Want to Improve Your Descriptions? Read These 5 Books!

A powerful way to improve your descriptions is to return to the craft — pore over books that paint poetic, captivating or deliciously fresh prose in original ways. It can be a powerful source of inspiration. Of course, there are countless books out there to list, but here are five of my favorites.

5 books that can inspire your descriptions:

1. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

White Teeth is full of refreshing descriptions of people and settings. Smith illustrates with arresting detail.

Her beauty was not a sharp, cold commodity. She smelled musty, womanly, like a bundle of your favorite clothes. Though she was disorganized physically—legs and arms speaking a slightly different dialect from her central nervous system—even her gangly demeanor seemed to Archie exceptionally elegant.

Smith conjures such an entertaining image of this character through fresh similes (“like a bundle of your favorite clothes”) and Archie’s peculiar observations (“speaking a slightly different dialect…”) that we can’t help but want to read more about this character. I love finding phrases like these in my work with authors.

2. The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The sky felt bigger at Elizabeth’s. It curved from one low horizon line to the other, the blue seeping into the dry hills and dulling the yellow of summer. In the corrugated roof of the garden shed it reflected, and in the round metal trailer, and in the pupils of Elizabeth’s eyes.

Here, broad strokes of color unite to conjure a vivid summer day. The effect is almost poetic. We also see the world from the character’s POV — an enchanting effect that Diffenbaugh expertly replicates throughout this novel.

3. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

Rex was a short man with tidy feet at the bottom, a small head at the top, and a very round body in the middle, causing Harold to fear sometimes that if he fell there would be no stopping him. He would roll down the hill like a barrel.

Here, we’re not only able to summon a clear image of poor Rex, we instantly feel like we know how he relates to the rest of the world. Joyce has taken a seemingly ordinary character and described him in a particularly unique way.

4. Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

The silent ones, the ones with frozen faces and withered limbs or whose heads and hands shake too violently to hold utensils, sit around the edges of the room accompanied by aides who spoon little bits of food into their mouths and then coax them into masticating. They remind me of baby birds, except they’re lacking all enthusiasm. With the exception of a slight grinding of the jaw, their faces remain still and horrifyingly vacant.

In this grim — yet interesting — observation of the characters in a nursing home, we instantly know how the narrator feels about his surroundings. The long first sentence conjures a powerful feeling of overwhelm; it’s an example of how Gruen infuses each detail of her character’s observations with meaningful emotion.

5. In the Woods, by Tana French

In In the Woods, Tana French crafts a tightly woven police procedural while also spellbinding us with her imaginative descriptions. Here’s one I love:

As soon as we got inside the house I knew this had been a bad idea. It was the smell of it—a wistful blend of sandalwood and camomile that went straight for my subconscious, setting memories flickering like fish in murky water.

Here, French doesn’t simply depict her protagonist’s current surroundings by listing the objects around him; she harnesses the senses and cuts to the emotional core of the setting’s impact on her character. The simile “flickering like fish in murky water” is especially delightful.

Reading captivating description is one thing; writing it yourself is a whole other challenge. What books do you turn to for writing inspiration?

 

13 comments on “Want to Improve Your Descriptions? Read These 5 Books!

  • Thank you so much for these tips Diane! I am a recent novel writer. I’m trying to work my way up to write and be published. Inspiring things like this is exactly wht I need. I know its important to find your own voce but I’m simply one of those “learn by observing others” kind of person.

    Your analyses of each is phenomenal help. The similes here among all of these 5 passages aren’t too overwhelming. I have a problem with that. in particular.

    • Hi Lana,

      Thanks so much for chiming in! So happy to see another budding novelist on the blog here. I definitely do recommend each and every one of the titles mentioned above to inspire you and help you better understand the story crafting process. Not only do these novels display fantastic command of language, but also rich characters with powerful backstories and POVs, dynamic story arcs and original takes on classic themes.

