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Description: Choosing the Right Words by Talia Quinn

RWA Golden Heart Award Winner TALIA QUINN [1] joins us today, addressing a problem that plagues many writers – description. 

My husband picked up a book by a well-known romance author last week. He riffled through it and put it back down. Why? Because the descriptions and dialogue didn’t pull him in. She lost him as a reader before he even got to the story hook.

When we read, we want to fall into a book. We want to be immersed in that world. See what the characters see, feel what they feel. But at the same time, we don’t want pages and pages of endless description. So how do we as writers achieve that perfect balance?

Let’s take a look at some often-used phrases:

His heart beat faster at her words. 

His hand brushed against her, and her skin felt electrified. 

She swallowed past a lump in her throat. 

She frowned, he winced, she smiled, he sighed, she closed her eyes, he nodded his head, she let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. 

How many times have you read those phrases? How many times have you written them? I sure have. We’re told we should write viscerally, that we should show and not tell the reader what the character is feeling, but there are only so many ways to illustrate those emotions. And so our characters frown and smile, their hearts gallop and their veins flow with so much electric current, they can probably power a small town. Our small beats of show-don’t-tell quickly become cliché. The problem with a cliché is that it’s like white noise after a while. The reader tunes it out. It loses its impact. The reader may not know why, but she isn’t feeling as close to the characters.

Instead, why not find other ways to convey the same emotions and reactions?

For example, you can find a fresh way to state the same feeling. If his heart is beating fast, it means his pulse is pounding in his throat, he hears blood rushing in his ears, and adrenaline may be sending him fight-or-flight signals, making him jittery, maybe even sweaty. If she has a sexual response to his touch, she might feel it as a prickle on her skin, it might make the hair on the back of her neck stand on end, it might feel like molten gold instead of electricity running through her veins. For that matter, you could replace the lump in her throat with a feeling of dryness or scratchiness.

Or you can cut the beat completely. A smile or frown might go without saying if it’s implied in the dialogue, and people in real life don’t hold their breath nearly as often as romance heroines do.

Book One of the Greenpoint Artists series 2012 Romance Writers of America Golden Heart® winner, Single Title Contemporary Romance under its previous title, No Peeking. [2]

Book One of the Greenpoint Artists series
2012 Romance Writers of America Golden Heart® winner, Single Title Contemporary Romance under its previous title, No Peeking.

Another method is to go with the cliché, but twist it so it becomes fresh. This often involves hyperbole. The lump in her throat feels like she swallowed a golf ball and she may never breathe again. You have to be judicious, or it risks becoming ludicrous and taking the reader out of the story, but a bit of it sprinkled here and there can liven things up.

Alternately, you can show what the character is feeling through action. If she’s nervous, she might pick up objects from a desk and rearrange them obsessively, or run her fingers along the teeth of a comb, or tear a piece of paper into confetti, then sweep it into the trash but miss a few bits, which irks her and she focuses on that instead of the painful conversation they’re having. If he feels sexual attraction he’s not comfortable with, he might abruptly step away from her to the other side of the room. If she’s angry, she might set a tumbler on the table so hard, water sloshes out.

Sometimes the best method is to find a way to stage the scene to provide an excuse for lots of action and subtext. For instance, your hero and heroine could be playing racquetball, slamming the ball back and forth as the tension between them escalates. He can hurt his calf, she can get out of breath very naturally, they can get all sweaty and hot, and even flirtatiously flick towels at each other during breaks. Much fresher than two people standing still in a room smiling and frowning at each other, don’t you think?

And sometimes it’s fine to simply state what they’re feeling. Tell us. Her anger is incandescent, his heart feels tender and raw. It can work well, as long as you don’t baldly state the emotion, unadorned.

What about scene description? How do we help the reader see what we see, create the movie in their minds, without writing huge blocks of text they’ll skim past to get to the good stuff? Two useful things to remember here: point of view and telling details.

