Descriptive Writing: Crafting Vivid, Immersive Scenes | Kathy Fish | Skillshare

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Descriptive Writing: Crafting Vivid, Immersive Scenes

teacher avatar Kathy Fish, Writer & Teacher

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      The Project


    • 3.

      Ways We Get Description Wrong


    • 4.

      Description Done Right


    • 5.

      Exercise #1: Inserting Sensory Detail


    • 6.

      Vivid Description vs. Flat Description


    • 7.

      Exercise #2: Inserting the Unexpected Detail


    • 8.

      Exercise #3: Interrogating Your Descriptive Word Choices


    • 9.

      Revising Your Scene or Very Short Story


    • 10.

      Recap: What Have We Learned?


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About This Class

More than mere window dressing, description is an essential aspect of any form of creative writing. It enlivens our stories and creates an immersive, “felt experience” for our readers. But many writers struggle with this important aspect of craft. How much description is too much? Or too little? How to write fresh, original, deeply sensory description that keeps our readers in our grip?

Carrying on from her previous class, Fast Flash Fiction: Writing Tiny, Beautiful Stories, Kathy Fish demystifies the process of description writing. Packed with concrete examples and practical advice, these ten video lessons provide you with tools for harnessing the power of the unexpected, thus creating striking and unique descriptions in your work.  

Throughout, Kathy will help you:

  • Take a thoughtful, intentional approach to writing description.
  • Incorporate sensory detail and the unexpected as a means of priming creativity.
  • Identify automatic, overused, and unnecessary descriptions.
  • Create a richly described, immersive scene or very short story. 

Plus, Kathy will provide you with excellent examples from published writing, including discussion points aimed at deepening your enjoyment and understanding of their notable descriptive aspects. 

This class is for writers of all levels who seek to sharpen their descriptive powers to enhance, enliven, and elevate their work. The skills acquired in this class may be applied again and again to creative writing of any form or length. 

Let’s get started!

Meet Your Teacher

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Kathy Fish

Writer & Teacher


Kathy Fish has published five collections of short fiction, most recently Wild Life: Collected Works from 2003-2018, from Matter Press. Her award-winning short stories, prose poems, and flash fictions have been published in Ploughshares, Copper Nickel, Washington Square Review, Denver Quarterly, Electric Literature, Guernica, and elsewhere. Her poem/flash fiction hybrid piece, “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” will appear in an upcoming edition of The Norton Reader. Additionally, this piece was selected for Best American Nonrequired Reading 2018 by Sheila Heti and by Aimee Bender for Best Small Fictions 2018. Fish's work is also featured in the 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2020 editions of Best Small Fictions. She was a core faculty member fo... See full profile

