How to Write Better: The Art of Dynamic Descriptions

    Does your writing have atmosphere?

    Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, your ultimate goal is to enchant, enthrall, and transfix your readers.

    But how to do it?

    The simple answer is: tell a story… (but there is a problem.)

    According to research by neuroscientists, a story engages a much larger part of the brain than mere information does.

    If you write fiction, creating and shaping stories is a crucial skill you need to hone. But stories are also invaluable in non-fiction: if you can make your point with a story, readers will love it.

    However, there is a problem you come up against whenever you use a story: how to add context.

    The problem of context

    To whom did it happen? Where did it happen? When did it happen? These questions need to be answered at some point in the story.

    Let me give you an example. If you tell your readers that your hero is hanging by his fingertips, the context makes all the difference. Is he hanging over a precipice, or is he hanging from bars in a kids’ playground?

    Different story, isn’t it?

    Adding context is a problem because it acts like a break in the story. As soon as you elaborate on the context, the pace of your narrative slows down.

    How to turn a brake into an accelerator by using dynamic descriptions

    Most writers use descriptions to establish a context. Unfortunately, descriptions can be boring. In fact, many readers skip descriptions and move along to the next scene of action.

    But if you use dynamic descriptions, your readers will stay glued to the page.

    In hands of an inspired writer, a dynamic description can turn from a brake into the accelerator of a story.

    So, if you want to learn how to write better, you need to learn the art of dynamic descriptions.

    Let’s take a look at some examples I’ve taken from two contemporary thriller writers, Lisa Unger and Gillian Flynn.

    How to show, not tell … with a twist

    We all know the writer’s adage: show, don’t tell. But what to show, and how? That’s the question we need to look into.

    Here is the opening sentence of Lisa Unger’s novel Beautiful Lies:

    It’s dark in the awful way that allows you to make out objects but not the black spaces behind them.

    Gives you goose-bumps, doesn’t it?

    This description is compelling because Lisa Unger focuses on only one sense experience: seeing. But the description isn’t just a catalog of what the protagonist, Ridley, sees;  it’s charged with emotion. You immediately sense Ridley’s dread and confusion.

    When you write a description, make sure you include an emotional component. To find out which emotion to highlight, ask: ‘What does my protagonist feel as he or she sees/hears/senses/smells/tastes this?’

    But don’t say what the emotion is! Let the emotion seep into the reader’s mind and body by way of your description.

    How to reveal the Undertoad

    In John Irving’s novel, The Word According to Garp, his father used to say to Garp every time they walked on the beach, “Don’t go too near to the water. Otherwise the Undertoad will come and get you!” For most of his childhood, Garp was terrified of the Undertoad. He felt it was always lurking somewhere nearby, ready to drag him under.

    (It was only later Garp realized his father meant, ‘Otherwise the undertow will get you.’)

    The Undertoad is a great metaphor for the shadow of dramatic or catastrophic events lining up in the future.

    Skilful descriptions can reveal a glimpse of the Undertoad. Here is an example from Beautiful Lies:

    I can hear the rain falling outside the burned-out building, its loud, heavy drops smacking on canvas. It’s falling inside too, trickling in through gaping holes in the roof down through floors of rotted wood and broken staircases.

    The description of this desolate place indicates that Ridley is facing a threat that will destroy her ordinary life.

    How to make characters leap off the page

    Your challenge as a writer is to bring the characters in your story to life with a few deft strokes.

    Here are two examples by Gillian Flynn from her novel Gone Girl.

    Nick, the protagonist whose wife Amy is missing, describes a volunteer in the search party like this:

    She had an unnecessarily loud voice, a bit of a bray, like some enchanted, hot donkey.

    You can sense that the woman is trying to come on to Nick, but he feels repulsed by her actions.

    In the following example from Gone Girl, Gilllian Flynn describes the interaction between Nick and another character in the novel.

    Desi seemed the definition of a gentleman: a guy who could quote a great poet, order a rare Scotch, and buy a woman that right piece of vintage jewelry… Across from him, I felt my suit wilt, my manners go clumsy. I had a swelling urge to discuss football and fart.

