One of the things that pumps me up the most when I’m reading a book is when the author phrases things in a way I’ve never seen before. It could be a familiar concept or image—red hair, an urban street, fear—but when it’s written differently, I’m able to visualize that thing in a new way, as if I’m seeing it from a new angle.
This idea of turning tired phrases into new and interesting ones has intrigued me for a while—so much so that I have a notebook full of samples I’ve found in various books. When I get stuck trying to describe something in my own writing, I study those passages to see how the author was able to put a new twist on a well-used phrase. As a result, I’ve figured out a couple of tricks for how we can amp up our descriptions for both fiction and nonfiction works.
The beauty of these techniques is that they work for settings, physical features, character emotion—all kinds of descriptions.
1) Ask Questions to Drill Down and Find the Perfect Phrase
Writing is hard work. Sometimes, when we get hung up on a certain passage, it’s easiest to fall back on the phrasings that are most comfortable: butterflies in the stomach, snow that sparkles like diamonds, a peaches-and-cream complexion, etc. To move beyond these clichés, focus on one aspect of the description and experiment with new ways to describe it. Take this sentence, for instance:
Her eyes are like the lit end of a cigarette, burning into me.
~Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
What a great way to express an angry gaze. You can almost imagine the author’s brainstorming process: How do the eyes burn? What do they look like as they’re burning? What description could I use that expresses both the anger in her eyes and the way they make the viewpoint character feel? This is a great example of how a potentially clichéd phrase can be freshened up with a little extra thought and effort.
2) Mix Up The Senses
Oftentimes, our passages fall flat because they’re described with the most obvious senses: objects have visual descriptors, and sounds are given auditory comparisons. But mixing the senses can often create a fuller, more layered description.
Their voices were loud and rough and had the sharp edges of crushed-up beer cans. ~Breadcrumbs, Anne Ursu
Here, two of the senses are employed to show us how the voices sound: auditory (loud and rough) and textural (the sharp edges of beer cans). Mixing the senses not only makes for unexpected descriptions, it’s also a great way to add dimension and draw readers a bit more into the story.
3) Play With New Words
…entwined as if nothing could ever shoehorn them apart.
~Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor
I never would’ve thought to use the word “shoehorn” here. The obvious choice is pry or tear them apart. But obvious choices, over time, lose their impact and end up sounding flat. Taking the time to explore other word choices can result in a phrase that sounds totally different.
…with eyelashes so spiderleg long…
~The Sky Is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson
And don’t underestimate the impact of making up a brand new word. Just be sure that it’s a perfect fit, so it doesn’t read strangely.
4) Add An Element Of Emotion
Descriptions often read a bit boring because they simply show how something looks, or feels, or sounds. They’re one-dimensional. Emotion, on the other hand, is stirring, awakening physical and emotional sensations inside the reader. When we add an element of emotion to a descriptive phrase—especially when the feeling isn’t overtly mentioned—it adds depth, like in the following example:
He’s not the father I need. He’s a faulty operating system, incompatible with my software.
~Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
There’s no mention of emotion here, but it still comes through because Anderson has used a comparison that expresses disconnectedness and resulting sadness. Readers are smart, and they appreciate subtlety. Choose comparisons that convey the right emotion and it will come through for readers.
Bonus Resource: The Emotion Thesaurus. Use this collection of emotions to exactly identify the feeling you want to highlight so you can infuse it into your passage.
5) Use Unusual Comparisons
Something deep and painful wrenched out of him, like nails splintering wood as they pulled free.
~Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor
This example is one of my all-time favorites because it accomplishes so much. Taylor adequately conveys the character’s emotion through an unusual but perfect comparison: the sound of nails pulling out of a wood plank. We’ve all heard that noise; it makes me wince just thinking about it. Using this sound to describe someone’s pain is so much more effective than claiming that his heart ached or his chest hurt. To create a description that resonates with readers, experiment with different comparisons.
6) Add Personification
Father’s silence is not merely the absence of sound. It’s a creature with a life of its own. It chokes you. It pinches you small as a grain of rice. It twists in your gut like a worm.