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1. Introduction: With your descriptive writing, the wilder the better, the fresher the better, the newer the better. Go for it. Go for the wild, go for the unexpected. It always makes for a terrific piece of writing. More than just window dressing, description is an essential part of any writer's creative toolkit. Description enlivens and enhances all your stories and your scenes. The best writers make it seem effortless. They are able to paint descriptive scenes of different time at canvas. Yet many writers struggle with this aspect of their writing. How, for instance, to create a vividly-described scene without weighing the story down. Welcome to my video class on Descriptive Writing. My name is Kathy Fish, and I had been writing and teaching fiction for over 20 years. I'm a faculty mentor at the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver, and I also teach my own online class. This class will be useful for writers of all levels who seek to enhance their creative and descriptive powers. Writing vivid, concise description will make your stories more compelling and interesting and enjoyable for your readers. By the end of this class, you'll be writing much more vivid and powerful, effective descriptions into your stories and your scenes. I'm super excited to teach this class on description. I've seen what great description can really do for stories. I'd love to see my students learn how to do those same things. See you in class. 2. The Project: So, the project for this class will be to create a vividly described scene or very short story. This will involve a three-step process. First, I'll ask you to insert sensory details and an unexpected detail to show you where that will take your creative thought process. Then we'll look at identifying and interrogating any word choices or descriptive passages that might be weak, overdone, or cliche. Finally, we'll take what we've learned and we'll rewrite the first drafts that we wrote, incorporating more vivid and unexpected, surprising details into the work. Think outside the box a bit. I love it when a student says to me, I can't believe I wrote that. I think at that point you'll feel like you've succeeded in my class. If you hit a bump or you feel stuck, just remind yourself that in creative writing, there's no rules. You can write about anything you want to. I urge you to share your projects and post them here. My last class, quite a number of the students posted their work and I got to read and comment on those and I really enjoyed it. Please do that. Thank you. 3. Ways We Get Description Wrong: In this class, we're going to talk just really briefly about three ways that writers often go wrong in their descriptive writing. So what is description? Description is basically the part of your story or scene that is not plot and it's not action and it's not dialogue. Description is what gives the story or the scene life. It's what draws the reader in. We need to be a part of the process. So description gives us the sights and the sounds and the smells and all of that, and it gives us the characters, the settings and so forth. In the next video, I'll talk about what really good description does for your stories and your scenes. But first, I want to get at three different ways that writers often get description wrong. First, I want to look at what Writer Natalie Goldberg calls marrying the fly, and this is a quote from her. A responsibility of literature is to make people awake, present, and alive. If the writer wanders, the reader too will wander, recognize the fly, even love it if you want, but don't marry it. So what does marrying the fly mean? Think about if you are writing a scene in a diner between a man and a woman in its intense scene and they're having a conversation. You're writing this scene and you describing the diner and there's a fly on the table. While you as a writer you get a little distracted and you're giving the fly way more space than it deserves. You're describing the fly in detail. You're telling us what the fly's mother and father did for a living. You're giving us the fly's hopes, dreams, and aspirations. You're talking about how the fly as misunderstood and pesky. These are the kind of things that writers get caught up in, and it's simply writing too much description. Then there's what I call the descriptive desert, and here is the opposite of marrying the fly, where you give the reader almost nothing to hold onto. Your scene or your story is all action and dialogue and plot. But the reader doesn't really feel immersed into the scene. There's another term for that. It's called Talking Heads, where you have a line of dialogue and answer, a question and answer, and there's simply nothing going on around it. So that's descriptive desert and that's just too little description. There's also description that there's plenty of that, there's the right amount of it. But what you have is over used or it's cliched or it's unnecessary. Here I want you to remember that your reader has an imagination. So the moment you say hospital room, immediately springs to mind many details around a hospital room. So you don't need to spend a lot of time with the ordinary details of a hospital room that beeping machines, the sterile antiseptic smells. One I see all the time is the nurses starched white uniform, which I don't remember the last time I saw nurse wearing a starch white uniform. Same thing with another common place setting like a bar. Immediately as soon as you see the word bar, most readers will conjure up lots of details about bars. So what I'm saying is basically less is more with this sort of details, and then pay attention to description that's been written many, many times before that automatically springs to mind the moment you think about it, golden sunsets, small child, tears welling into the eyes, these sorts of things that have been written many times before. So less is more of those as well. So it's really hard to strike the right balance as to the right amount of descriptive writing in your stories. What we've looked at here are the three ways that writers often get it wrong. There's marrying the fly, as I mentioned, and that's just way too much description on something that's not an important part of your story or your scene. There's the descriptive desert that I talked about in here. Just way too little description to give the reader anything to hang on to, and then as I mentioned too, descriptive writing that is just over used, cliched and unnecessary. Next, we're going to look at description done very, very right. 