    Gillian makes both people leap off the page with this description.

    What if you want to convey a sense of mystery and hint that things may not be as they seem?

    Here is Lisa Unger in another passage from Beautiful Lies.

     He shook his head again, that mingling of longing and regret and something else I just couldn’t put my finger on.

    The reader is left with unease. What is it that Ridley can’t put her finger on?

     But what about feelings?

    You can see from the examples above that dynamic descriptions convey emotions. But what if you want to describe a feeling directly?

    Here’s an example from Gone Girl:

    I suddenly felt like I’d overlooked something. I’d made some huge mistake, and my error would be disastrous. Maybe it was my conscience, scratching back to the surface from its secret oubliette.

    Gillian Flynn implies that Nick has been trying to silence his conscience for a long time.

    How to bring a backstory to life

    No matter how intense the action is, there’s always a moment when you need to put your protagonists into context. You need to give a backstory, a description of where they came from, and what their life was like in the past.

    It’s difficult to weave backstory into the fabric of a story without losing momentum.

    One way to create backstory is to use a flashback, a moment when the protagonist remembers past events.

    As we’ve seen in the examples above, descriptions are powerful when they’re tied to sensory experiences. This strategy can work magic in flashbacks.

    Here is a flashback in Beautiful Lies:

    It takes only a moment to bring myself back to my childhood completely. I can close my eyes and be overcome with the sense memories of my youth. The aromas from my mother’s kitchen, the scent of Old Spice and rainwater on my father when he returned from work in the evenings, my cold fingers because my father’s body temperature always ran hot and the house, as a consequence, always cold. I can hear my parents laughing or singing, sometimes arguing, and later outright yelling when things really started to go wrong.


    The aromas, the sounds, the body sensations – everything works together here to paint a multi-layered picture of the hero’s life as a child. But it’s not a static description. You get a sense of gathering doom, of the Undertoad lurking.

    Bringing it all together

    As you can see in the examples I’ve chosen, dynamic descriptions can propel a story forward, instead of stalling it. They also add atmosphere to your story. Let’s recap:

    Dynamic descriptions have three hallmarks:

    1. Focus on one or two senses.

      When descriptions focus on a single sense, they come to life. This means that we need to determine a particular sensory focus for each description. In some of the examples above, seeing was the main channel of experience. In others, it was hearing or smelling.

    2. Add emotion to the context.

      A description devoid of emotional meaning has no impact on the reader.[tweet_dis] Descriptions that drive the story forward need an emotional component.[/tweet_dis] A useful question you can ask is: ‘What do my protagonists feel, as they see/hear/sense/smell/taste this?’

    3. Reveal the Undertoad.

      In the context of descriptions, the Undertoad is what lurks beneath the present reality. Like in Lisa Unger’s description (“He shook his head again, that mingling of longing and regret and something else I just couldn’t put my finger on.”), a dynamic description manages to intimate the presence of gathering doom.

    As you can see, it’s important to get a handle on dynamic descriptions, whether you write fiction or non-fiction. They bring stories to life.

    Let’s have a conversation…

    What are your thoughts on this? [tweet_dis]Please share any great descriptions you’ve stumbled across.[tweet_dis] I’d love to see a collection in the comments!

    Make sure you read some more about how to craft descriptions (with some riotous examples) in the first article of my series: How to Write Better: 7 Instant Fixes.

    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at and for her cutting-edge book, Youthful Aging Secrets. In her “spare” time, Mary is also the brains behind, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • Seeing is Believing

      One aspect of writing has not changed in over 100 years. The famous Russian writer Anton Chekov (1860–1904) was renounded for his quote

      “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

      Today writers are told to emulate this philosophy as “Show don’t Tell”. I find the sentiment admirable but the mechanics confusing.

      The other day as my wife and I ate breakfast she said, “It’s an awful day!”

      I knew exactly what she meant as I could see feel and hear the awfulness.

