descriptive writing

All posts tagged descriptive writing

The Hobbit-Hole

Published September 3, 2012 by Elsa Pla

I’m still using the sentence inventory (refer to the post titled “The Sentence Inventory”) to study the way my favorite authors construct their sentences and use special effects (rhetorical devices, etc.).

The exercise consists of completing a sentence inventory (see the chart below) for either a paragraph by a favorite author or your own paragraph.

Here’s a chart I created. Please feel free to modify it and use it.

Sentence Inventory

This time I chose to analyze the first two paragraphs of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Here’s my filled-out chart:

Sentence Inventory Filled

Lots of great stuff here! This passage is all description: Tolkien is  starting to build a fantasy world, so he uses whimsical sensory and spatial details to help the reader visualize the initial setting. Because he’s describing a place and not an action, the main verbs are fairly simple; that allows the descriptive details (with their verbs) to stand out. I love the way Tolkien takes the reader on a tour of the hobbit-hole, starting at the green, round door and ending at the windows where the reader can see the “garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.”

The sentence structure is amazing: he uses compound sentences, unusual sentence beginnings, snappy sentence endings, em dashes and parentheses, commas and colons, and clauses of varying length. Notice the rhythm created by ending long compound sentences with short independent clauses. Wow.

There are many more rhetorical devices to notice: alliteration (hobbit-hole), repetition (lots and lots, on and on), parallelism (all were; the best rooms were; for these were), and more.

I’ll end by pointing out Tolkien’s delightful use of adverbs: a perfectly round door; a very comfortable tunnel; fairly but not quite straight. I think the adverbs add a unique flavor to the passage.

I plan to continue my sentence analysis for one more week.

I’ll post again next Monday.


The Hole in the Lake

Published August 8, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Today’s exercise:

Describe an outdoors setting for a story. The setting must be a real place you have visited or lived in. Think about how the place made you feel (happy, sad, scared, etc), and try to capture that feeling in your description. The purpose of this exercise is to practice using setting to create mood.

Here’s my attempt from a story I’m working on:

The lake was the color of boiled plantain leaves. It lay captured between verdant hills teeming with tropical life, the lush vegetation interrupted here and there by the modern dwellings of the well-to-do residents of the area. I glimpsed the glistening green water between branches and leaves as I treaded – with difficulty – down the steep asphalt road that snaked through the gated community.

I searched for the wooden steps that led from the side of the road down the embankment to the communal dock. The steps were partly hidden by bamboo trunks, so it took me a few moments to find them. Going down the steps was tricky, for they were being taken over by the surrounding vegetation. Aggressively so, I realized, as I tripped on a root and almost went down on my behind the rest of the way. The bamboos swayed and creaked loudly. Maybe coming here wasn’t a good idea, even if it was broad daylight. I slowed my pace and held on gingerly to the wobbly railing until I had made it down safely.

I now stood on the sturdy, wooden planks of the dock. The surrounding bamboos provided a shady reprieve from the summer heat and, best of all, privacy. I breathed in and out the thick organic scent that enveloped the dock and admired the liquid-green expanse before me. The summer breeze shook the branches and rustled the leaves, creating groaning and swooshing sounds. It was as if the trees were complaining, resenting my presence.

I pulled up a grimy plastic chair, plopped down, and concentrated on slowing down my breathing.  Alone at last, thank God. The thought, of course, was ludicrous. This was a tropical island, and I was sitting among – at the very least – a thousand living things. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and tried to ignore the groaning trees plus the buzzing, chirping, scratching, pecking, plopping, gurgling, and scrabbling all around me. I was sufficiently far away from my mom, and that’s all that mattered. She was having one of her bad days, and if I stayed inside the house listening to her for too long, her craziness would start seeping into me, and I certainly didn’t want that. (I have enough of my own craziness, thank you very much.) So I had run away to the dock at the first chance I got.

Normally I wouldn’t have chosen to come down to the edge of the lake, but I was desperate for a bit of peace and solitude. And the lake offered both. I loved to gaze at it from a distance – it was lovely as a calendar picture – but I was reluctant to get too close, especially after one of my neighbors was found dead and bloated, floating face-down right behind our house, where our property reached the water.

The dock, as I had expected, was deserted. Now that I felt more relaxed, I opened my eyes and admired my surroundings. The day was so hot and hazy that the lake resembled a bowl of hot soup, but where I was sitting the temperature was pleasant.  Thank goodness for those creaky bamboos, otherwise lounging here would have been unbearable. I studied the tiny insects skimming the surface of the water and the fish bubbles that popped now and then. Dragonflies bobbed up and down in the hot, muggy air.

I imagined all manner of insects, spiders, centipedes, frogs, and lizards, perfectly hidden, quiet and hungry, acutely aware of my presence. Correction: I did not imagine them, I was as acutely aware of them as they were of me. A strange thought crossed my mind: if I were to drop dead on this dock, all those critters would greedily feast on my body. There you have it. Those are the kind of cheery thoughts that often creep into my brain.

I plucked the little predators out of my mind, and tried to focus on the pretty way the water rippled and glistened. But, as I glanced across the lake, I saw the hole. And my thoughts wandered in a different, darker direction.

Hopefully I’ve created a suspenseful mood. Now you try it! 🙂

Developing Muscle

Published July 26, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Ursula Le Guin compares adjectives and adverbs to candy and warns us to not overindulge:

“I would recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.”