Book One of the (eventual) Vista del Mar series 2013 Romance Writers of America Golden Heart® finalist, Single Title Contemporary Romance [3]

Book One of the (eventual) Vista del Mar series
2013 Romance Writers of America Golden Heart® finalist, Single Title Contemporary Romance

Whose POV are you writing the scene in? If your poor, hardworking heroine is walking into her own apartment after spending time with the billionaire hero, she might see how shoddy her scavenged furniture is, with the big stain on the sofa she’s tried to cover with a throw pillow that’s losing its stuffing.

If the billionaire hero is walking into the same living room, though, he might instead see that she’s made the best of a small space with colorful wall hangings and funky patchwork throw pillows on the couch. (Though only if he’s the kind of guy who would notice throw pillows. He might instead just see that it’s colorful and cozy and exactly like her. Maybe he wants to hug the whole room.)

You can also hold back, leave something for later. You don’t have to show us everything at the beginning of the scene. Instead, maybe she sits down on the sofa, all flustered and nervous after they’ve been bantering at the door and she’s finally invited him inside. And when she does, she notices the stain on the couch and hastily covers it up with the throw pillow—or, hey, maybe she distracts him with a surprise kiss.

How much you describe also depends on how important the location is to the story. If the characters are walking down a moonlit beach, you’ll want to set the scene with a few choice phrases capturing the salt smell, the feel of the breeze, maybe the glint of the moon on night-black water, but we’ve all been there. We can picture it. It doesn’t take much. On the other hand, if the scene is Pemberly and Elizabeth Bennet is seeing it for the first time, walking through the hallways and thinking of Darcy, yes, we want to linger there. We want to see it in detail. The house stands in for the man and reflects her changing feelings for him.

A Greenpoint Artists prequel novella [4]

A Greenpoint Artists prequel novella

In my novella Draw Me In, there’s an empty warehouse room on the second floor of a factory building. This room becomes the center of much of the action of the story: the heroine crashes there, uses at as an artist’s loft, and the two of them do a dance, both figurative and literal, in this space. It’s got huge import. This is how I describe it when my heroine first sees it:

It was an empty room, true, but it held such promise. Sunlight streamed in through huge windows onto the pale gray concrete floor. The ceiling was a jumble of exposed pipes. One wall was exposed brick. The matte tin ceiling had a hint of gleam, with embossed squares in an endless repeating pattern. It was a backdrop fit for a smoke-filled bar, a party in a fancy loft, or an artist’s studio. That stream of sun was delicious. It slid along the floor, licking the room with brightness. Dust mites twirled along the beam of light.

I wouldn’t ordinarily go into such detail, but the room is almost a character in the book. It deserves a proper introduction.

Speaking of characters, this is another arena where descriptions can be tricky. Our heroes usually possess broad shoulders and chiseled features, don’t they? And yet we want them to be drop-dead sexy, so it’s not something you can easily escape. So how do we describe our guys in a way that feels fresh and specific and less like a row of Ken dolls (or GI Joes, for the ex-SEALs and town sheriffs)?

To be honest, this is something I struggle with myself. I come from screenwriting, where it’s better if you don’t mention the main character’s looks because it limits the casting choices. But it doesn’t work that way in fiction, and my beta readers and editor nail me on it every time. So here’s what I do: Once I get past hair and eye color, the slope of his nose and the state of his pecs, I try to find something distinct. One of my heroes has a gap between his front teeth that makes him look incongruously boyish. Another has a perpetually hungry look in his eyes, another has sardonically arched eyebrows. I think I can go farther, though, and describe the physical only in terms of character. I’ll work on that.

It’s a challenge, coming up with new ways of describing things. But ultimately, descriptions are a great opportunity to delve deeper into the specifics of your narrative. The words you use, the metaphors you discover, they all add up in small ways to evoke the feelings of the story you’re telling, the journey you’re taking us on.

Here’s a teaser for DRAW ME IN, which is free at Amazon [5] right now:


Struggling artist Raven Porter thought she’d learned to be tough the hard way. Now, though, she’s arrived in New York City from rural Maine, and it’s a whole new world.

With nowhere else to go, she crashes for the night in an empty warehouse. She wakes to the haunting sound of a lonely jazz saxophone. She’s not alone.