4. Description Done Right: So in this lesson we're going to look at description, when it's done very right. Great writers know how essential this is. We're going to look at what does a really good description actually does for your stories and your scenes. The best writers know that description is much more than mere window dressing. It does accomplishes a great deal for your stories. It's more than just making the story pretty. Great description accomplishes four things. It immerses the reader and gives the reader a "felt experience". That's will happen, if you include a lot of sensory detail into your writing. It also establishes, or enhances, or changes the tone of the story. It can compel the reader forward into the story, especially if you include something that's surprising or unexpected into your description. It can give the reader a sense of the internal state of your character. There's a really great Charles Dickens description, where he describes a depressed and down and out character; as he looked like his own shadow in the sunset, which is just perfect. That's so much stronger than just saying he was sad. So let's look at some particularly excellent examples of published descriptions. "His eyes were electric brown, Mexican jumping beans" from Len Kuntz. Look at the surprise of the word electric to describe brown. Very strange, but very effective too. "When we wake, the sun has sunk low enough to stab sideways through the trees". That's from Allegra Hyde. The surprise there's a use of the word stab to describe sunlight. This one is from Jeff Landon and it's, "Girls in Virginia Beach call him Trip Savior because he looked like a clean shaven Jesus, and because his father was a Southern Baptist with the ability to sniff sin in midair and ladle it was shame". Look at the simile there, a simile is when you say something is like something else. So here, trip savior looked like a clean shaven Jesus. Very fresh in original description and you can definitely see that. And here's another one by Han Kang. "Farther out, the tranquil body of water flashes like the scales of innumerable fish". That's beautiful and that's another similarly that works so beautifully. So I will include in the supplementary materials for this class, some more really great examples of descriptive writing and some discussion questions, that you can go over; to enhance your understanding of why that description works so well. In the next class we're going to look at our very first exercise, looking forward to it 5. Exercise #1: Inserting Sensory Detail: One thing I always harp on, I harped on it in my last class, in all my classes is that writing should include lots and lots of sensory detail. Not just visual, but all the senses should be incorporated. In this exercise, I'm going to have you do just that. This first exercise involves using sensory detail into your scenes and your stories. This is very important for immersing your reader into the scene and giving them what I call a felt experience. First, let's quickly look at what sensory detail is. You know that you have five senses. You want to include, of course, the sense of sight. You want to give your reader something to look at. That can be colors, that can be visual objects, that can be anything that the reader would want to look at and see in this scene. Even descriptions of characters, what they look like. Next one is sound. This one is often neglected, but sound is very important. You want to give your reader something to hear. There is always ambient sound in the background, and that adds so much texture to your writing. Another one is touch or feel, and this one can be internal feelings, or it can be the character touch, actually touching something. Don't neglect this either. You want to give your reader a sense of movement or touch. Smell is a very evocative sense. A lot of our memories come from things that we smell, Grandma's cookies on Christmas morning, things like that. Burning leaves. Think about how much a smell is incorporated into the tone of a story. If you want a dark tone or a sad, bad tone for your story, you would have the smells emulate that. If you want to have a happy tone, you can incorporate happy smells. Like I said, cookies, baking, things like that. Don't neglect smell in your stories. I mentioned how writers who are especially good at descriptive writing, it's almost like they're painting on a canvas with their words. This is a famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh. You've probably seen. It's called The Starry Night. Take a look at this painting, and how it reflects Van Gogh's particular style and technique. Notice how his brushstrokes convey a sense of movement, even though a painting is always a very visual medium. As you look at this, you also get a sense of movement, and you can almost feel the breeze that's blowing through here, and the moonlight and the starlight seemed to pulse almost with their light. That is Van Gogh's special genius. All of his paintings reflected his internal state and his emotional state. The same goes for your descriptive writing. What I want you to do for this exercise is take some time to look at this painting by Van Gogh. I want you to try to actually write a descriptive passage of this painting. Write how it looks, of course, but use your imagination to incorporate the other senses into this painting. For instance, what sounds can you imagine would be taking place during this painting? For me, I would be hearing the breeze and the wind, but it could also be like a distant dog barking, or music from the village or anything like that. Just let your imagination run wild with this. Try to incorporate sight, of course, sound, touch, smell, anything you can. I would only write just a very short passage, no more than maybe 500 words, but really write as vividly as you can, incorporating all the sensory detail that you can't into this. Have fun with this, and post it when you're finished. Thank you. 6. Vivid Description vs. Flat Description: Right now what I'd like to do is show you a comparison of vivid description versus very flat description. I'm going to take from my own writing to show you that contrast. First let's look at some very, very flat description. Ethel was a tall woman with short curly hair. (So what?) Her friend Imogene was a short woman with long, sticks-straight hair and sea-green eyes. (Again, so what? Also, stick-straight hair and sea-green eyes is rather cliched and overused phrasing.) If you are going to describe a person's appearance, It's more interesting to the reader if you give something unusual or unexpected, or in some way that shows their character, not just to say what they look like. Otherwise, let your reader sort of envision and how they envision what the characters look like. They were making a decorative (Decorative. How so? What does decorative