August 14, 2019 100

How to write descriptively – Nalo Hopkinson

How to write descriptively – Nalo Hopkinson

We read fiction for many reasons. To be entertained, to find out who done it, to travel to strange, new planets, to be scared, to laugh, to cry, to think, to feel, to be so absorbed that for a while
we forget where we are. So, how about writing fiction? How do you suck your readers
into your stories? With an exciting plot? Maybe. Fascinating characters? Probably. Beautiful language? Perhaps. “Billie’s legs are noodles. The ends of
her hair are poison needles. Her tongue is a bristly sponge,
and her eyes are bags of bleach.” Did that description almost make you feel
as queasy as Billie? We grasp that Billie’s legs
aren’t actually noodles. To Billie, they feel
as limp as cooked noodles. It’s an implied comparison, a metaphor. So, why not simply write it like this? “Billie feels nauseated and weak.” Chances are the second description
wasn’t as vivid to you as the first. The point of fiction is to cast a spell, a momentary illusion that you are living
in the world of the story. Fiction engages the senses, helps us create vivid mental simulacra of the experiences
the characters are having. Stage and screen engage
some of our senses directly. We see and hear the interactions
of the characters and the setting. But with prose fiction, all you have is static symbols
on a contrasting background. If you describe the story
in matter of fact, non-tactile language, the spell risks being a weak one. Your reader may not get much beyond
interpreting the squiggles. She will understand
what Billie feels like, but she won’t feel what Billie feels. She’ll be reading, not immersed
in the world of the story, discovering the truths of Billie’s life
at the same time that Billie herself does. Fiction plays with our senses: taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight, and the sense of motion. It also plays with our ability to abstract
and make complex associations. Look at the following sentence. “The world was ghost-quiet, except for the crack of sails
and the burbling of water against hull.” The words, “quiet,” “crack,”
and “burbling,” engage the sense of hearing. Notice that Buckell doesn’t use
the generic word sound. Each word he chooses evokes
a particular quality of sound. Then, like an artist laying
on washes of color to give the sense
of texture to a painting, he adds anoter layer, motion,
“the crack of sails,” and touch,
“the burbling of water against hull.” Finally, he gives us
an abstract connection by linking the word quiet
with the word ghost. Not “quiet as a ghost,” which would put
a distancing layer of simile between the reader and the experience. Instead, Buckell creates
the metaphor “ghost-quiet” for an implied,
rather than overt, comparison. Writers are always told to avoid cliches because there’s very little engagement
for the reader in an overused image, such as “red as a rose.” But give them, “Love…began on a beach. It began that day when Jacob saw Anette
in her stewed-cherry dress,” and their brains engage
in the absorbing task of figuring out what
a stewed-cherry dress is like. Suddenly, they’re on a beach
about to fall in love. They’re experiencing the story
at both a visceral and a conceptual level, meeting the writer halfway
in the imaginative play of creating a dynamic world
of the senses. So when you write,
use well-chosen words to engage sound, sight, taste,
touch, smell, and movement. Then create unexpected connotations
among your story elements, and set your readers’ brushfire
imaginations alight.

100 Replies to “How to write descriptively – Nalo Hopkinson”

  • Hwa In says:

    I first imagined Billy as a monster with a noodley poison needly body oops

  • Chad Barnier says:

    I fell in love with this video.

  • Chelsea Giorgia says:

    Can't believe I only found this now. What the heck.

  • Shanti 1st says:

    I write stories on Wattpad
    My username is Shanti1st ?

  • IAMDIMITRI says:

    babs vagana ples

  • AMyriadReasons says:

    I read fiction to escape the terrible reality we live in.

  • Andreas says:

    I'm curious. Am I the only one who doesn't like descriptive language in fiction? Personally, I prefer straightforward clinical writing.

    I wish there were more straightforward fiction writers.

  • SaraLilli Videos says:

    Look at the title of the book she's reading at 1:26 I'm like "I understood that reference!"

  • karthika devi says:

    Thank you sooo much its really helped me a lot

  • Brodie Haddon says:

    Anthropomorphic puffer fish police man

  • Barbz 16 says:

    gasps* they predicted billie eilish’s hair

  • OneMoreChapter says:

    I think I may practice with wattpad 1st, anonymously. haha This was an awesome tip btw

  • Family Rocketship says:


  • Annie Veldhouse says:

    TED ED, I wanna say AWESOME VIDEO!!

