Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Power of the Writer's Descriptive Eye

by Cindy K. Sproles @CindyDevoted

When I began my writing career, a dear friend put his arm around me and said. “Cindy, you write beautifully. The words you choose are different and new but. . .”

Don’t we all hate the but? I cringed as I waited for him to finish. “But it’s like you keep your readers at a distance. The words are on the page in front of me, but you won’t let me step in to see and feel. You need to learn to bring your descriptions to life. Make the reader feel the scene.”

That was a knock in the socks. How on earth do you correct that? Especially when I wasn’t sure what the “that” was.

This began a long search for learning to look deeper into my scenes, my characters, and their surroundings. I remember Eva Marie Everson once saying, that she sometimes had to squint to see the details of a character. Wow, when you squint, you really have to look hard. And look hard, I did. 

My friend sent me a photo of a front porch with only one line of instruction. Describe this. Over the years I’ve used this same technique with folks I mentor. 

I remember fretting over the instruction and penning carefully thought out words only to have him return it to me and say, “Nice job telling me how it makes you feel. Now do what I asked. Describe this.” I honestly thought I would cry but instead, I did as Eva Marie suggested, and I squinted. 

I enlarged the photo so I could see the detail. Suddenly the bends in the wicker looked like hills and valleys stringing across the chair. The knots in the wood bore their grain. Each slat looked as though the ocean wash had covered it and left its footprint. Water dripped like tears over the side of the flower pot forming a puddle of brownish water on the table. And the flower, tender and velvet-like, appeared to hang by a thread on the stem gently moving with the soft morning breeze.  Pink veins trailed around the petal, drawing pencil-like lines around the edges and then disappearing into the mouth of the stem. A fly paced along the wooden handrail, flitting his wings in hopes to find a way clear of the screen. That same breeze gingerly moved the rocker, ever so slightly, it’s rungs gently tapping a rhythm. And the morning heat steamed upward giving the scent of fresh-cut wood and lilac. 

My point is, learn to squint. Look deeper at everything. Ask questions like how would my fingers move if I were to motion someone over? Allow your mind to become a microscope and pull out the details we know are there but often fail to see.

Description is vital to your story. It helps build the fiction world you want readers to live in so why not allow it to burrow into their souls? For every sense you ping, your reader is drawn in deeper because now they are allowed to feel and touch what the characters see. 

Characters are not a single layer. They are all built from layers of life. Characters have likes and dislikes. It’s not enough to say, John hated chocolate ice cream, but what was the look on John's face when someone handed him a chocolate ice cream cone? How did his mouth contort? Did his eyes widen or squeeze tight? Did the thought of the cone kick off his gag reflex?  Learning to give the reader these very minute details make your characters move from flat on the page to three-dimensional. It’s also important to remember that we give the reader what is necessary to deepen the character or the scene rather than overloading them with long, boring descriptions and information dump. There is a happy medium.

When you are developing your character, don’t forget there is more to each one than just the issue they currently face. Each one will have depth, interests that shape who they are, and friends who interact both good and bad. They will have internal thoughts – some good, others bad. Some are acted on, while others are not. Let your character become real to the reader. If you create a character without flaw, then you have just ironed them flat on the page.

There are basic steps for building your characters: 
1) introduce them by name on the first page. 

2) Let your readers peek inside their character. 

3) Give them history, but drop it in tidbit by tidbit 

4) make them real, vulnerable, imperfect but also give them tender, heroic, and classic attributes too. 

5) find your personal scab and scratch it till it bleeds aka draw from personal experience 

6) show, don’t tell and 

7) research their profession or lot in life so the information is not skewed. Still, with all these basics, nothing rounds a character better than the inclusion of their possessions and surroundings. The clothes they wear, the furniture in their house, the car they drive, their thoughts, hurts, joys. All this makes your characters life-like. 

When you let go of what you think is the simple character and scene development and allow yourself to truly look deeper at your work, you will find new words, new ways to say old things that put a whole new spin on what you write. 

Step outside the box. Practice looking hard. Squint. Then see what you find.


Cindy K. Sproles is an author, speaker, and conference teacher. She is the cofounder of Christian Devotions Ministries and the executive editor for christiandevotions.us and inspireafire.com. Cindy is the lead managing editor for SonRise Devotionals and also Straight Street Books, both imprints of LPC/Iron Stream Media Publications. She is a mentor with Write Right and the director of the Asheville Chrisitan Writers Conference held each February at the Billy Graham Training Center, the Cove, Asheville, NC. Cindy is a best selling, award winning novelist. Visit Cindy at www.cindysproles.com.


  1. Something Michelle Griep's writing taught me (and I saw in your paragraph) is your characters "see" through their motivation and emotional "now". That's how I try to write descriptions, through POV.

  2. It's a great way. And the efforts pay off in your new book In High Cotton. Excellent. Loved the book.

  3. I've been having trouble with getting into my settings. Thank you for the advice!

    1. Glad it was useful. Write what you see. Ping each sense.

  4. Such good information and wonderful examples! Thank you!

  5. Thanks for your great examples, Cindy! I'd love to be able to write such description.

  6. I loved reading this engaging and instructive blog. Thanks so much for sharing your insights!

  7. Thanks, Cindy. I'm going to go back and look at a work in progress for these hallmarks.

  8. Thanks, Cindy. I love your depth and insight regarding descriptive scenes. These are all great tips I will use.