an image of a computer and clapboard to represent using details to bring a story to life

Well written descriptive details bring a story to life. As authors, we love hearing a reader say, “When I read your story, I saw a movie in my head.” With that being said, too much detail has the reverse effect. It bogs a story. So how do you know which details to add? This is an exercise to help answer the question

Descriptive Details that Appeal to the Five Senses

My students are still writing a page a day. I have them choose any page, and we begin with the five senses. 

This is a rough description of the prompts: 

shapes stars, square, circle, triangle, to signal writing that appeals to the five senses

Give anything the reader would be able to hear a triangle. (Any shape would work, it just needs to be visible.)

We move on to a heart for feeling internal or external. 

Then it’s a star for anything they can see. 

Let’s add a box for anything the reader can taste. 

Last comes a diamond for what the reader can smell. 

The questions pour in. Can the reader see grass, or the sky, or shoes? I pick the most obscure version of the topic (let’s say grass) and ask, “Do you mean grass that looks like…”

They reply, “No. I’m talking about the grass we see on the prairie.” 

Then no, the reader cannot see it. 

The point of the assignment is for the author to see where they are lacking details. When we practiced this lesson in class the averaged two descriptive details for a full page of writing. Clearly this is an area for growth. In full disclosure, before I taught this, most of my editors comments addressed my lack of descriptive details.

How to Avoid Boring Descriptive Details

Now that I’ve drawn my students’ attention to description in their writing, I have to make sure they use it wisely. Next comes my, please. When you describe something in your story, please follow it up with why it matters to your character. 

to avoid boring descriptive details tell why the image of the sky is important
  • Sally is wearing her favorite red Converse All-Stars. The shoes and the color have meaning because they were her favorite.  
  • Joe always felt like he looked like the professionals when he wore his blue Nike basketball shorts. 

All of a sudden, those little details bear significance. Even more important, the reader connects with the story because they can experience it…like a movie in their mind.

This week’s post is short, but it goes a long way with the kids, especially during Nanowrimo. If the kids need a break from plotting a story, I tell them to go back and add descriptive details. Using the five senses method and explaining why the detail bears value has a double reward. The kids improve their word count and their confidence in their writing increases. Hopefully, it will do the same for you. 

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