How to write fantastic descriptive passages

Part 1. Places

We’ve had lots of conversations in my critique group lately about how to describe places and people.

So I thought I would check out how children’s greatest and best authors tackle it, starting with place…

Here’s an extract from…

His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman.

imagesDirectly ahead of the ship a mountain rose, green-flanked and snow-capped, and a little town and harbour lay below it: wooden houses with steep roofs, an oratory spire, cranes in the harbour, and clouds of gulls wheeling and crying. The smell was of fish, but mixed with it came the land-smell too: pine-resin and earth and something animal and musky, and something else that was cold and blank and wild: it might have been snow. It was the smell of the North.

Isn’t he a master at painting scenes with words!

The passage is packed with detail. He starts by describing what Lyra can see from the deck of the ship and then he explores the smell of the place, slowly, so we are standing right next to Lyra tasting the air with her, trying to identify that part new, part familiar smell. The description also conveys a sense of Lyra’s anticipation and excitement. She has finally arrived in the North.

Also check out the punctuation. He uses a mixture of colons, commas and the conjunction ‘and’ to structure the scene. This variation prevents the passage from feeling blocky. He has also achieved a rhythmical quality with lots of doubled-up descriptions e.g. “green-flanked and snow capped,” “wooden houses and steep roofs,” “pine-resin and earth.” It’s a lovely passage to read aloud.

The Way We Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

images-3This short passage is from an early scene when Daisy arrives at her aunt’s farm jetlagged and overwhelmed. It’s appropriately short, as Daisy literally can’t take everything in. Rosoff describes the farm and its inhabitants in one broad sweep to reflect her character’s mood.

There was a welcoming committee staring at me through the window and in it were four kids, and a goat and a couple of dogs…and in the background I saw some cats scooting around after a bunch of ducks that for some reason or other were hanging out on the lawn.

A few pages later, when Daisy’s had a chance to explore, Meg Rosoff lets her pen flow.

First let’s get it clear that the house is practically falling down, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to make any difference to how beautiful it is. It’s made of big chunks of yellowish stone, and has a steep roof, and is shaped like an L around a big courtyard with fat pebbles set in the ground. The short part of the L has a wide arched doorway and it used to be the stable, but now it’s the kitchen and it’s huge, with zigzag brick floors and big windows all across the front and a stable door that’s left open, Whenever it’s not actually snowing, says Edmond….

 Daisy has a wonderful voice and it’s a neat technique, having your main character give the reader a tour of the house and grounds. A benefit of first person POV.

The passage goes on for two pages, which tells us that Daisy is curious by nature and rather enjoying her change of scene.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K Rowling.

I have to include Harry Potter because it haHarry Potter landscapes such iconic imagery and fantasy settings are the product of the author’s imagination, so in theory tougher for the writer to convey. What’s particularly interesting about the The Philosopher’s Stone, and typical of J.K Rowling’s style as a whole, are the scattered short descriptive passages. Individually they’re not terribly clever. They don’t have the poetic quality of Philip Pullman or the voice of Meg Rosoff’s, Daisy; but J.K Rowling works another trick here. She weaves her description around the character’s action and dialogue so cleverly, the reader feels as if the story is unfolding in its entirety in front of their eyes. A cinematic quality, which perhaps is the reason the books are so popular with such a wide range of readers.

“Yeh’ll ger yers firs’ sight o’ Hogwarts in a sec,’ Hagrid called over his shoulder, ‘jus’ round this bend here. There was a loud ‘Oooooh!’ The narrow path had opened suddenly on to the edge of a black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its window sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and windows.  ‘No more’n four to a boat,’ Hagrid called, pointing to a fleet of little boats sitting in the water by the shore.

Checkout that structure! Dialogue/characterisation (with a touch of foreshadowing),then action, reaction, place description, dialogue and place description again.  Great storytelling!

So five things to remember:

  • Show’ a place from the character’s viewpoint (not the author’s). A character’s mood and ability to observe/feel their surroundings can change considerably from scene to scene.
  • Detail, detail detail! Pin sharp detail makes a place seem real. A great setting can influence the mood of your protagonist and set a mood for the whole book. Know your setting’s quirks like you know the quirks of your characters.
  • Utilise all the senses. Authors rely far too much on sight.
  • Think about the descriptive words you use and the structure of your sentences. Similes, metaphors, rhythm and repetition can massively enhance a descriptive passage, as can active verbs and well placed adjectives, and yes, even the odd helpful adverb.
  • Don’t write your descriptive passages in a great lump of prose unless you are very skilled at all the above techniques, in which case, you may be excused as “being literary.”

Next post: How to write fantastic description – Part 2. People




Philip Pullman – On writing

Philip Pullman


I confess I bought the ticket to see Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival by accident. I meant to buy Hilary Mantel, but me being me, got confused about dates, clicked on the wrong button and lo an behold a “congratulations you have a front row ticket to see Philip Pullman” message pinged into my email – huh!  

So a month later,  I sat in the front row at the Smithsonian with two hundred Pullman fans (who would have been horrified to discover that one amongst them hadn’t read even one Philip Pullman book!)  Perhaps it was serendipity, my daughter was about to turn eight and had just started to read her first chapter books and I’d just started a Curtis Brown Creative, Write a Children’s Novel course. My knowledge of middle grade fiction was sketchy, based solely on what I’d read at that age – Enid Blyton and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series. I had no idea how amazing contemporary writing is for this age group.