  • MIS315 says:

    Let me save you some time
    Lesson: Show, don't tell

  • Heavenly Nocturne says:

    Lol now tell us how to find the words to be descriptive

  • anne dla says:

    i personally dont like the colors but i love the flow style ideas and voice in the animation ???

  • Grete Menge says:

    "Her friendly face and honey hair looked strange compared to her spidery fingers. It was almost as if there was mask plastered onto her face… Was it makeup or botox? Or maybe she sucked the blood out of her students to stay young… She does look quite pale compared to a polar bear…"

    Was that alright? It's a bit boring isn't it?

  • Dan Lyndon says:

    This is literally how NOT to write descriptively. Why do you need to condescendingly explain your pathetic purple prose writing process? Please…

  • Writer Photographer says:

    Thank you! This has given me much needed clarity ???❤️

  • pro. peradox says:

    Love your voice susan

  • Xavier Chan says:

    One answer is to pray. Do you think you can influence things by making a pact with some greater thing?

  • Hector K - L says:

    To be honest, I didn't like the legs-are-noodles metaphor.

  • Mashel Auma says:

    How I love litersture! And this is beautiful.??

  • Sil G says:

    The part about Billie was interesting. Because the first one was too complex for me and disassociated me. I liked the second one better. If I saw the first one in the book I would put it down and find a new book. To me it almost reads like a novice writer who just is trying to sounds fancy.
    Edit: The third example too for that matter. It was just overly done.

  • Seemly Cannon says:


  • Sibu Ncube says:

    TedEd is like the sophisticated WikiHow and Wikipedia

  • Cherry says:

    Any gachatubers?

  • Nicole M says:

    Love it

  • Krishna Priya Manoj says:

    Ted ed is super informative
    I totally love all of your videos. Good job?

  • Bad Girl Innocent Face says:

    I'm writing this to be a good Wattpad writer

  • Sarthak V says:

    This video was so important for my writing career. So informative.

  • Anubisavi says:

    A story needs a good plot to begin with and characters that really attract you. You can snap crackle pop all you want but if the story is not your cup of tea, another important factor, it makes no difference.

  • Anubisavi says:

    Reading a book is reaching for your imagination …so even if you don't put senses in, unless it is very important, the reader is capable of extrapolating things for himself

  • Alex Wood says:

    Such a waste of time

  • Sunflower 99 says:

    Good English “find out who done it” lol

  • the original tyler joseph says:

    I see what you’re saying but there’s a certain way of doing this.
    This is from Neil Gaiman’s book Anansi Boys: “his eyes were too tight in his head and all his teeth twinged and his stomach burned and his back was aching in a way that started around his knees and went up to his forehead and his brain had been removed and replaced with cotton balls and needles and pins”. Gaiman’s description demonstrates the character’s sickness in an engaging and imaginative way that the reader can really feel. It’s much better than “Billie’s legs are noodles”.

  • amjeonrica 17 says:

    Imagery. Just use imagery and a little style—you'll blast people up!

  • Zachary Kariotis says:

    I think both descriptions of the sick girl, were done poorly. The descriptive one was overdone, the matter-of-fact one was boring. Concise and descriptive are not Mutually exclusive. You have to find something in between, that is simple but also paints a clear image that communicates a feeling to your audience. I know I’m late, but I just wanted to say this for the small chance that some other beginner is going through the comment section.

  • firemasterpt says:

    this helped me a lot in my writing , thank you

  • Kūromîya Sá chann says:

    Basically, use your figures of speech to have good narrative.

  • cheap as chips says:

    so i want to make it emotional. i’ll use emotive language to show how the author feels.
    okay make the reader feel how character feels

  • cheap as chips says:

    instead of metaphores, connect the two in one. metaphors can separate reader and peice.

  • Nisha Singh says:

    I m writing a science fiction book and THIS video pops up in my home page…..


  • Nisha Singh says:

    0:43 sounds like my ex

  • Seta Entertainment says:

    Billie's stomach retort of an pain staking jolt, she held it as her wispy legs could no longer support. Her face thin as soaked sheet as she cling onto the walls.