mean?) gelatin mold for a party. (This shows me nothing. I don't know what to see here.) It was not going well (What's wrong?) and Ethel was sad. (But here I want to know what does she say or do to make her seem sad.) Imogene tried to help. (By doing what?) You see every point along the way, you're giving the reader or I am giving the reader something very vague and abstract. Nothing for the reader to really hold onto. Nothing to see, hear, taste, smell, et cetera. Now, I'm going to read the published version of this from my book. The name of the story is Ethel and Heroes on the last night. Ethel attempted to frost the green gelatin mold with a mixture of Miracle Whip and catsup, but it kept running down the sides. Her friend Imogene helped with the pimientos as together they formed 1960 on the top. It didn't look anything like the photo in the style section. It looked magnificent in the newspaper with the woman standing over it, waving a serving spoon like a magic wand, to the amazement of her friends. "I could cry," Ethel said, Imogene lifted the platter and set the gelatin in the sink and rinsed it with cold water. She grabbed a couple of paper towels off the rod and patted it dry. It quivered and shown under the ceiling light of Ethel's kitchen. The hot dogs and macaroni suspended within looked like sea creatures in an aquarium. "Voila,"Imogene said. "It becomes a conversation piece." You can see the difference between those two passages. They contrast wildly. The first one was very flat and does not engage the reader, put the reader into the scene. The second time. Look at the contrast. The gelatin mold is described as decorative the first time. The second time, rather than just say decorative, we know that the gelatin mold is covered with the mixtures being frosted with a mixture of miracle whip and ketchup. That's being very specific about what it's being used to frost this desert. Also look at the details of the 1960 being on top of it and the pimientos. We also, the first time we're told that Ethel was sad, but the second time, we see that Ethel is sad because she's ruminating over that picture that was in the style section of the newspaper and how her creation didn't look anything like that one. Then she says I could cry. Again, look at the sensory detail, look at the sensory detail of touch that we get when imaging is patting the gelatin mold dry with the paper doll towels. Then how it is shown to be quivering and shining in the light. That's all very vivid and very sensory. Of course we have the unexpected detail of the hot dogs and the macaroni that are inside the jello, and that those look like sea creatures in an aquarium. Quite a bit of difference between the two passages, between a flat description and a very vivid description. Okay, so in our next video, we're going to go on to exercise number two and that will be about inserting an unexpected detail into your writing. 7. Exercise #2: Inserting the Unexpected Detail: A lot of times why writers find themselves getting stuck when they are writing a scene or a story is that they have begun to bore themselves. What happened to the great idea that they started with, I think what happens there is that they're beginning to write the description that writes itself. So they are writing themselves into a corner and they are getting a little bored. The remedy for this that I have found is actually very intentionally inserting an unexpected details, I call this exercise inserting the unexpected detail, and this has been a really popular one that I have taught, mostly because once you do this, you often find yourself surprising yourself and being excited about what you are writing rather than getting yourself bored. Let's look at some examples of unexpected detail that have been put into some published stories that I like quite a bit. "The circus came crashing through the walls of your home, all tents and stripes and ballot slips like peanut shells, scattered on the fine white tile." That's from a story by Alex Simand, and it's called the "Election Cycle", and it's very obviously a metaphor, but it's the very first sentence of the story, it's very unexpected and strange and it draws you write in, I love it. The next one is from Allegra Hyde story "Syndication"."My parents are in the backyard digging their graves." I just love that. Instantly want to read the rest of that story. Here's an unexpected detail from one of my stories called "Strong Tongue". "The dentist is attempting to install two crowns on my teeth, but he has to call in reinforcements," and then I have a big guy that looks like a bouncer in a bar and he comes in to help with this dental procedure.This one is from Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello story called "The Sea Urchin." "Grandmother kept a diver's knife strapped to her thigh." Great unexpected detail, and finally, here's one from Randall Brown story called "What a Beautiful Dream." "My aunt had a puppet made to look like her dead daughter, Peach." Aren't those great? Okay, so again, I'm going to have you write from a visual cue. This is actually a photograph. It looks like a painting, but it's actually a photograph and it's called Malora. Now, see how just about every element of this is a very realistic depiction of a woman walking through a forest or whatever. It's all very realistic, all very realistically photographed except for there is an unexpected detail and of course, it is the antlers on her head. I really, really love this photograph. It sets the imagination free, in a way that you can do with your creative writing as well. So what I want you to do for this exercise now is to imagine a very common place, scene, or setting as you just saw in the photograph of Malora. It can be a playground, a bar, a hospital room, it can be a scene, you can be describing a scene like a family having dinner, a holiday meal, just something very common place. Start writing that and then what I want you to do then is to intentionally put in an unexpected detail. Here, all bets are off, do whatever you want you can have, a clown walking backwards at the subway station, you can have a daisy springing out of the concrete, anything goes and then just allow whatever comes from the moment you insert the unexpected detail, continue to write and see what happens with the story, if you find yourself totally inspired and want to keep writing, go for it, or you may just stay in that descriptive passage and just write about the unexpected detail or is perfectly okay to write using the photograph of Malora and just write about that. I want you to label this unexpected detail and by all means, go ahead and impulse that here, so I and the others can read it, would love to see what you come up with. 