“Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.”

 -Ezra Pound

“An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

-Mark Twain

“With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.”

-Stephen King

“Here’s the thing: when you’re toying with people’s emotions, they can’t notice that you’re doing it, or the effect is ruined. You have to be a sneaky puppet master, working in between the lines, never telling the reader how they are supposed to feel but nonetheless getting them there in the end.”

-Maggie Stiefvater

Recurring Themes in Descriptive Technique

  1. Any part of speech can be descriptive
  2. Quantity and degree are always an opportunity for meaningful description
  3. Color is always an opportunity for meaningful description
  4. Meaningful description can animate the inert or render inert what is living.
  5. Meaningful description can conceptualize the tangible and render tangible what is conceptual.
  6. Repetition and lists are revealing descriptors.
  7. Contrast is a powerful descriptor.
  8. Any description can be imbued with input from any of the senses.

Multiple Purposes of Descriptions

  1. Convey the state of mind of the narrator based on emotion and experience.
  2. Create mood and evoke emotion in the reader.
  3. Relate current scene to previous ones or foreshadow future ones.


(Eric Adams recommends descriptive verbs as the most concise and powerful method)

Noun as a descriptive verb

He pancaked against the seat in front of him.

Going beyond the obvious choice

He saws his roll open.  (A Heart in a Body in the World – Deb Caletti)

Animating the inanimate with a verb

The tires squealed out Gansey’s true feelings.  (from The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater)

In place of adjectives, use verbs of the senses followed by like/of and noun(s)

It smells like city — onions frying and piss and car exhaust (from Essential Maps for the Lost – Deb Caletti)

In place of adjectives, use [conflicting] verbs to describe the emotional effect

It [the bird call] both awed and saddened him. (from The Raven Boys)

Onomatopoeia as a verb

Cars and trucks ba-bump over metal plates. (Essential Maps for the Lost)

…Mads squeak-squeaks the faucet on…(Essential Maps for the Lost)

Sensory input as the subject of the verb

Her voice tilts.  It’s the sound of a chin lifted for a quick application of mascara. (Essential Maps for the Lost)

Adjective + verb = custom verb

What I want to do is ugly cry.


Simile and metaphor, like all descriptive technique, must be filtered through the narrator’s or character’s experience and current mood.

…over my grandfather’s head the circuitry of heaven was printed in bright joints of solder. (Moonglow)

Simile using unique language of the relationship

his muscles were made out of old army tanks (from Maggot Moon – Sally Gardner)

his dried-up leech of a tongue (from Maggot Moon)

Simile illustrating the mundane using the metaphysical

Fairy kisses (stings from the cold). (from The Cure for Dreaming – Cat Winters).

Edible similes

Gingerbread homes

Metaphor of sound with onomatopoeia, annunciation, or handle

It [the bird call] was like a sound, the sound the hunting horns make in the fall. Away, away, away.  (from The Raven Boys)

His mom’s truck is chugging a message: out-out, out-out, out-out. (Essential Maps for the Lost)

He roared away without a word, his tires barking on our quiet street. (Look at Me – Jennifer Egan)

Moose and his friends…stuttered over the brownish water at intervals presaged by the roar of Moose’s motorboat. (Look at Me – Jennifer Egan)

Simile to suggest mood and concerns

Invisible fingers trying to snatch me back to the sands where I belonged (from Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton).

Simile to indicate degree using not…but

Her anxiety is a quiet hum and not the heavy metal band you’d expect (from A Heart in a Body in the World)

Simile to indicate degree by comparison

Deep space has more light.  (from A Heart in a Body in the World)

Her smile would have stopped a revolution (Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman)

Simile uniting dissimilar plot elements to create humor

Father Christmas was found the next morning in a dovecote on a nearby rooftop, intact and unharmed apart from a holiday frosting of pigeon shit. (Moonglow – Michael Chabon)

Simile animating the inanimate

The birches congregated in the fog, wrapped in their bark with its cryptic inscriptions.   (Moonglow)

Over the week, her old, overwhelming despair has crept back in too.  The big ogre sits in a corner, casting his shadow, examining his fingernails and humming a tune. (Essential Maps for the Lost)


(to be used sparingly – Eric Adams)

Metaphor unique to the narrator and the subject

Fragile…like a teacup unearthed from the soil.  (from The Raven Boys)

Ears like wingnuts (from The Dream Thieves – Maggie Stiefvater)

As if (as though) + action

As if taking us on a bicycle ride through the underworld. (from The cure for Dreaming)

As + someone + would do 

As a doctor would do checking on a newly released patient.

