the story and choose what they want to see. I thoroughly enjoyed Buckell's short description of the boat in the water. That's superlative writing. I must disagree with your proposition on character creation. I think that well developed characters made to be unique and that have their own thought process or sense of individualism are more important.

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