8. Exercise #3: Interrogating Your Descriptive Word Choices: How did that go with exercise number two, how did you find yourself writing with the unexpected detail? A lot of times what happens is that the writer will be surprised by what comes out. Did you find yourself using, perhaps language that you'd normally wouldn't use? I loved that exercise for how it primes the brain to think outside the box and do something different, totally different. It's really a lot of fun. For now, this next lesson, what we're going to look at is taking what we have and in a sense, interrogating all of our descriptors in our word choices, making sure that each one really fits or as necessary. First, what I want you to do is take a pen and circle all the descriptive passages, all the descriptors throughout your printout, and we're going to go back to them. But first go through and do that. That's your first step. Now, I have a series of questions I want you to ask of each one of these word choices, each one of the things that you have circled. Here are the questions I want you to ask. Is this something that the reader will automatically see, hear, taste, smell, touch on their own? Those sorts of things that we talked about before where we said, a small child, a golden sunset, those sorts of things that immediately spring to mind. Another question to ask is, does this help create tone for the story? If you're trying to write a sad story, does your descriptor reflect sadness in some way? Next question you can ask is, does it help to convey the characters in her state? That goes back to what we were talking about with the Van Gogh's painting. How the particular choices that he made with his technique and his brushstrokes also conveyed his emotional state. Does the descriptor in your story convey that of your characters? Next question I want you to ask is, does this descriptive passage or descriptor compel the reader? Being compelled comes from what's unexpected or fresh or original. Is this something that will make the reader want to keep reading? If the answer note is no to any of those questions as you're going through, then if it's a no, strike a line right through it. We're going to save that, and we'll work on it again later. So hold on to that. 9. Revising Your Scene or Very Short Story: So far, you have written two drafts in this class. The first one, you focused on including a lot of rich sensory detail into your writing, and in the second one, you intentionally inserted in unexpected detail. Then you saw how doing both of these things primed your brain and opened you up to fresher, more original ideas. Then you went through your draft and you identified and interrogated each of those choices of your descriptive phrases or your descriptive words, and really saw which ones you wanted to keep, which ones you felt needed to go. Now for our final exercise, what I would like you to do is rewrite, revise the entire passage, paying close attention to all those ones that you crossed out and seeing if there's something that you can replace that word or passage with. Is there a way that you can subvert your reader's expectations? Is there something you could write that's a bit more fresh or exciting or unexpected? Think of how, when I showed you the flat versus the more vivid description for my own work, think of how in the flat version I described the jello mold as decorative, and then in the other version, I described it more vividly. The jello mold now is green and it was frosted with miracle whip and ketch-up and it had hot dogs and macaroni inside of it. That's what I mean, be more specific, be more sensory and try to be a bit unexpected in your descriptions. Think of how in Jeff Landon's story too, where his character Tripp Savior looked like a clean shaven Jesus. Those are the kinds of descriptions that will draw your reader in and make the work more vivid and exciting. Look for more precise descriptors. Instead of saying something is a cool bike, for instance, say it's a bike with a banana seat and monkey handlebars, things like that. Remember that Natalie Goldberg quote that we looked at earlier on, "A responsibility of literature is to make people awake, present and alive." That's what you want to go for in your work. Revise your scene using all that we've learned so far. Then if you want, you can give your finished project a title if you're so moved to do so. I'd love for you to share it and give me a chance to read it and comment, or give your other classmates a chance to read your work as well. I'm really excited to see what you come up with for this. 10. Recap: What Have We Learned?: Well, I hope you enjoyed writing your final project and creating a vivid scene or very short story. Let's recap what we've learned so far in the class. First and foremost, we've learned that description is not just mere window dressing, that it's an essential part of your stories. It makes your story so much richer and more vivid for the reader. Then we looked at the problems that sometimes can come up with writing description. One is writing just too much description, marrying the fly, as Natalie Goldberg said. Two is creating a descriptive desert basically and writing not quite enough description to ground your reader or immersive reader and, then the third thing that can go wrong is if you use description that basically writes itself that is cliched or overdone in any way. Then we took a look at some really good examples of really well-written descriptions, and seeing that description really accomplishes, that can accomplish four things for your short story or your seed. Number one, great description always immerses the reader and gives the reader felt experience, and you do that with the sensory detail that we worked on. Number two, great description goes a long way in establishing the tone of your story or enhancing it or changing the tone of the story. Third thing that really good description can do is that it will compel the reader forward and we looked at how including unexpected detail is a really great way to peak your readers' interests and keeps them reading. And then the fourth thing that really great description does is it gives an indication of the emotional Interstate of your character. That thing that we showed with Charles Dickens saying that the sad man was like a shadow of himself in the sunset, which is really a great way to put that. So those are four things that really great description we can do. Now that you're armed with these tools and you know all the things that you can do, you can take this forward, use this in all your writing, all your descriptive writing, anything that you do going forward, and I hope you do. Thanks so much for taking my class. It's been a pleasure.