Finn McKenna, proprietor of Finn’s Fermentation Factory, needs to escape from his messy, complicated life, if only for tonight. So he flees to his warehouse and loses himself in his music. Until he realizes he’s not alone.

Raven and Finn fit together. Two creative souls, their passions hidden behind sturdy defenses. If they can only let each other in…


Available for free at Amazon [7]Barnes & Noble [8]iTunes [9], and Kobo [10].


Is writing description hard for you? Do you have any suggestions you’d like to add?

Monday’s topic is Dialogue in Historical Fiction with Nicola Cornick  [11].



talia.edited-200x300 [12]

Talia Quinn began her writing career as a screenwriter but switched to prose after she started writing an online journal for fun. This led to writing fiction, which led to writing romance. She won the RWA Golden Heart Award for Contemporary Romance in 2012 and is a two-time finalist. She chose the indie route for her romances, but her agent is about to go on submission with her first YA novel under a different name. 

website: http://taliaquinn.com [1]
Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/Talia-Quinn/e/B00H6ORE16/ [13]
Twitter: @taliaqui
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/talia.quinn.author [14]

Links to:

What’s Yours is Mine [15]

Hold Me Tight [16]


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40 Comments To "Description: Choosing the Right Words by Talia Quinn"

#1 Comment By Sonali Dev On May 9, 2014 @ 7:53 am

Great Post, Talia!

I personally love description (and loved your loft description)- you’re absolutely right, it’s our brush to paint the story with and our hook to drag readers under the skin of the characters.
I think the trick is in finding that *one* way of seeing/feeling things the way only that particular character can.

Again, great post!

#2 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 11:29 am

Thanks, Sonali! I agree completely, staying true to the POV character’s experience brings any description to life and gives it a tension it can’t have without that.

#3 Comment By Carrie Spencer On May 9, 2014 @ 8:35 am

Morning Talia!

I agree with Sonali…you have to get into your character and how THEY would see things – not how YOU would. And boy, that can be tough. =) I’ve always thought writers were a bit like actors…having to think/act/behave like our characters to understand what they see and what they would say.

Great post!


#4 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 11:32 am

I’ve often thought that too, Carrie–that we’re actors playing out the scene, aware of motivation and backstory and intent. Oh, and making it feel natural and organic. Not only that, but we play every single character. We’re also the cinematographer, set designer, props master, director, and editor. 🙂

No wonder writing feels hard sometimes!

#5 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On May 9, 2014 @ 9:38 am

Description is so much harder than I originally thought it would be. I knew that, as I reader, I often skim paragraphs that are heavy in description. Finding the right balance as a writer was tricky, though – sometimes I’d go to the other extreme and leave out necessary descriptions.

Showing each scene as the POV character would see it – that’s where true writer insanity steps in. Even though I have all these characters in my head, seeing through their individual perspectives is something I’m still working on.

Another good point Talia raises is the use of the same old descriptive words, over and over again. When I first started reading romance, it put me off that some authors used the same phrases in every book.

Thanks so much for a very helpful post, Talia, and thank you for going over and above to provide it!

#6 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

My pleasure, Becke! Once I figured out what I wanted to say, I enjoyed writing it all down. It’s a good reference for me too! It’s *such* a tricky balance.

#7 Comment By Tammy Baumann On May 9, 2014 @ 11:32 am

Hi Talia!

Every writer struggles with this, especially after writing multiple books. Thanks for the insightful tips!!

#8 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

Hi Tammy! Yes, it’s fine the first go-round, right? Everything is shiny and fresh. You’ve never even written “he gave her a wry smile” before. But then on the fourth book, you think, “Wait a sec, isn’t that how I described my other guy?” and “There HAS to be a better phrase for that particular activity. Has to.”

#9 Comment By Darcy Woods On May 9, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

Great post, Talia! And you definitely hit the nail on the head when it comes to cliches translating into white noise.

Personally, I LOVE it when an author takes me by surprise with an unexpected/new twist description. In fact I sometimes have to pause and roll around in the genius of their words. Which I totally did with your loft description!

#10 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

Aww, Darcy, I’m honored! I know exactly what you mean. I love the beauty of a language-aware, vivid description. Yum. If mine did that for you, yay!

