How to write a vivid description of a city?

I’m currently writing a short story and the main character travels to an underground city, but I’m not sure how to write a description that doesn’t sound flowery. How does one write a description that really makes an image in the reader’s mind?

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That’s the question that I think all writers strive and sometimes struggle to answer. I’m not sure anyone here can tell you because we all have different styles. The way I describe a city (or anything else) is going to be different from the way someone else does.

If you’re struggling to get started, perhaps you could write down some facts, answer some basic questions. What do the buildings look like? Are they made of a certain material? Is there one color that’s really common? What kind of noises can someone hear? Are there any distinct smells? Can a person feel being underground? Maybe make a list of words that you think are really important/emblematic of your city.

Don’t worry about hooking readers or making an impression at first, just write. Once it’s on the page you can play around with it and make edits.

And I would venture to say that there’s nothing wrong with being flowery? Embrace the style that works for you.


Make a list of things which would be important to the traveler to note … in the WiP called Rewind, the traveler notes the magical runes engraved on the paving stones that protects the road from the weather.

Other things that might get noticed would include other travelers, places of business on the way there (Inns, taverns, shops, etc) and of course, the terrain they are travelling through… is it woods, hills, farm-land or maybe beside a river?

Then intertwine the important story elements into these noticed things, like the purpose of travel, the circumstances of travel or whatever elements you want to highlight for your story.



Your job isn’t to describe the entire city, but to describe the elements of the city that you interact with in such a way that it gets across the look and feel of the city through impressions rather than exposition.

Instead of thinking about what you can see with your eyeballs, think about how basic things like going out for drinks, grabbing a bite to eat, travelling around, conducting business, and getting rid of waste all work differently in this city compared to other cities.

Since the city is underground, the most important aspect of the city is “How do you get your light?”

Maybe there are no roofs on houses so the light of magical glow-worms on the cave ceiling can reach you, creating this spooky blue glow that gives everyone dark shadows under their eyes. Or maybe the buildings themselves are carved from luminescent mushrooms that colour everyone flatly from all directions with purple and yellow swirls. Maybe everyone in the town is equipped with specially-made lanterns that can never be doused and serve as their identification as a citizen, meaning that the only people you can’t see coming are outsiders and exiles, and during public events the whole city lights up from the sheer number of people outside.


Two ideas

  1. Architecture: A little expo on the history of the buildings… Victor Hugo uses this as a bridge in his descriptions of Paris in Hunchback and Les Miserable.
  2. Personhood: Cast the city as a person. It’s a little riskier as it can come off as a heavy-handed style if you don’t match the tone in the rest of your work.

My general thought is use adjectives sparingly.

Sight: What does the city look like? Anything catches the MC’s eyes?
Smell: Does the Undercity smell like toilet or sewer?
Sound: Bustling ass mofos? Ominously silent?
Touch: Probably some architecture, soil or whatever.

Atmosphere: What does the MC feel as they enter (or whatever they were doing) the city?
This stuff works for me … most of the time.

Not much more to add to the advice that’s already been given. My own method is very similar, except I try to visualize myself there (wherever there is) and mentally “look around” to get first impressions. Sights, sounds, smells, temperature. What’s the weather like? Is it clean or filthy? Well maintained or run-down?

After that I step back and analyze; is this a place that people would actually build? Does its form and function make sense? What kind of people live in this area? How do the mundane efforts of daily life work in this space? I look for logical errors at this point that might take a reader out of that space, wondering “why is X like this?”

Something I try to do is not just dump three paragraphs of descriptive exposition all at once. Work your environmental descriptions in with other actions. Have a character shiver and describe their breath fogging during a conversation if it’s cold. Mention how the haze of cigarette smoke hanging heavy in a room makes the character’s eyes itch.

Hope some of that helps!

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A few things to consider as well is the general environment of the city’s location. A player might taste the salt in the air if a city is by the ocean. Or if it is near the desert, then they might experience a dry heat.

If you really want to make it special, then you could go whole hog on this. I mean, when I think of Venice, the first thing that comes up is the canals. Hell, even an underground city isn’t out of the question…look at Derinkuyu in the real world. Heck, if you had entry by ladders, etc. then you might have something like Mesa Verde.

Sometimes cities come about from having a general purpose in mind. Trade cities are the most obvious, especially on the coasts. If this is the case then maybe the city is known for a particular item…Venice, besides being just a general middleman became known for its glass blowing. This can include natural resources…so a city renowned for its horses would be different than a city known for its timber. Once again, this can also flavor the city…a city known for its ironwork might have an area that glows at night from the forges.

However, if a city started from a military encampment, or wealthy retreat (Pompeii almost comes to mind) then it might have different services and specialties.

You mention an underground city…maybe they raise blind fish, or fungus. Heck, a cavern of crystals could also be sort of like an underground park…
Districts tend to arise in cities as well, and this could be done for emphasis. Naturally, slums immediately come to mind, but a merchant’s quarter, an artistic district, etc.


Descriptions are fun to write and read, but sometimes they’re a bit static. Give us the visuals, but also give us movement within your descriptions.

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I totaly agree, stories that are way full of description are always super boring to me bc half the time their plot sucks

That underground city description I wrote 2 years ago is pretty cool!