Dynamite Descriptions

Soft hues of gold, orange, and pink painted the sky as the sun set on that frigid March evening. The last bit of winter clung to the bitter night and made me clutch my collar closer to my neck as I left the office. That’s when I saw her. Shivering on the curb, she wore only a knit sweater, stained jeans, and a tattered jersey hoodie. The look of hunger resided in her forlorn eyes, and I realized that compassion could not be just something I had heard in church on Sunday. It needed to become my reality. And her rescue.

Description. Dynamite descriptions allow your readers to step into your scene in their minds. The more concrete descriptions you give, the better. Keep a reader’s interest in the first paragraph of your book by setting up a scene that offers enough description but doesn’t stall the action. Use description to touch your reader’s heart in particular ways as the story progresses.

Consider using these tips when you begin your non-fiction book with a story:

  1. Write the scene as if you’re in it with the characters. What do you see, hear, feel, taste, or smell? Allow the reader to “live” the scene by incorporating the five senses.
  2. Pick choice adjectives and nouns, but don’t go overboard on modifiers. Heavy description makes for slow reading and can cause the reader to lose interest.
  3. Use vivid verbs that don’t require an adverb. Stay away from to be verbs such as am, is, are, was, and were, when you can.
  4. Use only those descriptions that help paint the picture but don’t distract the reader from the main point of your story. In other words, don’t describe just to describe.
  5. Appeal to the reader’s sense of drama, awe, wonder, and curiosity as you write. Descriptions can turn prose into poetry and capture of the heart of the reader.

Invest in your descriptions as an enriching element in your writing. Besides mood, insight into the characters, surprise, and suspense, how else can description add value and interest to your writing? Share your thoughts in the comments, and keep writing great first lines!

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4 comments

  1. Terrific tips, Katy. I especially like #4, but how can I tell when descriptions cross the line into becoming just descriptions?

    • Katy Kauffman - Writing Captivating Nonfiction/The Starting Line: First Lines, First Pages

      Thank you, Debra! That’s a difficult one. If a description doesn’t add to the mood or purpose of a scene, I feel it becomes unnecessary. If it doesn’t interest the reader or if there is way too much description, then it’s crossing the line. So deciding whether it crosses the line sounds pretty subjective. Receiving feedback from writer friends or a writers group would be helpful.

  2. Sometimes description gives us a hint at differences between what a character says and what he really thinks.

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