(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Describe nothing you can’t honestly imagine.” Jorge Luis Borges

“To describe a blazing fire or a tree in a plain, we must remain before that fire or tree until they no longer resemble for us any other tree or any other fire. . . . There are not in the entire world two grains of sand, two hands or noses that are absolutely the same.” Gustave Flaubert

“You have to learn to paint with words. Have the old man there first so that the reader can’t escape him.” Flannery O’Connor

“In my opinion a true description of Nature should be very brief and have the character of relevance. Commonplace descriptions such as “the setting sun bathing in the waves of the darkening sea, poured its purple gold, etc.”—“the swallows flying over the surface of the water twittered merrily”—such commonplaces one ought to abandon. In descriptions of Nature one ought to seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading them when you shut your eyes, you get the picture. For instance, you will get the full effect of a moonlit night if you write that on the milldam, a little glowing star point flashed from the neck of a broken bottle, and the round black shadow of a dog or a wolf emerged and ran, etc.” Anton Chekhov

“Nothing is quite so mysterious as a thing well-described.” Garry Winogrand

“The distinction between journalism and fiction is the difference between without and within. Journalism recounts as exactly and economically as possible the weather in the street; fiction takes no notice of that particular weather but brings to life a distillation of all weathers, a climate of the mind. Which is not to say it need not be exact and economical. It is precision of a different order.” Mavis Gallant

“Irrelevance is a cloud and a drag on, weakener of the novel. It dilutes meaning. Relevance crystallizes meaning. No non-contributory image must be the rule.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Stephen King

“Discovering the meaning and communicating the meaning are for the writer one single act. One does not simply describe a barn, then. One describes a barn as seen by someone in some particular mood, because only in that way can the barn—or the writer’s experience of barns combined with whatever lies deepest in his feelings—be tricked into mumbling its secrets.” John Gardner

“To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” Flannery O’Connor

“In a description, think of the unknowns that must be depicted before the whole can be rightly imagined.” Jacques Barzun

“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story.” Stephen King

“Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It’s far from easy.” Stephen King

“Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.” Stephen King

“If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.” Stephen King

“It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling the story.” Stephen King

“The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.” Stephen King

“He [William Gass] presents, when he likes, magnificently vivid characters and scenes, the kinds of materials that engage both the reader’s emotion and intellect; that is, revitalize the reader’s consciousness, reminding him of how it feels to stand in an orchard or, say, a large old house.” John Gardner

“The fiction writer states as little as possible. The reader makes this connection from things he is shown. He may not even know that he makes the connection, but the connection is there nevertheless and it has its effect on him.” Flannery O’Connor

“The old man thinks of the daughter-in-law and son talking and recalls their conversation—well he should see them, the reader should see them, should feel from seeing them what their conversation is going to be almost before he hears it.” John Gardner

“Let the old man go through his motions without any comment from you as author and let the things he sees make the pathetic effects. Do you know Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’? See how he makes the snow work in that story. Chekov makes everything work—the air, the light, the cold, the dirt, etc. Show these things and you don’t have to say them.” Flannery O’Connor

“The deaf and dumb child should be seen better—it does no good just to tell us she is seraphically beautiful. She has to move around and make some kind of show of herself so we’ll know she’s there all the time.” Flannery O’Connor

“For a magnificent example of action writing, look at any of the sea battles in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. Everything the reader needs to know is included, but nothing more. At each moment we know exactly where we are and what’s happening. The language is transparent. The sensory details are intense, brief, precise.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Do not mention any landmark unless you describe it for the benefit of the uninitiated; otherwise, it is merely a label stuck on your luggage to impress your friends.” Ayn Rand

“To the extent to which they [descriptions] are good, they are done by the Romantic method—i.e., by means of carefully selected, well-observed concretes that capture the essentials of a scene.” Ayn Rand

“I describe my characters at their first appearance. Since I want the reader to perceive the scene as if he were there, I indicate as soon as possible what the characters look like.” Ayn Rand

“I decide how long a description should be by the nature of the buildup—by how much significance the context has prepared the reader to attach to a character.” Ayn Rand

“When I introduce minor characters, I usually give them a single line naming something that is characteristic of the type, like ‘a woman who had large diamond earrings’ or ‘a portly man who wore a green muffler.’ By implying that one brief characteristic is all that is noteworthy about the person, I establish his unimportance. These lesser types you must not pause on for long.” Ayn Rand

“Never pause on descriptions, whether of characters or locales or anything else, unless you have given the reader reason to be interested.” Ayn Rand

“If you are ever tempted to describe something ghastly, ask yourself what your purpose is. If it is to suggest horror, one or two generalized lines will do. It is sufficient to say that someone stumbles upon a half-decomposed corpse; to describe that corpse in every horrible detail is horror for horror’s sake. All you will achieve is that your book, no matter what the rest of it consists of, will always connote in the reader’s mind that particular touch of horror.” Ayn Rand

“The novelist may give the very words that were spoken by his characters, the dialogue, but of course he must interpose on his own account to let us know how the people appeared, and where they were, and what they were doing.” Percy Lubbock

“Her [Milly’s, The Wings of the Dove] troubles are purely her own, and gradually, it is hard to say were or how, we discover what they are. They are much too deeply buried in her mind to appear casually upon the surface at any time; but now and then, in the drama of her meditation, there is a strange look or a pause or a sudden hasty motion which is unexplained, which is portentous, which betrays everything. . . . These difficulties, these hopes and fears that have been buried in silence, are all included in the sphere of experience which the author has rounded; and by leaving them where they lie he has given us a sense of their substance, of the space they occupy, which we could not have acquired from a straight, square account of them. . . . Mere emphasis, a simple underlining of plain words, could never produce the same effect.” Percy Lubbock

“Facts themselves, especially at lower levels of abstraction, can be affective without the use of special literary devices to make them more so.” S.I. Hayakawa

“A skillful writer is often, therefore, one who is especially expert at selecting the facts that are sure to move his readers in the desired ways. We are more likely to be convinced by such descriptive and factual writing than by a series of explicit judgments, because the writer does not ask us to take his word for it that the accident was ‘ghastly.’ Such a conclusion becomes, in a sense, our own discovery rather than his.” S.I. Hayakawa

“Skills in description, dialogue, and character development all boil down to seeing or hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see or hear with equal clarity.” Stephen King

“Word choice—diction—plays a crucial role in coloring the facts, in manipulating the reader’s impression of events.” Philip Gerard

“Painting pictures is like carving things out of the air, with words.” Ulf Wolf