“Descriptive writing is an art form. It’s painting a word picture so that the reader ‘sees’ exactly what you are describing.”
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What’s the big deal about writing descriptively? For one thing, it’s much more than page-filling fluff. Descriptive writing imprints images into the reader’s mind, making you feel as though you’re “right there.” It‘s all about engaging the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch to transport the reader and stir emotion. By choosing vivid details and colorful words, good writers bring objects, people, places, and events to life. Instead of merely telling you what they see, they use their words to show you.
Writers use this powerful method to make their pieces memorable—even brilliant—rather than dry and boring. In many ways, description is the most important kind of writing you can teach your children. Why? Because it supports other reasons for writing such as storytelling, informative reports, or persuasion.
Even if your child never aspires to write stories or poetry, description is a wonderful skill to develop. Without it, all other writing falls flat.
Describing a Place
Vivid writing is especially important when describing a place — whether to describe a vista for a travel guide or flesh out a scene in a novel.
Master storyteller Charles Dickens was also a master of using description to create a mood.
It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, arid vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. ~Charles Dickens, Hard Times
But your child doesn’t have to be a Dickens to add color, depth, and interest to his writing. Here, a ninth grader draws on all five senses to describe a place and create a mood.
Moist and salty, a chilly breeze blows in across the swells, bringing with it the pungent smells of seaweed and fish and making me pull my jacket a little closer. Sea spray transforms into fiery prisms as the waves splash against the shore, catch the last golden rays of sun, and toss them up like liquid crystals.
With a few tips and tools, your child can effectively describe a place too.
Suppose he’s planning to write about a desert. He’ll need to describe basic desert features, of course: sand, rock, hills, and dunes. But deserts aren’t all alike, so his word choices will need to reflect the kind of desert he wants to write about. For example, if he chooses a desert in the southwestern United States, he’ll probably describe plants such as sagebrush, Joshua trees, yuccas, or saguaro cacti.
But if he’s writing about an oasis in the Sahara Desert, where vegetation is much different, he would instead describe date palms, oleanders, acacia trees, succulents, and desert grasses. His description of either desert scene will spring to life as he tells about these places using rich and appropriate details.
Finding Vocabulary for Describing a Place
How do you help your child study his subject and choose strong words that make his writing sparkle? Whether he decides to write about a desert, city, rain forest, or pond, these ideas will help him find words that will form the foundation of his descriptive piece, narrative story, or report.
Using a Search Engine
Search engines such as Google make a great resource for inspiration. In addition to collecting general terms about the location’s flora and fauna (the desert, for example), he’ll also find concrete, specific nouns and adjectives that add color to his writing. Suggest that he begin his search by looking up terms like these:
- desert landscape
- desert features
- desert climate
- desert plants
- desert animals
- desert description
What if your child wants to describe a city instead of a desert? City words are trickier to find, and he may have to hunt more. Try some of these search terms:
- describe city sights
- describe Chicago, describe Pittsburgh, etc.
- “describe downtown” (use quotes)
Using Other Sources
While search engines can lead you to a wealth of information, don’t discount the value of print media such as magazines and books. Also consider digital media such as TV documentaries or DVDs about the subject.
When describing a place, visit in person, if possible. But if not, can you explore a spot with similar features? Many children are visual and tactile learners. If your child wants to describe what a sidewalk looks like, how about taking him outside to explore the sidewalk on your street? It will help him describe the texture, color, and appearance of a city sidewalk, even if you live in a suburb.
As your child searches the Internet, ask him to keep an eye out for adjectives that describe desert or city features (or whatever place he wants to write about). Encourage him to come up with words on his own, but also to watch for words he meets in articles or photo captions.
If he doesn’t understand some of the words, pull out the dictionary and make it a teaching moment! And show him how to use a thesaurus (we love The Synonym Finder[aff]) to find other words that say the same thing. Both of these exercises will help his vocabulary to grow.