Metaphors of clothing or other usable objects

He wore his anger like a cruel second skin (from The Raven Boys).

He wore his passion for woman like a thorny crown.  (from “Slip Slid’n Away”, Paul Simon)

Sensualize a concept

The words felt like sawdust in his mouth. (from The Raven Boys)

Uniquely sensualize a sense

Malory chuckled. It was a sound a lot like sucking just the whipped cream off hot chocolate. (from The Raven Boys)

With the sound of a half ton of wet liver hitting a bathtub (Neverwhere)

Metaphor of Degree

As quiet as rain under a root.  (from The Dream Thieves – Maggie Stiefvater)


Participle describes a noun

Pelting rain.

In a playful shoulder-slapping tone (What’s Become of Her – Deb Caletti)

Participle describes a noun’s effect on one

Invigorating blood. (to a vampire). (from The Cure for Dreaming)

Participle + unique metaphor

Squirming like a caught trout.  (A Heart in a Body in the World)

Participle animates the inert

Tires screaming (Essential Maps for the Lost)


Descriptive Nouns

(Unique, metaphorical, revealing)

It is a party of soap. (A Heart in a Body in the World)

Noun + like = adj


Noun modifies a noun

Freak-show absurdity (The Cure for Dreaming)

The smell of lunchbag apples (rom The Cure for Dreaming)

Snot-mark moustache (Maggot Moon)

Maggot moon. (Maggot Moon)

Pretty-boy Jesus (Moonglow)

Popgun cowboys (Moonglow)

…she tells her loser self (Essential Maps for the Lost)

…and now the ogres have their big ham-slice hands around the vocal cords. (Essential Maps for the Lost)

Noun as quantifier (measure word)

…an operetta of scolding (Moonglow)

…a blanket of sad (Essential Maps for the Lost)

Noun modifies an adj

Homicide mad

List of nouns as a description

I bought a toothbrush, some toothpaste / A flannel for my face / Pajamas, a hairbrush / New shoes and a case (“Tempted” by Squeeze).

Qualifying a noun + with +  another noun 

The lake has been tinged with morning (from A Heart in a Body in the World)

…his voice thick with grief (from The Sentence is Murder)

Noun + , no + better noun

(Adds spontaneity and humanity to the narrative.)

An angel, no a fairy.

Thinking about it, I am not sure the word smile is right. Maybe it just twisted that way when he applied his mind to his favorite sport, hurting you. (from Maggot Moon)

Repeated nouns

Inside Ronan there was nothing. And beyond that, more nothing. (The Dream Thieves)

Sensory nouns, both material and sublime

…smelled of…gasoline and dreams. (The Dream Thieves)

Dr. Kate Bailey has calm eyes and a round, maternal hum…Catherine Murray [has] more the high-pitched frequency only animals can hear.  (Essential Maps for the Lost)

Animate an inert noun

The fog swallowed him.

Darkness stretches out it’s angry fingers.

Knuckles and knees of iron gates (Essential Maps for the Lost)

Animate a conceptual noun

His words crouched between us.

Further animate body parts

Stomach did flip flops.

…that showed how well her neck and collarbone were getting along (from The Dream Thieves).

Dis-animate or uniquely describe a living noun or body part

On Wooden legs.

He felt  a saturating sense of death, a dread in the soft filling of his bones, the suckable part (Libra)

Noun dis-animates with a sense of texture or state of matter

…a ripple across her mind. (Luminous early draft, changed to in my mind)

Noun + hyphen + noun = custom noun

In a lake where water words are drowning her. (Essential Maps for the Lost)

Invented proper nouns

The Red Ache, which makes your skin hot and bloated.  The Shakes–involuntary twitches… (Essential Maps for the Lost)


A quote as a descriptive nickname

…Sean “Keep your pony off this beach” Kendrick of all people. (The Scorpio Races)

Possessive Pronouns.

