How To Write Description In A Novel: Describing Location

Posted at 17:37pm on 9th September 2009

Revised: 19th September, 2010

When you read a novel, you are being invited to inhabit an imaginary world: a fictional place, in which fictional characters live, and move, and have their being. If good descriptive writing is used, their experiences become yours, too, for the duration of the book. But because the medium is textual, visual imagery has to form part of the narrative for it to become effective. Your job, as an aspiring author, is to create, through the words that you choose, a cinematic experience in the imagination of your reader.

So it is crucial that, as authors, we understand the importance of descriptive writing of character, experience and location, and its impact on our readers. Consider the reality we encounter everyday.


Despite the popularity of information technology – mobile phones (voice), text messaging and e-mail (text) - we live in a visual world. In addition to the natural wonders of the animal kingdom, elements, and environment, the man-made edifices of buildings, roads and bridges, we have other images. Our world is dominated by artificially created imagery and icons: pictorially, we are besieged by advertisers wanting to manipulate our senses and our responses. From the sensual film messages of chocolate-eating female models, to those of the Ferrari-driving Alpha male, we are urged – by still or moving pictures – to Buy Me or Try Me. The vividness of visual imagery is used to play upon our emotions and create, in us, the required response.


And not simply any old response! Creative writing techniques are as manipulative as the visual imagery used in advertising; both demand a response from us. Thus the creative writing descriptions that we include in the narrative of a novel are crucial. Describing location is vital to your reader so that he or she understands where your story is taking place, but that is not all that it’s about. Good descriptive writing in a novel has another essential role to play. It should be used to convey an impression: to manipulate the emotional response of your reader!

You, the author, need to choose the emotion you wish to convey, and, therefore, the dominant response you want from your narrative. Suppose, for example, you were describing location, and the scene included a waterfall. Before you begin, you need to know exactly what this scene is about in relation to your plot.

Your descriptive writing will then be influenced by that symbiosis. If your scene is threatening – let’s say that your heroine is running away from a violent husband – then the attributes of the waterfall must be described in malevolent terms. Its power and strength would be emphasised, as well as the danger it represents.

If, however, your heroine were out walking when she came across the man for whose love she has secretly craved for years, then your description of the waterfall will veer more towards its dark passion, the depth and churning of the waters, the beauty and tranquillity of its surroundings.

In either example, you cannot mix your metaphors. The waterfall is either a thing of fear and danger, or of excitement and beauty. It cannot be both. Your reader must feel either the terror of your escaping heroine; or her thrill of anticipation as she encounters the love of her life. The dominant impression of the visual imagery you use in your creative writing must evoke a single emotional response from your reader.


In order to attain that level of vividness of visual imagery, it is not enough to tell your reader that your fictional character is afraid, or excited. On the contrary, your reader must not simply know about that fear, but must feel it for himself. Thus the environment in which your fictional characters finds themselves – the waterfall in this instance – should take on all the aspects of threat and fear. It is imperative that the nouns, adjectives, and adverbs that you choose and use take that into account.

In order to achieve that, the following guidelines should be used in your descriptive writing:

  • sensory language
  • rich, vivid, and lively detail
  • figurative language such as simile, hyperbole, metaphor, symbolism and personification
  • showing, rather than telling through the use of active verbs and precise modifiers


You could simply write your description like this:

It was snowing heavily. The drifts made walking difficult and a wolf howled in the distance. He began to sweat. A smell of burning made him think of his loved ones, and the possibility of them being lost in the smoke and flames.

Your reader would have a mental picture of where your hero is and what he’s thinking about, but the piece is completely devoid of emotion. It’s a static picture, telling your reader what is happening.

Now let’s see how the elements of rich detail, sensory and figurative language may be incorporated into an example of descriptive writing which shows rather than tells your reader what’s happening. Remember that the aim is to evoke an emotional response in your reader.

The falling snow caressed (sensory – touch) him; his skin crawled (sensory – touch) with fear. Heavy drifts grasped (sensory – touch) at his feet, trapping him, pulling him down. It was as if the elements, themselves, were colluding with the devil. As if to confirm his thought, a wolf howled (sensory – hearing) in the distance. He broke into a sweat. On the air he smelled (sensory – smell) the acrid scent of burning. He could almost taste (sensory – taste) it on his tongue, and in the swirling obscurity (sensory – sight) of falling snowflakes, he imagined the confusion of those he loved, lost in the roaring darkness of flame and smoke.

Note that this is no longer just a straight description of the environment. There is action implied with the use of the active voice. Without explicitly stating the reason for our hero to be hastening through a snow storm, it is clear that something terrible has happened to those he loves. All five senses – touching, hearing, tasting, smelling and seeing – are used in the example of descriptive writing above. The storm itself has taken on the persona of the roaring darkness of flame and smoke.

Do you see how this evokes a strong sense of participation in your reader? The visual imagery used shows your reader precisely what your hero is seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling. You are painting a picture – not a still-life, but a vivid moving picture – of how it feels to be there.

Your hero’s fear is the fear of your reader. Your choice of words and the way you have strung them together makes for good descriptive writing which allows your reader to ‘enjoy’ vicarious experiences which might, otherwise, be quite outside the normal occurrences in his life. And that, in essence, is what novel writing is all about!

© Mel Menzies - All Rights Reserved

Related Posts:

How To Write Description In A Novel: Characters
How To Write Description In A Novel: Viewpoint

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Your Comments:

Car Insurance Guy
8th November 2009
at 9:13pm

Ah!!! at last I found what I was looking for. Somtimes it takes
so much effort to find even tiny useful piece of information.

Nice post. Thanks

Mel Menzies
12th November 2009
at 7:14am

Thank you. Glad to have been of help.

Online Car Insurance >>
23rd November 2009
at 9:27pm
is another wonderful authority of advice.

8th September 2012
at 4:47am
Hmm, writing goals I awlays have them 1) At least one e-book release (short story, novella, or novel) a month ~ right now I have things scheduled through May.2) Finish 6 stories in a new e-book series ~ I have one done.3) Write every day (I'm already lax on this one!). As long as I do 700+ words, I feel okay. If I do over 1500, I feel great!4) Finish one novel ~ I'm 11k into it so far, and I'd like to have it done by say June or so. Here's hoping!
15th September 2015
at 9:59pm
very educative
25th June 2017
at 10:16am
This really helped. Evoking visual imagery adds flavor to one's work. The only thing that I was skeptical about was when you mentioned, "The dominant impression of the visual imagery you use in your creative writing must evoke a single emotional response from your reader," because many works of Gothic literature incorporate two different feelings into one motif/symbol. Thank you!
9th March 2019
at 5:39am
A really helpful post!
17th July 2019
at 6:35pm

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