  • Seta Entertainment says:

    A reminder purple prose isn't necessary, matter of fact it's look down upon by many. Straightforward sentences are just as powerful this video is saying. Of course you could do it, trust me, it's hard to pull off.

  • Dinhjason says:

    Poor Billie…

  • A R says:

    Inkheart YES!!!!!

  • Black dude is in need of a better youtube name says:

    Finally stopping, he carried the rest of his bucket of water to a small island of flowers. Pink cherry blossoms stood out, fragile yet hopeful. The blossomed opened as if they were the pupil of the flower, and with one gaze, it was easy to read. Color that was obviously painted by hands with precision: a story told with meticulousness, carefulness, one that descended under the rose's meaning of true love. The common Crocus paled in comparison, but still, it was important. It befitted the role of royalty, by being one of the first to bloom each spring.

    Although the sakura and the crocus were important, each flower, especially the smaller ones, reminded him of his loved ones; they would grow so quickly, then disappear because of him. The scent they had, breathtaking. If properly cared for, the children would be an equal measure to the adults even though they started off smaller, due to their treatment before they bloomed. As he grabbed the flowers from his pocket, finally moving on, he put each one on a grave. One marked red. Another marked blue. The last marked pink. As his eyes grew frail, they started to water up, without warning. Soon, he would have to build one for himself, letting his scent drift off into the wind, never found again.

  • Vermeer __ says:

    Thought they were talking about Billie Eilish whoops

  • ILoveDaWae OF POTATOS says:

    Hi, I hate life!
    That's my story

  • Ace Gin says:

    using the 5 senses to write a good story? Good point. Also using a deep english word.

  • Blacky Star says:

    Poor Billie Eilish

  • Rehab Ahmed says:

    Why you don't write the script

  • Ashley Watkins says:

    Land of Love and Drowning is a phenomenal book!

  • culturejam says:

    Watching the TED-Ed talk, Jack's hopes ripped in half, shredding his dreams for literary praise. Then he realized the talk was wrong. He knew that terse prose is best.

  • Michael Klee blender Animation says:

    very cool animation, i love it. well done and thanks for share

  • Gayatri Chitale says:

    Billys legs are noodles? that's what you call good writing?

  • Rahul says:

    its hard to understand when there are a lot of metaphores. it will always make me stop and look for its description in dictionary and google. i prefer the story to be prose simple ,and the story complex .

  • Honey lope says:

    I am working on a book, this is the beginning so far:

    Aaron had been on his knees there for minutes, hours, suffering under the man's soul grasping magic, for it felt to Aaron that he was being stabbed in the stomach every gut-wrenching second. He felt as if his body was a ragdoll, had felt the pain made his whole body go completely deprived of sensation. At this moment, he had closed his eyes, hoping all the pain would end soon, wishing he could just be back home and never opened that door, dreamed that maybe, just maybe, he would live after the traumatizing pain and torture he had been through.

  • TRG says:

    Descriptive writing should be used in moderation. Too much of it makes a story sound complicated and hard to follow. Yes, use descriptive language but also use simple language at other times.

  • Sanuka Kithnula says:

    Fun fact: Alice in wonderland used to be amazing and a story meant for fancy people

  • Ricky says:

    Didn't actually understand she was sick. I thought she was skome kind of monster with noodle legs

  • Alex MacDonald says:

    Why do words never end in J,Q, or V

  • My Multifandom Ass says:

    The comment section taught me more than the video itself.
    If I hadn't come across this video, and read the comments, I would have never realised that my writing was way too over the top in the "colourful" aspect of things.
    Like I was so confused as to why I preferred the 'Billie feels nauseated and weak.' over the other one. That's the opposite of how I've always written things. I would write everything in an overly metaphoric way, why would I prefer the less descriptive sentence over the more descriptive one? Because it's unpleasing to the reader, its over the top and draws them away.
    So thank you, for showing me what I shouldn't do when writing.

  • Narendra naren says:

    Thanks for the Video!

  • _Kips_ says:

    Great Explanation. I learned this from books and the feelings i get from reading literature.

  • Nathalie Raffray says:

    This will be useful for the aliens

  • star999nine says:

    In MANY instances, simply writing, "Billie is nauseated," works better than a long metaphor where the writer gets lost in the art of metaphor. Their is much to be said for an economy of language in storytelling. The "show, don't tell," rule has been overemphasized, leading to graduate writing workshops across the country producing these overwrought works of fiction that sacrifice story for style.

