Three Ways You Can Use Description to Mess With Your Readers

Your writing will immerse your readers in another reality. That’s a lot power in your hands. While you could use this power to create meaningful experiences for them, consider messing with their heads instead. By subtly twisting the way you describe objects and places, you can get all the double-takes and head-scratching you’ll ever want. Just use these three easy methods.

1. Describe Surroundings Late

Never set the stage for events by describing where they occur first. Giving readers your description right away will allow them to imagine what’s happening in the story with confidence. Instead, provide as little as possible to start with. Without any contextual information, they’ll make incorrect assumptions about what’s happening. Then you can disorient them just by filling in the missing pieces.

For instance, let’s say this is your dialogue:

Character 1: I didn’t mean to lose the book; I’m sorry.

Character 2: If you want to make it up to me, you can tell me who took it.

Character 1: There were so many people… I don’t know.

Character 2: Too bad. Well, goodbye.

Based on just the dialogue, your readers might think these are two friends meeting over coffee, or perhaps looking through the destruction left by a wild party the night before. Then you can inform them that character 1 is standing with his back to the edge of a cliff, and character 2 is pointing her sword at him. Your reader will be forced to look over your dialogue a second time and reimagine the whole scene with the new information you’ve given them.

That’s a dramatic example. You’ll probably prefer to do it in more subtle ways. Just belatedly give them some description that significantly changes the way they imagined the scene. Wait to inform readers that it’s pitch black, or everyone’s wearing swimsuits, that they’re caught in a downpour, or they’re under the covers of someone’s bed. Even if they don’t read the scene all over again, you’ll at least get a double-take as they ponder whether the meaning of it has changed.

2. Add Unrelated Metaphors

As you feed your readers words, related visuals will pop into their head, forming a moving scene. Because they don’t do this consciously, it provides you with the perfect opportunity to insert random imagery into their visual rendition of your tale. Just stick some contrasting words into the mix. Of course, you might need a good excuse when explaining to confused readers why you’ve inserted the word “bestial” into your happy picnic scene. For that, look no further than the much-hailed metaphor or simile.

Take this example:

The creak of the swinging gate seemed loud in the stifling silence of the night. Beyond, Annie could see mist creeping around the headstones of the graveyard. Reluctantly, she entered. She hated these outings, but she had little choice; the ghost vine grew only over the dead. Stepping over a small mound, she reached down and delicately plucked the leaves like feathers from a chicken. When this task was done, she would be ready to make the potion.

This snippet creates images that go something like this: Gate. Silence. Night. Woman. Mist. Headstones. Vines. Dead. Mound. CHICKEN. Potion.

The important thing is that your metaphors deviate from the general imagery of the scene. It should be just enough for a fast reader to get a random image, rub their eyes, and look at your text again. If you’re lucky, they’ll even blame themselves. After all, you didn’t actually put a chicken in your grave scene.

3. Use Vague Descriptors

If you do anything so pedestrian as to write that there is a “chair in the middle of a room,” then your reader will simply take the default chair in their minds, and set it in a room like many they have seen before. You should never make following your story so easy for them.

Instead of calling it a “chair”, tell them it’s a “small square board, raised up by a thin pole at each corner, with another board vertically attached to one edge.” Then your readers will be forced to do engineering in their head in order to figure out that it’s a chair – or just give up in confusion. Either way, they’ll be playing right into your hands.

This technique can be applied in a huge variety of places. Just switching out a clear word for a vague one can do the trick in many cases:

  • Instead of “eyes flashed in the dark,” write “orbs flashed in the dark.” That way your reader might think you’re talking about fireflies.
  • Instead of “hair that reached to his feet,” write “threads that reached to his feet.” That way it could be hair, or it could be clothing of some kind.
  • Instead of “a rippling puddle,” write “a rippling mirror.” That way your reader might think your character is headed into the Matrix.

If anyone asks you about your word choice, just tell them that you’re a poet and it’s art. Only the enlightened can understand it.

When confusing your readers, make sure your viewpoint character is not confused along with them. If they are, your carefully laid traps will become an intriguing mystery instead of a stopping point. Even worse, you’ll be forced to explain what’s going on when your character figures it out.

