Writing Descriptions 101

There’s a lot of advice out there about writing descriptions. About keeping them to a minimum, about making sure they don’t cut into the action, about not over-painting a picture.

It’s all well and good, and has valid points. BUT, knowing how to write a long, detailed, poignant description is still a very important skill! You won’t know what to cut out without knowing what to put in in the first place. And who better to learn from than the masters?

The greatest description writer of all time, in my humble opinion, was Charles Dickens. Reading him can get cumbersome at times, but oh, how lovely his cumbersome writing is!


Take this passage here: “The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armor here and there, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams. The haggard aspect of the little old man was wonderfully suited to the place; he might have groped among old churches and tombs and deserted houses and gathered all the spoils with his own hands. There was nothing in the whole collection but was in keeping with himself; nothing that looked older or more worn than he.” – The Old Curiosity Shop

What an image! The shop lives and breathes in our minds, leaping out to us from the page, drawing us inward. Dickens did not simply lay out all the items in the shop, and then describe the old man. He used the items to reflect the old man, and the old man to reflect the items. He made them seem one and the same, as if removing one from the other we do harm to both. Which of course happens later in the book, and is all the more heart-wrenching because of the image he has planted in our minds at the very beginning. The old curiosity shop is curious not so much in itself, but in it’s inhabitants. And Dickens conveys all of this in one paragraph.


Take this next passage as well, which is one of my favorites: “Monseigneur, one of the great lords in power at the Court, held his fortnightly reception in his grand hotel in Paris. Monseigneur was in his inner room, his sanctuary of sanctuaries, the Holiest of Holiests to the crowd of worshipers in the suite of rooms without. Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate. Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France; but, his morning’s chocolate could not so much as get into the throat of Monseigneur, without the aid of four strong men besides the Cook.” – A Tale of Two Cities

What a ritual! It goes on for several more paragraphs, detailing exactly how he takes his chocolate. Aside from a few comments about what other people think of him, we are able to form a picture of the Monseigneur simply by watching him eat chocolate. He makes a ritual out of it, as if it were a celebration of the mass, or some other liturgy. Amid all the squalor that we see in other parts of the book, this is a revolting spectacle of decadence, and yet, Dickens never tells us how revolting it is. He lets the actions speak for themselves.


Dickens is a true master of description. His characters come so to life, but if you’ve ever watched a BBC miniseries reproduction of his books, you know that they are the most true reproductions of any book you’ve ever seen. His villains are hatable, is heroes lovable, his side characters mysterious, lovable and gross all at once. I highly recommend that you pick up a page of Dickens, notice the details that he draws upon, and then try to describe the room you are in with as much detail. Reflect on the characters and personalities of the people who decorated the room, or left their things in it. Allow the surroundings to speak of the characters, and you will become a Master Descriptive Narrator!

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