Possessive indicating power

…on the beach. My beach.  (The Scorpio Races)

Possessive indicating desire or singularity

My gentleman… (Magic Under Glass – Jaclyn Dolamore)


Color + ish = subtle color

Greenish in the moonlight.

The color of + noun or phrase

The color of wet river sludge (must also draw from the narrator’s experience and current mood).

[The sunset was] the color of the inside of a peach.

Noun + color = more unique color

Toffy brown

Ice cream colored Cadillac (Maggot Moon)

Color + color = more unique color

The pink yellow light of morning (from A Heart in a Body in the World).

Adjective + color as noun

A murky orange  (from The Raven Boys)

Charged adverb + color

An impossibly red pill (from The Dream Thieves)

Implied color through simile

Carroty hair (Moonglow)

Metaphorical color

Candy colored epics of the day [Disney movies] (Moonglow)

Character Driven Description

Gestures and nervous habits to describe a character

Dabbing his lips with a handkerchief.

Chewing her bottom lip.

Anxiety about what might happen as a description

I worried his vein might burst. (The Cure for Dreaming)

Description in Context

Reuse and refer to previous descriptions

That angry vein from the night before. (The Cure for Dreaming)

Order of Description

Minute detail before a crucial one

…she was filling the driver’s seat with crumbs…also the very first thing she had done after they exchanged hellos was to use her Taser on him. (from The Raven Boys)

Description in Dialogue

Let the characters do the describing.

You look like you’re waiting to be executed or something.  (How Did She Survive?)

Inanimate or conceptual objects speak

Her head had been pounding for the past week, and today it seemed to throb with the words: Not enough. Not enough. Not enough. (Throne of Glass)

Other Adjectives

(should be unique and used sparingly)

Negative + adjective = lesser degree or making up for something

Mr. Gunnell wasn’t tall but his muscles were made out of old army tanks with well-oiled army-tank arms. (from Maggot Moon)

More + adjective than + adjective

A feeble sound more percussive than vocal (from The Raven Boys)

Adjective + in a way/manner + predicate

Handsome in a way that required a bit of work from the viewer. (from The Raven Boys)


Mora’s expression was dark, dark, dark. (from The Raven Boys)

Animate with Adjective

On his left buttock he bore a pouty scar… (Moonglow)

Deanimate with Adjective

In photographs she is a boxy woman girded with steel shod in coal black stompers, her bosom so large it might have housed turbines. (Moonglow)

Past tense verbs as adjective

Buried marigolds and mulch-covered earth (early draft of Luminous)

Invented adjective via a quote-like or paraphrasing-like statement

Her ‘don’t question me’ voice (Monkey Chatter)

Not to get all waa waa about it. (Essential Maps for the Lost)

In a good way. In a holy shit what just happened way. (Essential Maps for the Lost)

Not to 

Descriptive phrase hyphenated as an invented adjective

J.T. Jones had self-important cheekbones and don’t-give-a-shit eyes. (Essential Maps for the Lost)

No one likes, no one deserves, some push-you-away-pull-you-close kind of person. (Essential Maps for the Lost)

In narrator’s perspective adjective goes beyond reality

Even the back of Claire’s head looks disappointed (Essential Maps for the Lost)

She’ll be spending the entire time sipping on a rapidly cooling latte while she engages in some Olympic-level worrying.  About me.  It’s what moms do. (Invited, Welcome Home Anthology)

Likening to weather

…her stormy eyes (Crazy Love You, Lisa Unger)


(should be used very, very sparingly)

Can also be chained and refined with no, not – but, or perhaps, or maybe

Sadly. Or perhaps thoughtfully. It was hard to tell the difference.

Can signal an unexpected usage

“Whoa, that’s fucked,” Kavinski said approvingly. (The Dream Thieves)

– Avram Lavinsky