A painting of a girl writing at a desk. She stares at a goldfinch sitting in front of her.

Not all of us are naturally loquacious on the page. Some writers start with prose that’s too sparse, particularly when it comes to description. Adding color to mundane household interiors or yet another woodland location is not always easy. What if you just can’t think of something interesting to write? Do not despair, for you have many sources of inspiration to pull from.

Originally posted in 2014 (PDF), I’ve updated this list by swapping out a couple items and adding examples. Each example is a brief line or two from a novel that could do with a little more description. I’ve taken two from published books, and the rest are adapted from a client manuscript with permission.

With these 10 sources of inspiration, may your description be ever vivid and memorable.

1. Get More Specific

If you’ve written a few words but can’t think of what more there is to say, it might be time to show rather than tell. Look for nouns that are very general – things, stuff, items – or adjectives that are qualitative, such as beautiful, exquisite, ugly, or sinister. If you ask, “What does exquisite look like?” you’ll have to think about the answer, which means it’s too broad.

Instead, prove the item is exquisite by describing exactly how. Does it have perfect lines? Gold filigree? Layers of subtle flavors? Then make your nouns more specific. Transform a book into a tome, a pot into a cauldron, and a cup into a goblet. Replace the most general nouns like “items” with an appropriate list of more specific things, such as pens, paper, and scissors.

Let’s look at a line that could use more specifics.

He decided to take a shortcut through the woods. The dark and creepy woods that held a cemetery.

The word “creepy” is qualitative, so we should definitively show why it’s creepy. And what do you know, the writer has already put in a cemetery. However, there’s no description of the cemetery, giving us a big opportunity to expand and create atmosphere. Finally, while the adjective “dark” isn’t particularly vague, we can still expand that by showing why it’s dark.


He decided to take a shortcut through the woods. Branches tangled overhead, blocking the sky and casting a deep gloom below. He stepped over the half-sunken gravestones of a long-abandoned cemetery and sighed in relief when he spotted the bright road on the other side.

I’d expand further if the main character was lingering here or this cemetery was important to the story. But the character is just passing through, so this is fine.

2. Build Atmosphere

When creating description, know your goal. What overall impression do you want to create of the area or person you’re describing? Make a choice, and then identify colors, sounds, and symbols to represent it. For instance, let’s say you want to make the place feel sad and neglected. You might describe a drab vase with flowers that are sagging, their petals falling off one by one and littering the table. Meanwhile, rain streams down the window outside.

Let’s look at another line.

The living room was decorated nicely. Her parents were having friends over soon.

Since there are decorations for having people over, it sounds like there might be a party atmosphere. What type of party? What are the parents and their friends like? Since it sounds like this party is for adults, I won’t choose a standard holiday. Let’s say it’s a baby shower. What might be associated with a baby shower? I’d say the colors pink, blue, yellow, and white. There could be lots of teddy bears and stuffed animals. Then there might be balloons, ribbons, and wrapped gifts and cards.


The living room was draped in pink and blue banners with “Congratulations!” Shimmering balloons bumped the ceiling, and several teddy bears sat on the coffee table next to a large gift with curled ribbons. Her parents were hosting a friend’s baby shower soon.

3. Go Through the Five Senses

It’s easy to use only visual description without thinking about it. Bolster your description by listing each of the five senses and brainstorming how they could be used. If your viewpoint character is by the ocean, they could see an eddy, hear the waves slap against the rocks, feel wind mixed with spray, smell rotting fish and seaweed, and taste the salt on the air. Don’t try to stuff all five in if they aren’t needed; just look for additional senses that can make your scene more vivid.

Onto our example.

When he arrived at school it was already lunchtime. He hurried to his classroom and found the teacher eating lunch.

Watching someone eat food offers a good opportunity for smells. Let’s say the teacher has gotten themself a bratwurst with sauerkraut; that should be pretty fragrant. Since they have such a fancy lunch, obviously they’ll show off by smacking their lips, giving us sounds. For visuals, I imagine they have to unwrap the brat so they’re eating on a wrapper, and they’re probably at a desk at the front of the room.

It’s probably not reasonable for the viewpoint character to touch their lunch, but we can use the temperature of the room for tactile sensation.


When he arrived at school it was already lunchtime. He hurried to his classroom. The cool air from an open window mixed with a waft of tangy steam. At their broad desk up front, Mx. Weir smacked their lips as they devoured a bratwurst. Bits of sauerkraut showered onto a big food wrapper.