You should also avoid hiring a solid editor. They always have ulterior motives like “positive reader experience” and “publishable books.” They’ll ruin all the hard work you’ve put into making your audience vexed and confused. Then you could actually sell your story. Nightmare.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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  1. Jack Marshall

    Aw, you’s just messin’ with us. I’m gonna go watch my big electric rectangle instead!

  2. Brigitta M.

    “Gate. Silence. Night. Woman. Mist. Headstones. Vines. Dead. Mound. CHICKEN. Potion.”

    This is way funnier than it should be.

  3. Tora Blaze

    While no. 1 opened my eyes for new ways of introducing scenes, number 2 and 3 just seem out of place. I’m pretty sure I’ve read the opposite advice to yours somewhere else, and the examples on 3, “orbs flashed in the dark”, “threads that reached to his feet”, etc., unnecessarily flower the prose, a.k.a “purple prose”.

    • Anneke

      Are you being sarcastic, or are you missing the point of the article?

  4. Tape

    I really don’t think No. 1 is too bad, particularly compared to the second two. In fact, I think you really do yourself a disservice with the example that you chose, because that strikes me as an intriguing way of starting a story off.

  5. Megamoya

    After reading #3 I’ve had to wipe my drink from the screen.

    You just reminded me of the Eye of Argon.

  6. SunlessNick

    Did you make these examples up, or are they from actual books?

    • Chris Winkle

      They are all things I’ve seen writers do, but the specific examples are made up. Most of the works I’ve seen them in were unpublished manuscripts, though I did cover an unrelated metaphor in my City of Bones critique.

  7. furrykef

    I think #1 is a legitimate device, though perhaps more suited to comedy than drama. You often see it on TV and in movies, where a scene starts with the camera zoomed in, then it zooms out at a key point to reveal the full context.

    I could imagine it working in a dramatic context as well, but it would have to be done skillfully, and there would need to be a good reason for using the gimmick. Here’s a potential example: two people are having a mundane, possibly inane conversation, and then we reveal that there is a dead body in the scene, which the characters are already aware of. That certainly changes the context, but so long as we quickly establish *why* there’s a dead body in the scene, it isn’t unnecessarily confusing, and it drives home the characters’ blasé attitude better than revealing the corpse from the beginning.

  8. C

    Oooh! Number 1 is perfect for pulling the “it sounds like sex, but it’s really something else” gag.

    “How do you like that, Dave?”

    “Ahhh, Jenny, almost! Push harder! Oh! OH!”

    Dave sagged in relief as fluid squirted on Jenny’s face. Jenny screeched in disgust and jumped backwards.

    “Ew! Damn it, Dave!” She wiped the viscous white goo off her chin with the side of her hand. “That’s the last time I help you pop zits on your back!”

    • SunlessNick

      Is it funnier that I read that expecting it to be about the last bit of glue in a tube?

  9. Amniote

    2 isn’t only bad way to use description. Take this sentence I just wrote:
    “She shuddered, as if a Tyrannosaurus had just propositioned her.” Most readers won’t know how sexual advances from a T. rex feel, and so this metaphor is useless.

    • Cay Reet

      Well, most readers probably don’t want any sexual advances from a T. Rex, so they know how they’d react. Although I could be wrong – dinosaur porn actually is a thing which exists.

      • Amniote

        I was talking about being physically shaken by a T. rex’s mating calls.

        • GreatWyrmGold

          Most people can imagine how they’d feel in that sort of situation (terrified, probably not aroused, etc). There are better ways to get that feeling across, but it’s not COMPLETELY useless.

      • Amniote

        A better example would be:
        “She slurped her drink, filling up like a sleeping snaiad humper “

  10. S.T. Ockenner

    The first one actually could work for humor writing! Switching expectations, and all that!

    • A Perspiring Writer

      I think this appears in Dirk Gently.

      This appears in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (book one): on one page (page 64 in the edition I’m looking at), there’s quite a lot of text painstakingly describing a bathroom, with nearly every detail included. Then, at the end, there’s just one extra sentence:

      “There was also a large horse in the room, taking up most of it.”

      Honestly, Douglas Adams is probably one of my favorite comedic book writers.

      • A Perspiring Writer

        Whoops, a blooper from an earlier draft made its way in. Just disregard that first line.

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