Describing the Indescribable

“[Bill] entered the room, which could only be described as nondescript.”

I’m going to leave off the citation of where I stumbled across that particular sentence to protect the guilty.  The next few lines, not surprisingly, proceeded to describe the room.  It was an office waiting room, with tan carpeting, brown chairs, neatly stacked magazines, and forgettable pictures upon the wall.  So clearly the author was going for the “characterless” definition of nondescript and not the “defies description”, but it is still a bizarre way to establish a setting.

Take them there
Don’t start by telling the reader how they will view the scene, show them.  I’ve been in enough office waiting rooms to have picked up the vibe of the room without having to be told it was characterless before we even got started.  If you make the description come alive, you won’t need to tell them how to interpret it.

Close your eyes
Put yourself in the scene and discover what captures your attention first.  Close your eyes and imagine the room all around you.  Fill it in. What’s in the corner, what are the colors, how high is the ceiling, is anyone else there?  What is the first thing that captures your attention?  What dominates the room?  Start there and work outwards.  It helps you create an experience and not just check off a list of objects.

Bring in the other four (or five) senses
People are usually visual creatures, but think how powerful a certain song or smell can be to call up a feeling or memory.  Don’t limit descriptions to the colors and position of things in the scene, but also how they smell, sound, feel, and maybe even taste if it works.  In the room in my example, was a droning Muzak cover of Barry Manilow playing through a feeble speaker?  Did the fake plants and cheap furniture fill the room with a faint plastic smell?  Could you feel your shoes stick to the stains hidden in the complex pattern of the cheap carpeting? And if you want to go for broke and bring in a sixth sense, like a feeling of deja vu or a cold shiver, go for it.

Describing a scene effectively is key to understanding how your characters react within it.  Don’t skimp on the details, and don’t tell the reader how to react.  If it turns out your scene really is beyond description, well, then you have a whole different set of problems on your hands.

About Jeff Moriarty

A dabbler in many arts, from Ignite Phoenix to Improv, and from Information Security to Screenwriting. Jeff loves creating new things, and tries his hand at many forms of writing from screenplays to prose. He pontificates on his personal blog, and helps authors get their works online.


  1. Jason Nulph says

    When I lived in Pa I worked in a hospital my friend was a county trooper (police) and we talked about smelling something and how it would invoke the most powerful of emotions. When I was in highschool I found a body of someone whom had been hit by a train. The tracks ran at the bottom of our property and found him while riding my motorcycle, he was a headbanner, I’m guessing his walkman got him killed and didn’t hear the train.

    That smell is something you never forget.

  2. @Jason – I’ve never smelled that level of decay, but I can only imagine how it would stick with you. But you are absolutely right about the power of smell. There’s a certain, musty smell, creeping through attempts at sanitization, that takes me back to my dorm room in college like a time machine.

    I wonder if connections through smell are so strong because it is a less used sense for most people. So the connections it makes stand out from visual ones.