      The smell of damp foliage drifted through the half open window as the pale green leaves of the laurel danced in the breeze. The bare branches of the Tree of Heaven were silhouetted against the steel grey sky. A blackbird fought to keep its grip on a wet branch whilst he guarded his partner, searching for a nesting sight in the Hawthorne hedge.

      You see I realised what awful actually meant as I could see what she was looking at.
      It dawned on me that “Seeing is believing”. To make your readers believe in a story they have to be able to visualise the scene for themselves.

      I feel that showing not telling is right but seeing is believing is a more evocative concept.

    • I just wanted to let you know how helpful this post was to me and that I recommended it on my blog for other beginning writers.

    • Everything in this essay is helpful to new and experienced writers. Sometimes I get so involved with plotting the story it is easy to forget these points. I especially like to use some backstory about the main character. I think itI helps to explain the character’s personality, his motivation, his reason for being in the present situation. A little backstory helps the reader to better know and understand the protaganist.

      Adelaide B. Shaw

    • Beth Havey says:

      Thank you for the encouragement, Mary. So much of writing comes down to personal taste, but if I use backstory here and there and not get too far away from the plot line, I think I’ll have found the right format.

    • Beth Havey says:

      Mary, this is backstory inserted into a chapter that contains a major confrontation. This is only ONE paragraph of the backstory.
      But instead the outlook was over the railroad tracks, the life of the town hooked to those tracks and trains. Tess and Daisy would sit for hours on the logs of a fallen tree and count the freight cars, count the silver rails criss-crossing in the bouncing sunlight, time the fleeting flight of the passenger trains, order pretend meals in the dining cars and imagine who would sleep in the upper and lower berths. Sometimes they thought they saw their fathers leaning into pallets of lumber, rolling multi-colored metal drums or driving bobcats. A man’s life.

      • That’s a beautiful description, Beth! As a reader, I became one of the girls watching the trains roll past.

        Thank you for sharing!

    • Beth Havey says:

      Mary, I’d be glad to share some of my descriptions. Where should I send them? Beth Havey

      • Hey Beth, please share them here in the comments. 🙂

    • Awesome advice!

    • Rebecca says:

      Hi Mery! I loved your post. I hope that more people, who are searching for a good piece of advise or just an inspiration will come accross your post. It is very enlightening and will certainly serve all the writers-to-be in their initial step toward the bestsellers.
      Best Regards,

    • Good points. Thanks for sharing.

    • Beth Havey says:

      Mary, as usual, this is a great post. The research you did and your own talent really shows in your presentation, and the examples you use to illustrate are excellent.
      I especially like your consideration of backstory. Mine are always too long. I need to use backstory now
      and then and the most emotional and telling elements. You’ve given me some excellent guidelines.
      Thanks, Mary, Beth

      • Hey Beth, lovely to see you here! I’m glad the backstory suggestions are useful. Want to share some of your descriptions- just for fun?

    • John Saber says:

      Here’s a description with lots of emotion AND the undertoad :-).

      The novel (Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is set in the trenches of the First Wolrd War.

      “Weir came to his dugout at midnight. His eyes were wild and his hair disarrayed. Stephen felt dismay at the sight. He did not want to catch the other man’s fear. He did not want him to breathe over him.”

      Like it?

      • You bet I love it! It’s another goosebumps example.
        Thanks, John. Good find!

    • Elissa Matel says:

      Hey Mary, I love this post! It’s so, so helpful!

      I found a description I like in John Le Carre’s novel “Absolute Friends’:

      “They go into the lounge. The desk is an antique kneehole job they bought for a song from a crook in Camden Town. Des says it’s so hot he’s surprised it hasn’t caught fire… He pulls open his three drawers, one after the other, snap, snap.”

      • Thanks for you example, Elissa! I love the sentence, “Des says it’s so hot he’s surprised it hasn’t caught fire”!
        It especially interesting because it’s something I haven’t covered: the use of dialogue to describe events.

        Thanks for the reminder 🙂

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