Tips for Writing a Story - Control Your Reader's Imagination with Powerful Descriptions

This page offers tips for writing a story using descriptive language that helps the reader's imagination. At the bottom of the page, you'll find more creative writing help, including free online writing courses.

Tips for writing a story in full color

Here's a little game: close your eyes and picture someone named Chris. No peeking at the next sentence until you've done it.

Okay, open your eyes (obviously, if your eyes are shut, you can't read my instructions to open your eyes. But I assume you figured out on your own that you'd have to open your eyes again eventually).

What if I tell you that Chris is a three-year-old boy with glasses. Does your mental picture change?

What if I tell you: Chris is a three-year-old boy with curly blond hair and glasses. He is large for his age and chubby. Did the picture just change again?

The more specific information you give the reader, the closer the reader's mental picture will be to the one you intended. Being specific gives you control over the reader's imagination. It also makes the reader's experience more enjoyable. Readers want guidance. If they'd just wanted to roam freely in their imagination, then they wouldn't have bothered to pick up your story.

Here, I'll go over some tips for writing a story with the specific detail that readers demand.


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Tips for writing a story - don't leave your reader in a vacuum.

Read this little story excerpt:

"She poured herself a glass of milk and went to sit on the sofa. She did this every night when she had finished her homework. Her two cats always sat with her. One was big, one was small; one was young, one was old. Tonight she was particularly tired and her book wasn't very good; she murmured a complaint to the older cat and got up to find another. The cat wasn't happy about being disturbed. She examined the books on the shelves, trying to find one she hadn't read yet. Finally she decided to re-read Little Women, one of her old favorites. This particular volume had belonged to her mother and always reminded her of how much her mom had liked to read, too. A sound from the bedroom made her look up. Both cats had heard it, too."

The author has here left the reader's imagination in a bit of a vacuum. As the reader, I don't know what color the sofa is. I don't know the cats' names. I don't know what kind of sound came from the bedroom. I'm bored. This story needs some blood in its veins.

Tips for writing a story using specific language.

I want to talk a little bit about how to make a scene more specific, and some dos and don'ts of using adjectives and adverbs.

But first -- in case you weren't paying attention in grade school grammar class because, like me, you were secretly reading a novel under your desk, here's a quick refresher course in the parts of speech:

  • A noun is a word that refers to a person (or animal), place, or thing. For example, "Cat," "Michael Jackson," Paris," "sofa" are all nouns.

  • An adjective is a word that describes a noun. It isn't a person, place, or thing; it just tells you what the person, place or thing is like. Examples of adjectives are: "Tall," "Funny," "Purple," "Loud."

  • A verb is a word that refers to an action or state of being. For example, "Talk," "Read," "Is," "Belong" are all verbs.

  • An adverb is a word that describes a verb. The same way that an adjective tells you what a person, place, or thing like, an adverb tells you what the action was like. For example, "Quickly," "Quietly," "Violently," "Sensuously." (Yes, adverbs often end in "-ly.")
Adjectives and adverbs are one way to make a scene more specific, but they are not the only way. You want to use, not abuse them.

  • Use: She threw her books angrily onto the tile floor, then went to the window and pressed her face against the cool glass, looking out at the corrugated red rooftops of the Spanish town.

  • Abuse: She threw her books angrily onto the reddish brown tile floor, then went to the rectangular window, and pressed her face against the cool, smooth glass, looking pensively out at the traditional corrugated red rooftops of the Southern Spanish town.

What's wrong with the second example? The high proportion of adjectives and adverbs make it feel clunky, overloaded. If the text goes on in this way, all of the extra words will slow the reader down.

But there's no need to depend so much on adjectives and adverbs to sharpen my picture. I have other tools in my toolbox. By choosing more specific nouns and verbs, I can express more detail using the same number of words.

How about this version: She hurled her books onto the terra cotta floor, then hurried to the window and pressed her face against the cool glass, gazing down at the corrugated red rooftops.

  • "Hurled" implies "threw angrily."

  • "Gazing" suggests "looking pensively."

  • A terra cotta floor is reddish brown tile.

  • Window glass is generally smooth. There's no need to specify this. And readers will normally assume a window is rectangular until they're told otherwise.

Adjectives and adverbs have their place. But use them strategically and make all your words work for you.

Tips for writing a story - what's next?





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