#11 Comment By Pintip On May 9, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

Great tips, Talia! And I love your loft description, especially the way the delicious sunshine licks along the floor! This is a wonderful post for future reference!

#12 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

Thank you, Pintip!! I truly didn’t include my own description to get compliments, but hey, I don’t mind at all. 🙂 I suspect that you do a lot of it already, though…

#13 Comment By Bonnie Staring On May 9, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

Great post, Talia! I find description to be the most challenging of all, since I usually skim lengthy description-filled paragraphs when I read. 😉 I totally agree with the notion of clichés becoming white noise. Your warehouse description is beautiful and so full of possibility. Bravo!

#14 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

Thanks, Bonnie! Yes, it’s really tricky sometimes. I think it also depends what you write. A literary YA will have more leeway than one focused intently on the relationship, for example, but there’s always that risk of having the reader fall out of the story, right?

#15 Comment By Amy DeLuca/Amy Patrick On May 9, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

Great post, Talia! Once I started writing seriously, I became quickly bored with clichéd descriptions and now they yank me right out of a story when I’m reading. But we know writing fresh description is easier said than done! Thanks for some helpful pointers and great examples.

#16 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

Glad you found it helpful, Amy! It *totally* throws me out when I’m reading, but I admit, sometimes when I’m writing, I’ll sit and ponder a *word choice* for ten minutes. I know I should move on and come back to it, but sometimes… yeah. That awareness can be a double-edged sword! (cliché alert )

#17 Comment By Sharon Wray On May 9, 2014 @ 12:57 pm

Loved your post today, Talia. I actually love writing and working with description. But since it’s one of the few things I do well, I tend to over-do it and always have to chop it back during revisions.
But one thing that drives me crazy is when there’s not enough description because an author is so worried about over-doing it. I’d rather have too much that I have to skim than not enough which leaves me with no sense of time or place.

#18 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

Sharon, that’s me too. My first short stories, way back when, had no plot, flat characters, and stilted dialogue, but oh my yes, they sure had vivid descriptions. 🙂 Strangely, it wasn’t enough. Go figure.

I agree, too little description makes me feel like the characters are standing in a black box. Not a good feeling. But too much flat or self-indulgent description (see my teen writing for an example of the latter)? That can throw me off a story just as badly. Not sure which is worse.

(And I know you have a beautiful sense of descriptive language. Your blog posts are gorgeous.)

#19 Comment By Gail Hart On May 9, 2014 @ 1:16 pm

Great post, Talia! It’s so easy to fall back on cliches without even realizing it. Thanks for the suggestions for avoiding them.

#20 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

You’re very welcome, Gail! I hope something resonates with you. I’ve clearly given all this far too much thought.

#21 Comment By Miranda Liasson On May 9, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

Awesome post, great tips, Talia. What always gets me is the eyes–gazes, looks, stares, etc. I’m always asking, how in the world do I make this fresh? And the color of eyes. How many unusual ways can you describe eyes of a certain color?

One tip I’ve found is to read my favorite authors and see how they do things in a different and twisty way, because you’re right–language–the way we say things–is important in drawing people in and keeping them reading.

#22 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

OMG, Miranda, the looks, oh, the *looks*. If you figure out how to make them fresh, let me know!

And an emphatic YES on reading favorite authors. YA author Maggie Stiefvater has the absolute best descriptions of any author I’ve ever read, I think. They’re so unexpected and yet they don’t feel artificial, just beautifully right.

#23 Comment By Kim MacCarron On May 9, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

Great post! It reminded me of a Margie Lawson class I took, which was so helpful. Thanks for the hints about how to handle the description. I tend to shy away from that so much because I typically start skimming through books that have too much of it. In high school I hated reading THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES because of that. I was like, “Holy cow! Enough with the house already!” lol.
Loved your excerpt, and I can’t wait to read the book.
This was such a helpful post, and much needed at this time while I’m revising. Or TRYING to revise…:-)

#24 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

Hi Kim! And oh my yes, Hawthorne could go on, couldn’t he? Though he had nothing on Henry James and his convoluted sentences…

I’m very glad if the post is helpful to you, and right now, to boot! (I too am trying to revise. But I keep running away from it and posting comments on blogs. Oops.)