~Chime, Franny Billingsley
Here, the author could easily have said that the father was a man prone to awkward silences. Instead, she used personification to bring those silences to life. They don’t merely make others feel uncomfortable; they pinch, and choke, and twist. This gives life to the father’s typically inanimate moodiness, making it much more active and intentional. With the added personification, this example packs a heavy punch.
7) Zoom Out
Writers are creatures of habit; we get used to seeing things a certain way and describing them from that perspective. But if we zoom out and look at the object as a whole, we’re able to see it and describe it differently.
He was handsome in a way that required a bit of work from the viewer.
~Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater
Stiefvater could have focused on the boy’s eyes or musculature or coloring to describe his looks. But by zooming out and viewing him as a whole, she was able to describe him from that vantage point and come up with something new and interesting.
8) Zoom In
This result can also be achieved by zooming in, rather than out:
I’m holding it so tight my pulse punches through my fingernails.
~If You Find Me, Emily Murdoch
Pulse is one of those emotional indicators that we overuse. It’s always pounding, racing, or thundering like a drumbeat. Here, Murdoch uses this internal sensation in a new way by narrowing in on a part of the body not usually associated with the pulse. And it works because at times of high emotion, you can feel the increased pulse throughout the whole body—even in the tips of the fingers. As this example shows, narrowing the lens can be a great way to describe things from a new perspective.
Bonus Resource: The Physical Feature Thesaurus. Expand your description vocabulary by considering body parts that you’ve never thought of before.
9) Use Contrast
The world felt immense, revolving in the universe with small Susannah McKnight clinging to it.
~Steal Away, Jennifer Armstrong
Some of the things we want to describe are just really difficult. Capturing the immensity of anything—an incredibly small object, big feelings, a large-scale setting—sometimes seems beyond our ability to adequately express. The temptation is to stop the pain and just explain to the reader how big or small it is. A much more compelling technique is to use contrast. Compare the thing to its opposite, and you’ll be able to convey meaning without resorting to telling.
Bonus Feature: One Stop for Writers’ Setting Tutorials. Learn about how to employ various technique and devices to enhance your setting descriptions. The list includes instruction on utilizing contrast, light and shadow, symbolism, hyperbole, and more.
He bristled with latent power as he greeted people with the slippery, handsome accent of old Virginia money.
~Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater
I like this passage because it describes this man using characterization rather than a list of physical features. You don’t have a specific picture of what he looks like, but you have a general idea because you know he’s powerful and wealthy and maybe a little slimy. All of that is enough to paint a mental picture. The next time you struggle with describing a new character, consider introducing him with information other than how he looks. Using his job, character traits, quirks, or his values can have a greater and long-lasting impact on readers than a litany of physical features.
Bonus Resource: The Character Builder at One Stop. Use this tool to get to know your character intimately. This will make it clearer which elements of characterization you’ll want to emphasize with your descriptions.
11) Mix and Match
Moonlight froze the landscape; everything was a ghost of itself.
~Steal Away, Jennifer Armstrong
This setting description combines multiple techniques. The author has zoomed out to envision the landscape as a whole instead of focusing on the minutia. She also added some personification, as if the moon had used its latent powers to purposely freeze the setting. And a beautifully chosen metaphor creates the imagery and mood needed for the scene.
Bottom line: describing things in new ways is hard work.
It takes time and brainpower and more words than using the expected phrasings. But the payoff is multi-faceted, resulting in descriptions that do double duty, reveal something unexpected, and wow the reader. Your new phrasings may be somewhat awkward at first. But with practice, turning a unique phrase will get easier and become a more natural part of your style.
If you’d like to try your hand at rewriting some well-used phrases, here are some examples to play with. Use the techniques mentioned above and see what you can do with one of the following:
- Belinda was so mad she could spit nails
- Sunburned skin
- A little black dress
- A dilapidated house
Feel free to share your results in the comments. I’d love to see what you come up with.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.