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