#25 Comment By Kim MacCarron On May 9, 2014 @ 8:52 pm

That seems to be my biggest problem today as well. haha. We need to create a writer’s safe zone. Like no blogging on Tuesdays or something like that. No social media…just writing or revising. The distractions are way too hard for me. 🙂

#26 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 9:59 pm

That’s a great idea, Kim! I’d say I’ll join you in a sprint room on Tuesdays, but that would probably defeat the purpose. 🙂

#27 Comment By India Powers On May 9, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

Thanks for this great post, Talia! I struggle with description, so I found your tips and suggestions very helpful. 🙂

#28 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

Yay! I’m so glad to hear it, India! (Erm, not that you struggle, but that this was helpful.)

#29 Comment By Sandra Owens On May 9, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

Great post, Talia. I don’t worry about fleshing out anything on the first draft. On revisions though, sometimes I stare out the window while running different ways to say the same thing though my mind. Then I read how some other author said something and think, why didn’t I think of that? 🙂

#30 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 7:09 pm

Thanks, Sandy. It’s so interesting–your process is so very different from mine. I probably err on the side of over-describing in the first draft. And yes, I know that feeling. You read a well-written book and think, “Man, how did she come up with such a perfect way of showing that?”

#31 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On May 9, 2014 @ 5:51 pm

Hi Talia,

I’m snorting over “… they can probably power a small town.”

Description gives the reader a sense of space, but I’ve learned by reading lots of books laden with long descriptions (and thinking to myself can we just get on with the story?) that a little detail helps ground the reader.

Also, descriptions should be more than a statement of fact. They’re especially useful (at least to me) when filtered through the mind of the character. Maybe an old quilt or the scent of lemon furniture polish (unseen details) evokes memories of the heroine’s grandmother’s house.

Great post! Thanks for blogging with us today!

#32 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 10:02 pm

Hi Jennifer, that’s a great point–that descriptions work best when they evoke something in the protagonist and therefore in the reader.

And heh on the electricity line. Glad you got a kick out of it. 🙂

It was seriously my pleasure to blog here today! Glad I could do it.

#33 Comment By AE Jones On May 9, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

Talia –
You are so right, description and setting can play such an important part in your story that they become their ‘own character’. Well said…and all of your suggestions are great!


#34 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

Thanks, AE! I imagine setting-as-character is particularly true in paranormal, too.

#35 Comment By Jacqui Nelson On May 9, 2014 @ 8:31 pm

Great post, Talia! A writer’s work is never done and neither is their learning. Thanks for the reminder to dig a little deeper (or even a lot deeper) while trying to make my writing shine.

#36 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 10:05 pm

Jacqui, your writing already shines, but I’m glad if my words acted as a useful reminder for you!

#37 Comment By Nan Dixon On May 9, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

Great post! My first drafts have lots of smiles and swallows and electricity. But you can’t fix a blank page — right! Then it’s fun to layer in descriptions based on the way that they see the world. Chef – uses cooking terms. Dancer – ballet terms. Etc.


#38 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 9, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

Trust me, Nan, my first drafts are chock full of smiles and swallows and held breath. How do you think I knew what examples to use?

I love that you use terms from the characters’ careers. That’s wonderfully specific and appropriate. I do it sometimes, I think, but probably not as often as I could. I’ll add that to my conscious arsenal!

#39 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On May 10, 2014 @ 11:19 am

“Look” is the hardest one for me. I don’t want to get into words to describe a look that are too fancy or floofy. Sometimes I just want to say “He looked” or “She looked.” We need more simple synonyms for “look.”

Talia, thank you so much for blogging with us and for hanging out with us.

Sonali, thanks for recommending Talia!

Happy Mother’s Day to you all!

#40 Comment By Talia Quinn On May 10, 2014 @ 11:51 pm

Becke, I’m glad Sonali reached out to me! I enjoyed writing the blog and chatting here yesterday.

And happy Mother’s Day to you!