  • The Sheepster says:

    Watch this while high from 2:15

    I'm not sorry

  • Dylan Purdy says:

    Needed this first my report card


  • emery hurst says:

    If you include an actual historical event or person it must be done very carefully and accurately.

  • Jeremiah Swanson says:

    I thought this was pretty good. By no means comprehensive, but pretty good. One thing we can do now is take advantage of technology to help our writing. For example, the thing she said about how the guy used 'gurgling' and a few other words instead of just saying 'sound'. So, what we can do now that writers back in the day couldn't is we can just enter the word 'sound' into the 'FIND' function in Microsoft Word, go to each and every time we used it and ask ourselves if a more vivid word would be appropriate. We can even go to and see what other words exists for sound, go to lists of onomatapeia (sp) and pick out the one we think would drive home the feeling we're going for the most. And then we just do that for all other plain words (sound, feel, taste, put, hold, sit, happy, sad, et cetera) and just switch them out for better, more visceral words where appropriate. Then, we can enter the word 'very' in the find function and go through the manuscript getting rid of it each and every place we can. Same thing with adverbs and so on. It's still as hard as ever to be a great writer, but it's much easier now to not be a horrible writer, at least as far as word choice is concerned. Word choice isn't going to sell your book, of course. It's story; it's making your reader feel something they want that does that. If you can do that, you can be a totally lousy writer and still be top of the heap. But, some of us enjoy fine craftsmanship too. And don't sleep, word choice can have tremendous power. The right word in the right place at the right time…that is no joke. Cheers!

  • Joe Bowman says:

    This was fantastic. I stopped halfway through to rewrite the intro to a new story. Really catalyzed my understanding. Thanks.

  • Morgan Fang says:

    Niceone madam

  • Morgan Fang says:

    Please how do we learn this?

  • Haise Kun says:

    i hope this absorbs my head like the wrinkled roots of trees.

  • Belle_. Hermione says:

    The Noodles, poison needles and bags of beach description is just really weird?? I don't see anything poetic about that at all. If you really wanted the readers to feel sorry for Billie the you could've used different choice of words.

  • Daniel Bottom says:

    Wish I had that talent

  • MISS HARLEEN says:

    Thank you for the video

  • Taisean Cody says:

    Never before have a video this short been so helpful to me.

  • Nina Nastasic says:

    That is amazing, thank you!

  • DZR DZR says:

    I loved the Hitchhiker’s reference! I don’t see that often.

  • mye forsythe says:

    Ted Ed teach me a lot better and covers hundreds of things than the school did

  • Ahmed Choudhary says:

    Creative Savants is an
    ideal writing service for those who may be busy in their lives. They might get
    writing help at 00971525441428.

  • sakura girl says:


  • TathD says:

    I'm sure the video means well, but this is like a guide to writing purple prose.

  • Firuza Achilova says:

    Why does that reading girl reminds me of Michelle Jones, that is, MJ from Spider-Man. She loves reading actually

  • Infidel Productionz says:

    I prefer the telling phrase instead of a bunch of forced metaphors. Less clunky, less purple.

  • I'm Sorry for Being Kind says:

    Is having more dialogues than descriptions okay? If not, how to make or rather develop the description paragraphs? What should we cover? Anyone?

  • Nysythic says:

    In other words…show, don't tell.

  • Corlys Velaryon says:

    the first description sounded riddiculous, the second at least made sense lol
    but I prefer Nazareadain's.

  • Suq Madiq says:


  • Green Wood says:

    Basically, do some magic!

  • Vulpes Lanius says:

    This video is cool but there are no rules or limits to your story your storytelling ability and your imagination.

  • Madara Uchiwa says:


  • Alan Paterson says:

    They taught me this at school – a very long time ago – and I loved writing that way. Much later, I was being told not to describe too much as it stops the reader from having to use their imagination. How do we balance it?

  • nyang • says:

    so i just experienced my first defeat in writing and i just feel so devastated with myself because i wasn't able to meet my expectations…

  • Denis Pepic says:

    If i were a writer i would only allow movie adaptions if i am a co director or producers

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