The following exercise is from her book Steering the Craft:

“Write a paragraph to a page of descriptive narrative prose without adjectives or adverbs. No dialogue.”

[Then, analyze the result:] “Would the piece be improved by the addition of an adjective or adverb here and there, or is it satisfactory without?”

The purpose of this exercise is to practice using strong nouns and verbs. That way, our use of adjectives and adverbs becomes intentional and artful.

My attempt:

The soldier marched to the top of the hill and observed the town below through binoculars. The sun was rising and a mist hung over the tops of the buildings. He listened and scanned the scene for evidence of life: people on their way to work, vehicles, smoke wafting out of chimneys, lights. A bird was chirping. Other than that, he didn’t see or hear a thing.

He waited for the sun to light the streets before descending the hill and entering the town. He stole through the stillness and the silence and stopped in front of a church.  Someone had boarded up the windows and bolted the doors. The soldier cursed. The fools had abandoned the town without setting the portal on fire. Now he would have to do it.

Okay, that was difficult. Now you try it! 🙂

Mining Your Surroundings

Published July 24, 2012 by Elsa Pla

The Simile

Today’s exercise is a simple and fun way to mine your surroundings for ideas.

First, a lovely and fitting quote by Ray Bradbury:

“Ideas lie everywhere, like apples falling and melting in the grass.”

Exercise: Take a moment to observe your surroundings. Write five unrelated sentences, each containing a creative simile inspired by your observations.

My attempt (I underlined the subject that inspired the simile):

1- The swarm of bees buzzed and circled like questions.

2- The black cat glared at me, her yellow-green eyes glowing like exit signs.

3- The wizard got up, his old bones creaking like a rocking chair.

4- The old woman was full of secrets like an ancient stoppered bottle.

5- Like a baby-blue blanket of velvety fleece, the summer sky stretched over the golden meadow.

I just love to play with words! Now you try it! 🙂

Tell Me What You Feel

Published July 19, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Describing Emotion

Today’s exercise is similar to yesterday’s.

Write a paragraph where you talk about a character’s feeling or feelings by describing the emotion(s) being experienced by him or her.

Here’s how one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, does it:

“Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life…You give them a piece of you. They didn’t ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness. So simple a phrase like ‘maybe we should be just friends’ turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.” Neil Gaiman, The Sandman

Here’s my attempt:

Whoever said time heals all wounds, lied. When someone you truly love — someone you allowed in your heart and life forever — stops loving you, it’s as if you become shipwrecked on a desert island… and all the memories – all the conversations, the time spent together, the moments that meant so much – all that made up the you and I of that sacred oneness – transforms into a million needles embedded deep in your heart, and you are left there to spend the rest of your life trying to pull them out, or waiting for them to travel to the surface and fall out, or hoping they will dissolve with time. And some disappear, but not all. And when you least expect it, a dream, a song, a scent, wakes up the familiar pain, and you miss him or her all over again, and it hurts like crazy, and you cry and cry like a baby, not just with your tear ducts, but with your insides, and your head throbs so much it’ll surely explode, and you curl up on the ground, resigned to the fact that this time you will die  – except you don’t. And so it goes, this pathetic life on the island of lost love, where pain like needles returns with the tides. Whoever said time heals all wounds, lied.


Depressing, again! No worries, tomorrow I’ll share a lighter exercise.

Just for Fun

Published July 16, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Let’s lighten up a little…

Write a description, using sensory details and at least one simile, of an encounter with a villain or a monster.

Here’s my attempt, inspired by a picture of a zombie-like vampire:

When I first glimpsed the creature, I was terrified. It was one ugly monster. Then my fear turned to revulsion. Finally, I just felt sorry for the guy. Who was the fool who came up with the notion that vampires are good-looking? This thing was as handsome as a plate of moldy leftovers. Its skin looked like a flaky leather bodysuit, and its nails were grubby and absurdly long. A rotten vegetable stench wafted from its desiccated body — I bet it hadn’t taken a bath in a long, long time. Its eyes were bloodshot, like it hadn’t slept in decades. And its teeth were… let’s just say the thing was in dire need of dental work. It had obviously tried to trim its ridiculous hair, but of course, not in front of a mirror. I could tell it was seriously peeved, though granted, I would feel the same way if I were stuck wearing that dorky tweed coat and that silly red scarf.

“Pathetic,” I muttered as I deftly unsheathed my wooden sword.

The vampire scrunched its leathery brow and hissed. Then it made the same mistake they all make: it attacked me.

I lunged forward like lightning and yelled, “Die, you filthy animal!”


Fun times! Now you try it! 🙂



The Barn, Again

Published July 13, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Using the Objective Correlative, Part 2

I edited yesterday’s post:  I changed a couple of “it’s” to “its” and made better word choices. (One of the features of WordPress I love is that you can go back to your posts and fix your mistakes.)

Here again is the exercise from The Art of Fiction by John Gardner:

“[1] Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then [2] describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.”

My attempt at part 2 of the exercise:

The red barn was still there — a heart in the middle of a golden meadow. Ancient and alone, it had waited for the right hands to open up its boarded windows and doors. It had waited for light and life to find their way back into its rafters and stalls. All it needed was a sweeping away of cobwebs, a fresh coat of paint, a sturdy beam here and there. All it needed was someone who could imagine the possibilities – someone full of dreams and joy — someone who cared.