As Mx. Weir looked up, he saw his chance. He darted in to snatch the warm sandwich and ran, his boots pounding on the linoleum floor. The teacher yelled after him, but the savory juices rolling over his tongue were worth it.

Maybe I got a little carried away there. Beware of describing food lest you end up ordering delivery.

4. Make a Metaphorical Comparison

Perhaps the character in your scene is like a lion, mouse, or turtle. Their home could be a cave, or their workplace a beehive. Identify words and phrases that invoke your metaphor. If it’s a cave, you might choose “dank,” “shadowy,” “echoed,” “chill,” and “drip.”  You’ll want nouns and verbs as well as adverbs and adjectives, because they add less clutter. Work these words into the way you describe and narrate your subject.

Below are a few lines from Winter World.

The alarm wakes me. I struggle out of my sleeping bag and pull open the privacy door to my sleeping station.

A character struggling out of a sleeping bag feels like it could be a great match for a moth emerging from a cocoon. From what I understand, getting out of a cocoon is a big struggle. Afterward, the moth generally has to rest while its wings dry and unfurl. Only then can it fly.


The alarm wakes me. Bleary, I struggle weakly in my sleeping bag, as though my body is newly formed in its cocoon. Finally I manage to get an arm out and pull the zipper. Fresh air cools the sweat on my torso, and I rest for a minute. Then I stretch and fly weightlessly from my sleeping station.

5. Reflect Your Narrator

Whether you’re using the limited viewpoint of a character in your story or the omniscient viewpoint of someone outside it, your description can be filtered through their personality. Ask yourself how your narrator perceives the subject. Is it the same or different from what they are used to? Does it remind them of previous events? Do they associate it with a particular person, place, or characteristic? They could love it or hate it. Work their personal bias into your narration.

Here’s a short excerpt from They Mostly Come Out at Night with description that’s a little too brief and vague.

The village itself was unremarkable. It was made up of a selection of about a dozen stone, wood and thatch buildings, home to as many families.

This is in third-person limited, from the viewpoint of a character who is an outcast in the town. Calling the village “unremarkable” feels remarkably dispassionate. It isn’t something that someone who’s lived in the village his entire life is likely to say. So what might he say instead?

Let’s say his resentment is coming to the surface. He might think of the townspeople as small-minded or petty, and that would be reflected in the physical structure of the village itself. Of course, we need to be more specific and illustrative than simply saying “small-minded” or “petty.”


The village itself held a dozen structures with identical crumbling stone sides, ill-fitted wood shutters, and sagging thatch roofs, just as the villagers had built for generations. They were only inspired to add the occasional extra window, loft, or shed to show up a neighboring hovel.

As a word of caution, a protagonist who resents everything this way can be a big turn off for readers.

6. Go Wandering

There’s nothing like seeing what you’re describing in person. Of course, that won’t be practical in many situations. But if the description you’re writing is particularly important or your characters spend a lot of their time in the forest or on beaches, talking a walk or even a trip to someplace similar can be immensely helpful.

When I picture a grassy field in my mind, I just see a bunch of grasses. But when I actually visit a grassy field, I see a huge variety of plants – short and tall, round leaves and thin ones, some with flowers and some with thorns. Then there’s the occasional tree, hopping bugs and flapping butterflies, the wind carrying seeds with cotton or helicopter fins, the land sloping up or down, and clouds overhead in all shapes and sizes. The world is full of diversity and movement.

Let’s reuse the excerpt from the first section.

He decided to take a shortcut through the woods. The dark and creepy woods that held a cemetery.

This time, instead of expanding on “dark” and “creepy,” I’ll use real inspiration from my time outside. I went hiking recently, and the place I was in had a lot of underbrush, some of which was wilting because of the drought. Since I’m replacing a creepy feel, I’ll choose examples of underbrush that still make the environment feel hostile.


He decided to take a shortcut through the woods. Under the canopy, dense brush with yellowed, wilting leaves packed the dry forest floor. After being tagged by several red burs, stung by serrated nettles, and slashed by blackberry thorns, he finally had to admit his shortcut had been a bad idea.

7. Gather Appropriate Media

If you don’t have the opportunity to visit your story’s setting in person, you can do the next best thing. Search the web for images and videos of what you’re describing. Find music that amplifies the atmosphere you’re trying to create. It’s okay to get inspiration from artists in other mediums, though you won’t want to describe their work in exact details. Take broad strokes, small details, or the general atmosphere. If you’d like, you can do some free writing based on the images or music you found. Just jotting down word associations could give you some ideas.