      Best of luck to you!

      Diane

  • These are excellent examples! I just added them all to my Goodreads reading list. I really love George R. R. Martin’s descriptions. From “A Game of Thrones”, a description of King Robert: “A beard as coarse and black as iron wire covered his jaw to hide his double chin and the sag of the royal jowls, but nothing could hide his stomach or the dark circles under his eyes.”

    As much as China Miéville’s vocabulary annoys me at times, he is a master of description as well. From “Perdido Street Station”: “Vermishank was not fat, but he was coated from his jowls down in a slight excess layer, a swaddling of dead flesh like a corpse’s. He wore a suit too small for him, and his necrotic white skin oozed from his sleeves. His thin hair was brushed and styled with a neurotic fervor. Vermishank was drinking lumpy cream soup. He dipped doughy bread into it regularly and sucked at the resulting mess, chewing but not biting off, gnawing and worrying at the saliva-fouled bread that dripped wan yellow onto his desk. His colourless eyes took Isaac in.”

    These two quotes were excerpted from my Goodreads reviews. (I swear, I don’t have a thing for jowls!)

    • Hi Margit,

      Thanks so much for checking out the blog and chiming in. It’s always nice to see a friendly name from the Twitterverse here.

      I just love your examples. My assistant is a big fan of the Game of Thrones series and jumped at your description of King Robert. She tells me Martin’s character descriptions are particularly captivating. I, for one, think the one you’ve included here is a great example. We get a rich sense of the man underneath the face (and yes, under the jowls!) in only a few words.

      The excerpt from “Perdido Street Station” is so jarring — such a great example of harnessing colorful verbs to conjure a vivid image. I love “He wore a suit too small for him, and his necrotic white skin oozed from his sleeves.” I can almost see this character before me. Thanks again.

      Also happy to see you’re on Goodreads as well! Adding “Perdido Street Station” to my list.

      Happy writing to you,
      Diane

  • with a lot of the cited authors here, the way that these words flow invite readers to go on a journey of sorts. I feel that reading one’s work aloud was the key to achieving the right balance between flow, imagery, etc.

    I’m reminded of a gorgeous passage from Toni Morrison. Atually I am surprised Morrison isn’t cited here! Perhaps for another blog post in the futre:

    “Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It’s the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it. When I look over strips of green grass lining the river, at church steeples and into the cream-and-copper halls of apartment buildings, I’m strong.”

    – Jazz

    Such vivid pictures here. Breathtaking. The sentences flow into the next.

    • Hi Mary-Anne,

      You’ve brought up such a beautiful Morrison passage. Just that first sentence: “Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half.” tells us so much about the speaker’s POV and world. Thanks so much for including it here.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  • I’m so excited that you’ve included Tana French, Diane! I worship her, but many of my fellow bibliophile friends have yet to dive in. Puzzling.

    My favorite French quote, one that particularly revives me when I’m in a writing slump, spotlights French’s way with metaphor.

    “The girls I dream of are the gentle ones, wistful by high windows or singing sweet old songs at a piano, long hair drifting, tender as apple blossom. But a girl who goes into battle beside you and keeps your back is a different thing, a thing to make you shiver. Think of the first time you slept with someone, or the first time you fell in love: that blinding explosion that left you cracking to the fingertips with electricity, initiated and transformed.”

    This is also from In the Woods, as you may notice. From the more obvious simile “tender as apple blossom,” to the simple comparison between “the first time you slept with someone” and putting a life in a partner’s hands, French invites us to think while enchanting us.

    What a fun thread and post.

    • Fabulous, Joan! You’ve found a passage that truly spotlights French’s ability to make us see the world differently. She seizes her characters’ mindsets incredibly well.

      Many thanks for chiming in.

    • Hi Ford,

      I do love Stephen King as well. Have you read “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”? It’s one of my favorite books.

      Thanks for joining the conversation,
      Diane

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