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?