Let’s revisit the excerpt from Winter World.

The alarm wakes me. I struggle out of my sleeping bag and pull open the privacy door to my sleeping station.

This is the beginning of the first scene that takes place on the International Space Station. Given that, it’s surprising there isn’t more description. Thankfully, NASA photos are in the public domain, so I can put in a couple pics of these sleeping compartments.

In the first image, it looks like the astronauts are floating out of connections to other modules, but no. They’re “sitting down” in their sleeping compartments – or doing the zero-G equivalent of that.

There’s a lot going on in these images. It’s good to start with broad strokes and then choose a few details. I’d say that when a viewpoint character first wakes up on the International Space Station, mentioning they’re in an enclosed white box the size of a coffin is pretty important. Once they come up, all the miscellaneous objects strapped to the module walls would make for interesting details.


The alarm wakes me. I struggle out of my sleeping bag, accidentally smacking the segmented white walls of my coffin-sized compartment. I manage to pull open the privacy door and float into the module. I stare blearily at the endless assortment of tape, wires, papers, and gadgets affixed to every surface, struggling to collect my thoughts.

8. Move the Camera

When we walk into a room, we often look at large pieces of furniture and decorative items that are close to eye level. But in any scene, there’s a lot more to explore. What’s on the floor or ceiling? What might your character see if they picked an object and studied it closely? What if they looked at the room from above? Or from far away? There’s more to examine than what most people would notice.

Let’s go back to the description of the decorated living room.

The living room was decorated nicely. Her parents were having friends over soon.

This time, let’s focus on one aspect of the living room that we wouldn’t normally pay much attention to and describe that with some detail. Since a scene doesn’t take place here, it’s also less important to describe the room overall. I’ll focus on the floor.


The plush blue carpet of the living room was streaked with the recent tread lines of a vacuum cleaner. Her parents must be having friends over soon.

9. Develop a Character

If a character in your story has had any influence on the subject of your description, it can say a lot about them. If you’re covering a person’s appearance, set aside their eye color and hone in on the clothing, makeup, and styling they have carefully prepared – or neglected. The way they decorate their home, maintain their car, or organize their workplace can add depth to their personality. Similarly, a unique walk or nervous fidgeting will make them memorable to readers.

Let’s return to the teacher having lunch.

When he arrived at school it was already lunchtime. He hurried to his classroom and found the teacher eating lunch.

The type of lunch the teacher eats can tell us things about the character, such as their ethnicity, subculture, and personal tastes. I’ll go with the idea that this teacher is eating a burger, but with a fork and knife. That suggests they’re preoccupied with neatness or cleanliness, giving me inspiration for other aspects of their appearance.


When he arrived at school it was already lunchtime. He hurried to his classroom. At the desk up front, Mx. Weir’s smoothly parted hair gleamed under the fluorescent lights. They had a bib tucked into their pressed shirt, offering unneeded protection from the large burger they slowly sawed apart with a steak knife and fork.

10. Flesh Out the World

Does your world have a theme or mood you can invoke with your details? If you have a postapocalyptic setting where the remaining humans are struggling to get by, you could show that the appliances have been broken and repaired a dozen times. You can also consider how your worldbuilding choices impact your subject matter. If all fossil fuels were burned centuries ago, a common dustpan might be made from wood instead of plastic.

This is a good time to revisit They Mostly Come Out at Night.

The village itself was unremarkable. It was made up of a selection of about a dozen stone, wood and thatch buildings, home to as many families.

In the existing excerpt, the author is probably trying to show that the village is small and humble, even impoverished. He’s aiming for high realism. Also, the premise is that everyone has to hide in their cellars every night and make no sounds, because monsters roam the village every night.

Given that, I think the most interesting opportunity is to show more of how the villagers have adapted to this monster situation. If they need cellars, that suggests the walls of their buildings aren’t protection enough, and the monsters can get inside if they’re motivated. They’d probably also need more than sleeping quarters in the cellars if they don’t want monsters to eat their food. I’ll add a mention of these important cellars and show signs that monsters frequently break into these buildings.


The village was made up of a dozen stone huts with thatched roofs, home to as many families. At first glance they seemed small and almost picturesque. But the mottled collection of doors and shutters betrayed their continual replacement, and the older ones held deep slash marks. The small huts concealed cellars in which the villagers stored anything they didn’t want to be eaten, including themselves.

Don’t buy into the myth that great prose comes from natural savants who don’t need any outside help. Our ideas come from the world around us, and expressing them well is just a matter of practice.

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