Some Desert Adjectives
Desert:harsh, dry, arid, sparse, severe, hot
Rock:sharp, rough, jagged, angular
Grasses:windblown, bent, dry, pale green, brown
Sand:coarse, fine, glittering, shifting, rippling, sifting, white, golden
Sky:pale, intense, cloudless, azure, purple, crimson
Cactus:tall, short, squatty, spiny, prickly, thorny
Date palm:tall, bent, leather (leaves), frayed (leaves)
Some City Adjectives
City:active, bustling, noisy, busy, clean, dirty, windy
Traffic:loud, congested, snarled
Buildings:old, shabby, rundown, crumbling, modern, futuristic, sleek, towering, squat
Buildings (walls):brick, stone, marble, glass, steel, graffiti-covered
Monuments, statues:stone, copper, carved, ancient, moss-covered, faded, green, bronze
Sidewalk:concrete, cement, slick, cracked, tidy, littered, swept
Paint:fresh, weathered, peeling
Signs:neon, weathered, worn, bright, welcoming, flashing
Buses, cars, taxis:belching, crawling, speeding, honking, waiting, screeching
People:hurried, bundled, smiling, frowning, eager, rushed
Use these suggestions to encourage your child come up with ideas for describing a place of his own. You’ll both discover that hunting for words can become a favorite pre-writing game! And as your child dabbles more and more in descriptive writing, I’m confident his words will soon begin to “show” more and “tell” less.
. . . . .
Do you struggle with teaching and grading writing? Does your child’s writing need a boost? Consider adding WriteShop to your curriculum choices for this school year!
The first seven lessons of WriteShop I specifically teach your teen descriptive writing. This important skill is then practiced in the remaining informative and narrative writing lessons. In addition, WriteShop teaches—and offers practice in using—a wide array of sentence variations that help to enhance a student’s paper with fresh style and vigor. When combined with strong, dynamic word choices, sentence variations give dull writing new life.
For younger children, WriteShop Primary introduces K-3rd graders to activities that widen their writing vocabulary. Book C contains three specific descriptive writing lessons. WriteShop Junior, for upper elementary, also provides many opportunities for students to incorporate description.
Learn more here.
Photos: Alice, Dietmar Temps, & Phillip Capper, courtesy of Creative Commons
RU Contributor Rayne Hall returns with a post on things you should consider when writing outdoor scenes.
If your scene takes place outdoors, the location can enrich the plot. The characters may appear or feel small in the vast landscape, helpless, overwhelmed and lost. Nature—sometimes unpredictable, sometimes inevitable—shapes events.
Outdoors settings often work well for:
- Love scenes (for example, the doomed loves meet on the windswept moor)
- Battles (for example, two medieval armies clash in the blistering desert heat).
- Quests (for example, the hero must find the hermit who lives in the forest),
- Explorations (for example, the archaeologists excavating an ancient temple)
- Searches (for example, the police team with dogs searching for a body in the woods)
- Climax scenes (for example, the hero and villain have a final showdown on the cliff edge)
What’s the weather like?
For an outdoors scene, make sure you involve the weather, and show how it affects the characters and the actions:
Which direction does the wind come from? How strong is it? What’s the temperature like? Does the rain hit the PoV from the front or from behind? How does the weather affect the character – does the hail sting her cheeks, is water sloshing in her shoes and creeping up her socks, does sweat trickle down her armpits?
What does the sky look like?
Describe its colour—if possible in more imaginative ways than ‘blue’ or ‘grey’ and the pattern of clouds. Be creative, because descriptions of the sky can serve to establish the PoV’s mood and may even foreshadow events.
Where’s the sun?
Where does the sun stand in the sky—in what direction, and how high? How sharp and how long are the shadows? How bright or sparse is the sunlight? What hue does the sunlight give to the surroundings—does it gild everything with a warm glow, does it create stark contrasts? Describe if something glints, gleams or sparkles in the light.
The location of the sun and the quality of the sunlight not only conjure atmosphere, but give clues to the season and the time of the day. In the morning, the light tends to be cool and clear, showing everything in bright colours with crisp outlines. Around noon and early afternoon, the light is intense and harsh, with very short shadows, and everything looks washed-out and pale. In the late afternoon, the light becomes softer, warmer, dipping everything in a golden glow, and the shadows lengthen. Sunset brings magnificent colour effects. (Note: these effects can vary depending on where in the world the story takes place.
What’s the ground like?
Is the asphalt dotted white with seagull droppings, or black with old chewing gum? Are the paving-slabs cracked, lichen-encrusted or worn smooth? What sounds do the PoV’s footsteps make? Is the lawn shorn short, or tangled with weeds? Is the ploughed field so soggy that clumps of clay soil attach themselves to the walker’s boots, or is it baked hard in the dry heat?
In urban locations, what kind of rubbish lies on the ground—empty beer cans, used condoms, or apple cores? What kind of graffiti are sprayed on the walls?
What kind of plants grow?