What captivates children’s imagination is hard to pin down but Philip Pullman knows how to do it. There is nothing light or slight about his stories, they are both magical and mature in their themes. I have enjoyed Northern Lights and The Firework Makers Daughter as much as my daughter.

So here is what Philip Pullman had to say about dust, daemons and writing for children.

When did you decide that writing for children was what you wanted to do? “I taught in an upper school and I`d been writing stories and songs since I was very small. I read the Odyssey and the Iliad to the class, which was also my apprenticeship in story telling. I wrote plays for the school and many of my younger fiction novels evolved from those early play scripts.”

Do you have a concept theme or idea and then think this story suits it or do you start writing a story and let it come out as you write? “Always the story first, it comes alive as I write. I go back and make adjustments to the opening and other chapters of course, many times.”

 Do you revise a lot? “Yes a great deal. My process is to write by hand three pages a day.”

 When did you decide to become a full-time writer? “When I could make enough money! Which wasn’t until after Northern Lights was published.” He thought it would sell 5,000 copies like his other books. Little did he know!

 You have an interest in the Victorian Era, evident in the Sally Lockhart quartet of books. “I like this era because there is enough stuff around from the 19th century to get a feeling of what it was like. It’s close enough in time to know how they speak and it was a great era for reading – pamphlets, newspapers, penny dreadfuls and the novel.” The Sally Lockhart series is reminiscent of the Moonstone by Wilkie Collins with a gripping plot and atmospheric setting. The New Cut Gang, set in 1890’s Lambeth, has a Dickensian influence.

 When it comes to your greatest work, His Dark Materials, you’ve gone back to Paradise Lost and reworked Milton. “I first encountered Milton in 6th form English. It wasn’t until I was a quarter of a way into Northern Lights that I realised this is the story in this book, the theme.”

 How much of the whole sequence did you have when writing Northern Lights did you know it was going to be that long? “I didn’t know the mass of story was going to turn into a thousand pages. It was easier to publish three books than one. One novel in three volumes.”

 You have expanded slightly with Lyra’s Oxford. “The publishers thought it would be good to have a map of Lyra’s Oxford. It contains picture and photographs.” Once upon a Time in the North was written for his son. He wanted to know how Iorek Byrnison, the Ice bear and Lee Scoresby, the aeronaut met. It’s set 20 years before Lyra was born.

 Dust is one of the phenomena in Dark Materials and Daemons is the other. Did you imagine these from the start? Dust yes, daemons not at first. When I first wrote about Lyra she didn’t have a daemon. She was in the same situation, trapped in a room and it wasn’t working, until one afternoon I got to about the 15th of 16th attempt writing this chapter and I found myself writing Lyra and her daemon and it took me by surprise. It doesn’t often happen, so I wrote the next sentence to see how it worked out and then the paragraph and it worked because Lyra had someone to talk to and someone to respond and to and argue with. It was much more dynamic. So everyone had a daemon and they changed shape, but the rest of the chapter still didn’t work. I realised why it was. The children’s daemon could change shape but the adults couldn’t. The story is about the loss of innocence.”

 What about the removal of the daemon from the owner? “That works in the story, you are horribly shocked. I built up the belief they can’t be separated. Someone that does it on purpose must be a villain.”

 How easy do you find it to conjure up people, beings or objects? “I read a lot of nonfiction, biography and travel. We are blessed with museums and I’ve visited many while teaching or parenting, they have played a great part in my imagination. The alethiometre, which Lyra learns how to read, is based on the beautiful instruments in the Museum of Science. It has a series of symbols, which are taken from the iconography of the art in the renaissance. With the Amber Spyglass. She needs a special glass to see something she can’t see normally. In The Subtle Knife, there needs to be someway to move between worlds and Lyra needed a key.”

 How happy are you with the adaptations in theatre and film? “The theatre productions have been stunning. With film, sometimes films disappoint us; if we see the film first we can never get the face of the actor out of our head when reading the book. I knew when Northern Lights was published there might be film interest and I found myself talking to producers and indulging in fantasy casting. The only bit of fantasy casting that came true was Nicole Kidman, who did it marvelously well. The cast was terrific. The performances they gave were uniformly good. I thought it was a great pity the film ended before the book did, I think they became a little bit afraid of the implication of the film. There had to be a part two and three. Now there would have to be a new cast as Dakota Richards has grown up and Daniel Craig is too expensive. I would like to see it as a long TV version across twenty or more episodes. I don’t know if anyone would do it.”

Do you think writing is a moral art and if you do, do you find it inspiring or a challenge? We are moral beings, yes, we are, but I don’t serve up stories with a moral, I let it happen. You will inevitably put in a story what you feel to be true, morally ethically, politically. You can’t get away from it.

 The church features prominently in your book, is it a vehicle for your beliefs or criticism of the  institution? “What I have always criticised is religion once it gets a grip on political power, and can dictate how we live, dress, what we eat and how we behave and what we can say. Then religion gets more arrogant and dangerous.”

 How has Oxford inspired you? Oxford is a strange place. You can go down a street you might have walked down a hundred times and there will be a door open and behind it a beautiful garden which you never expected. Or you can suddenly come across a window at your feet. It’s not difficult to image it changes overnight and I have a fantasy about gargoyles from New College who go off together fishing in the river.

 What’s next? “And finally, The Book of Dust. My work on this has been interrupted over the past couple of years, but the book is growing slowly and before long I shall take it up again full-time. What can I tell you about it? Nothing, except that it’s by far the most important thing I’m doing, and I intend to do it as well as I possibly can.”

The Book of Dust, a combined prelude and sequel to Northern Lights and will be released the back-end of 2015.