Saturday, 28 September 2013


Image courtesy of

  • Describing a person, place or thing in a way that creates a picture in the reader's mind
  • Using as many as possible of the five senses - sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch - when describing something
  • Including not only what is going on 'outside' the character who is describing something, but also the emotions and feelings it arouses 'inside'
  • Not rambling on at great length using many flowery adjectives. This can become both tedious and meaningless. Descriptive words need to be relevant and precise in order to be powerful
  • Using comparisons and/or contrasts to help reinforce the description
I think including as many of the senses as possible make a real difference when writing descriptions. 
I recently went to Tuscany for a holiday. The scenery was stunning and I soon found myself grabbing a notebook to jot down descriptions of this, that and the other for future reference! Once home again, and reading what I'd written, I realised that
the descriptions that had the most impact, and brought Tuscany back to me most vividly, were those that also included senses other than just the visual, such as:
  • sounds - "the tinny chimes of the church bell" or "the lazy click-clack of someone walking along the narrow cobbled street down below".
  • sight, smell (and taste) - "the mouthwatering lusciousness of the fat, red tomatoes roasting with garlic and rosemary and lashings of olive oil wafted out of the window as I gazed across the valley to the sun setting below the distant, silhouetted hills". It's almost impossible to bring to mind the smell of those oily, garlicky, rosemary tomatoes without also imagining how they're going to taste!
  • smell, touch - after visiting a rather run-down, decrepit 12th century church, I wrote about the "musty, candle-scented air" and described how the "cold lifelessness of the marble under my hands, and the pigeon droppings on the floor, and dust everywhere made me feel sad that the church was so neglected".
Our senses are vital in our inter-reaction with everyone and everything, and I think the more of them we use, the more of an affinity is created. If we put our minds to it, I'm sure we could all write a paragraph or two of fairly eloquent prose about the visual beauty of a tree. But to bring it to life in a reader's mind, we'd need to bring in more of the senses. The sound of its leaves, for example, rustling in the breeze. Or perhaps the creaking of an aged branch. And maybe we'd describe the feel of the ridged crustiness of the trunk against our hand. And that smell of earthy oldness. And what about that sense of feeling safe and protected when we stand close to a mature and venerable tree...

When he opened his eyes the moon was full on his face. He could smell his own sickness on his flying jacket and he could feel, in a way that pained and troubled him, the beat of aircraft engines pumping and thundering in his left arm. This arm was also wet and hot. The terrible thump of engines beating down the arteries seemed as if they must finally sever the arm from his shoulder. (From 'Fair Stood the Wind for France' by H. E. Bates. First published  1944 by Michael Joseph)

Later, after they'd eaten a lunch of boiled eggs and potatoes with bread, Tariq napped beneath a tree on the banks of a gurgling stream. he slept with his coat neatly folded into a pillow, his hands crossed on his chest... Laila sat on the edge of the stream, dipping her feet into the cool water. Overhead, mosquitoes hummed and cottonwood seeds danced. A dragonfly whirred nearby. Laila watched its wings catch glints of sunlight as it buzzed from one blade of grass to another. They flashed purple, then green, orange. Across the stream, a group of local Hazara boys were picking patties of dried cow dung from the ground and stowing them into burlap sacks tethered to their backs. Somewhere, a donkey brayed. A generator sputtered to life. (From 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' by Khaled Hosseini. First published 2007 by Bloomsbury Publishing)

The scullery was a mine of all the minerals of living. Here I discovered water - a very different element from the green crawling scum that stank in the garden tub. You could pump it in pure blue gulps out of the ground, you could swing on the pump handle and it came out sparkling like liquid sky. And it broke and ran and shone on the tiled floor, or quivered in a jug, or weighted your clothes with cold. You could drink it, draw with it, froth it with soap, swim beetles across it, or fly it in bubbles in the air. You could put your head in it, and open your eyes, and see the sides of the bucket buckle, and hear your caught breath roar, and work your mouth like a fish, and smell the lime from the ground. Substance of magic - which you could tear or wear, confine or scatter, or send down holes, but never burn or break or destroy. (From 'Cider With Rosie' by Laurie Lee. First published 1959 by Hogarth Press)

My heart thudded. Not like before when it had just been beating a little faster than normal; now it thundered against my chest wall as if it was trying to escape and burst out of my body. When I closed my eyes everything was red and pimpled with stars. I could hear a strange sound, deep and gasping, and it took several seconds before I realised it was me, struggling for air... I held onto the drawer-knob for dear life. At that moment it was the only substantial object left in my world.
The inexplicable panic continued to roar through me like a giant tidal wave... I opened my eyes and the wall came and went in a way which made me want to be sick. Armies of mice raced across my shoulders and down over my arms. I swallowed hard, only there wasn't anything to swallow. I was on the inside of a jagged scream which at any minute was about to explode into a million wounding shards. (From 'Dependence' by Sue Noye Clark. To be published 1st November 2013 by Matador)

Jack Firebrace lay forty-five feet underground with several hundred thousand tons of France above his face. He could hear the wooden wheezing of the feed that pumped air through the tunnel. Most of it was exhausted by the time it reached him. His back was supported by a wooden cross, his feet against the clay, facing towards the enemy. With an adapted spade, he loosened quantities of soil into a bag which he passed back to Evans, his mate, who then crawled away in the darkness. Jack could hear the hammering of timbers being used to shore up the tunnel further back... The sweat ran down into his eyes and stung them, making him shake his head from side to side. (From 'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks. First published 1993 by Hutchinson)

Ellen sat awhile listening to the soothing chirrup of the cricket and the pleasant crackling of the flames. It was a fine, cold winter's day. The two little windows at the far end of the kitchen looked out upon an expanse of snow; and the large lilac bush, that grew close by the wall, moved lightly by the wind, drew its icy fingers over the panes of glass. Wintry it was without; but that made the warmth and comfort within seem all the more. (From 'The Wide Wide World' by Elizabeth Wetherell. First published 1850)

Long descriptive passages are a thing of the past: today's readers have neither the time nor the patience for them. Therefore, whenever you include them, you have to make them work hard for you. They should paint in the background of the story, elicit some emotional response in the reader and be an integral part of the story, not merely an embellishment. They should also be painted vividly and briefly.
A description of a threatening storm or a deserted landscape or a brilliant summer's day should convey something more to the reader than a mere picture of the setting. In the first two, the reader should experience an inner shiver of apprehension and a feeling that something is going to happen. In the latter, all is well for the character involved, at least for the moment. If a tiny cloud appears far off on the horizon, however, we know trouble of some kind is on its way before long.(From 'The Fiction Writers' Handbook' by Nancy Smith. First published 1991 by Judy Piatkus (Publishers) Ltd)

"In my opinion, descriptions of nature should be extremely brief and offered by the way, as it were. Give up commonplaces, such as: 'the setting sun, bathing in the waves of the darkening sea, flooded with purple gold,' and so on. Or 'swallows flying over the surface of the water chirped gaily.' In descriptions of nature one should seize upon minutiae, grouping them so that when, having read the passage, you close your eyes, a picture is formed. For example, you will evoke a moonlit night by writing that on the mill dam the glass fragments of a broken bottle flashed like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or wolf rolled along like a ball.'" (Anton Chekhov, quoted by Raymond Obstfeld in 'Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes'. Writer's Digest Books, 2000)

No comments:

Post a Comment