What trees grow in the place? Pines, pears or poplars? Are they winter-bare, verdant with young leaves, laden with fruit, or gilded with autumn? Tall or dwarfing, sparse or lush, stunted from continued severe winds or crippled by an overzealous gardener’s pruning shears?
How are the lawns and gardens kept? Do tulips stand in orderly rows, or do weeds choke the gardens? What are the weeds—brambles with their thorny tentacles, sycamore seedlings plotting to turn the garden into a dense wood in a few short years, or dandelions cheerfully resisting the gardener’s strict regime?
What sounds are created by the environment?
Cars humming/roaring/whining past? Leaves rustling overhead? Twigs breaking as an unseen animal steps on them? The outdoors is never completely silent. If you want to emphasise a sense of silence, do it by describing a faraway noise (for example, the distant howl of a coyote).
What animals can be seen or heard?
Mentioning an animal brings life to a scene. Is there a dog splashing in the brook, a cat lazing on the low wall, or an owl hooting in a distance? Perhaps a heavily-laden donkey plods past, or a horse clip-clops down the lane. Do birds twitter, chirp, screech?
What does the place smell of?
Outdoor scenes need smells, unless it is very cold. Smells are great at evoking a sense of the place, and a single sentence about smells achieves more than a whole paragraph of visual descriptions. What does the air smell of? Bonfire smoke? Lilies in bloom? Freshly mowed grass? Petrol fumes? The warmer the temperature, the more intense the smells.
How do people move?
The weather and temperature affect the pace and purpose of movement – for your story’s characters as well as for everyone else.
If it’s cold, people move fast, with their hands in their pockets. They don’t linger, and they avoid gestures. They don’t do anything outdoors unless they have no choice. Individuals who have to spend time outdoors, may rub their hands, stomp their feet or hug themselves for warmth.
If it’s raining, they move fast, usually leaning forward, with their heads bent.
In warm weather, people linger. There may be groups milling about.
In hot weather, movements are slow, languid. People don’t work outdoors unless they have no choice. Individuals may choose to hang out in the full sun, while many seek the shade of walls or trees.
Mistakes to avoid
Don’t write outdoors scenes without specific weather. They lack realism.
Don’t forget to show the sun (or the clouds hiding the sun), the wind (even if it’s only a faint breeze) and the temperature.
- Go somewhere out of doors—take your dog for a walk in a municipal park, or sunbathe on the beach, or have a cup of tea in a pavement cafe—and observe the light, sounds, smells, wind, weather, ground and sky. Also watch how people are moving. Jot down your observations and add them to your Settings Description Bank.
- For the outdoors scene you want to write or revise, decide the location, season, time of the day and weather. Write one sentence each about the sunlight, ground, sky, weather and temperature, to insert into the scene.
WRITING DEEP POINT OF VIEW
Do you want to give the readers such a vivid experience that they feel the events of the story are real and they’re right there? Do you want them to forget their own world and worries, and live in the main character’s head and heart?
The magic wand for achieving this is Deep Point of View.
Readers love it, because it gives them the thrill of becoming a different person. The reader doesn’t just read a story about a gladiator in the arena, an heiress in a Scottish castle, an explorer in the jungle, a courtesan in Renaissance Venice—she becomes that gladiator, heiress, explorer, courtesan.
Deep Point of View hooks readers from the start. After perusing the sample, he’ll click ‘buy now’ because he simply must read on, and when he’s reached the last page, he’s grown addicted to the character, doesn’t want the story to end, and buys the next book in the series at once.
A reader who has been in the grip of Deep Point of View may find other books dull and shallow. Who wants to read about a pirate, when you can be a pirate yourself? Immersed in Deep PoV, the reader enjoys the full thrills of the adventure from the safety of her armchair.
In this book, I’ll reveal the powerful techniques employed by bestselling authors, and I’ll show you how to apply them to rivet your readers. I’ll start with the basics of Point of View—if you’re already familiar with the concept, you can treat them as a refresher—and then guide you to advanced strategies for taking your reader deep.
Bio: Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in RayneHall – Fantasy Horror Author – reduced size Portrait by Fawnheartseveral genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. She is the author of the bestselling Writer’s Craft series (Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and more) and editor of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.
She is a trained publishing manager, holds a masters degree in Creative Writing, and has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years.
Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian on the Sulu Vivid Settingssouth coast of England where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne’s arms when she’s writing.
To learn more about Rayne, visit her website or follow her on Twitter where she posts advice for writers, funny cartoons and cute pictures of her cat.