Descriptions That Bring Your World To Life

Lovely descriptions in novels make my mouth water. Having said that, pages and pages of nothing but awesome descriptions make me start flipping pages to get to the action.

Below I’ve posted some descriptions I find particularly intriguing.

A black shadow dropped down into the circle. It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk.–Rudyard Kipling The Jungle Book

Skies the color of torn plums –James Lee Burke He apparently liked this one also because it appeared in more than one book

Pale hair fell in waves to his shoulders, framing a face mortal females considered a sensual feast. They didn’t know the man was actually a devil in angel’s skin. They should have, though. He practically glowed with irreverence, and there was an unholy gleam in his green eyes that proclaimed he would laugh in your face while cutting out your heat. Or laugh in your face while you cut out his heart.”
— Gena Showalter (The Darkest Night)

A tight flock of sheep moving before a circling dog, like mercury on a sloping glass. Herds of black and white cows drinking their reflections.–John Prebble’s Scotland

The library itself was my favorite place in the castle. Its floor was covered by a thick, soft carpet, its walls made of dark wood. Mazes of tall, book-crammed shelves filled the interior. The windows, which curved out from the side of the building, were twice as tall as a man; the huge velvet curtains that covered them used to be red and were still soft and warm. On cold days I liked to take a book and curl up on one of the sills. Wrapping a curtain around me like a blanket, I would alternate between reading and staring out at the distant village, forest, the mountains. –Bruce Coville’s Goblins in the Castle

At the edge of the ribbed level of sidings squat a low cottage, three steps down from the cinder track. A large bony vine clutched at the house, as if to claw down the tiled roof. –The Odour of Chyrsanthemums” by D.H. Lawrence

The general furniture was profuse comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. — The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe

Little bells clang against the door as I walk into the [barber] shop. It smells of soap, steam, hair lotion, and elderly flesh. Everything is pale green. The chair is old and ornate with chrome, and there are elaborate bottles lining dark wooden shelves, and trays of scissors, combs, and razors. It’s almost medical; it’s very Norman Rockwell. –The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

The waiting room is pink and violet, I suppose to soothe the patients. Dr. Kendrick is a geneticist, and not incidentally, a philosopher; the latter, I think, must be of some use in coping with the harsh practical realities of the former. Today there is no one here but me. I’m ten minutes early. The wallpaper is broad stripes the exact color of Pepto-Bismol. It clashes with the painting of a watermill opposite me, mostly browns and greens. The furniture is pseudocolonial, but there’s a pretty nice rug, some kind of soft Persian carpet, and I feel kind of sorry for it, stuck here in this ghastly room. — The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

The village of Mitford was set snugly into what would be called, in the west, a hanging valley. That is, the mountains rose steeply on either side, and then sloped into a hollow between the ridges, rather like a cake that falls in the middle from too much opening of the oven door. — At Home in Mitford, Jan Karon

I went up to the terrace again and looked out on the tawny, many-alleyed city. At night it looked carved from brown sugar. –Pat Conroy (Beach Music)

Several years ago, during a writer’s chat, I tossed out a challenge. How would you describe a stormy sky?

It was an interesting discussion. This was an exercise we did off the top of our heads and only spent two minutes at the most on it. To no ones surprise, Beth Shope came up with a description that was breath-taking. I had always hoped to see it in a book, but to date I have not seen it appear yet. Descriptions are one thing I love about Beth’s writing, but she has that innate artists eye to know that the lush, must also be balanced by the drama in the shadows. The tension keeps you turning the pages until you realize it’s 10:00 in the morning and those few chapters you intended to read before you retired turned into the entire book. Even so, with the longing to find out what happens next, I find myself going back and re-reading some passages just for the sheer beauty of them.

Some of the descriptions above are lengthy and literary and others are short and powerful. They are the descriptions that we wish we had written. We stop and look at them and think, “This is so simple. I could have written this. Why didn’t I write this?”

Because it takes a true artist to convey an inspiring description so flawlessly everyone thinks they could have written it. It looks simple and easy and yet as writers, at some point, we realize the truth. Doing something so perfectly takes practice and attention. It doesn’t just happen. That one perfect sentence might come after ninety-nine imperfect sentences.

Montana, specifically the Lincoln area, inspire my soul. When I was up there after my father had his stroke, I spent each day driving back and forth from Lincoln to Ft. Harris where he was in the hospital. There is something about the mountains that make me want to write. I want to pull off beside the road and soak in the beauty. Memorize it. Capture it forever.

These are the times when we stash away those little gems of description that make our work come to life. The secret, though, is to scatter them judiciously across the fabric of our work so they stand out simply because they are rare and precious.

Recently, I’ve begun working on SONG OF ILWEN again. In the beginning, Jhia lives in a lush Thomas Kincaide-like setting. The flowers are full and thick along narrow, meandering paths. Ancient trees with icicles of moss tower over them. The elves literally live in the trees that have been their homes for generations. It would be easy to get lost describing the beauty of the place, but I have to give people a reason to care first.

Now I am stuck on that one perfect passage. Lily, her pixie friend had just wriggled into a closed lily bud. She squirms around until she at last pops her head out of the end of the bloom to talk to Jhia. It shouldn’t be hard to describe this, but this is the point where I plant the gem and give a glimpse into the world my readers are entering.

It isn’t easy polishing that stone.

One Comment

  1. Julie,

    Thanks for the compliments. (blush) As to that storm description, I can’t remember what I wrote and I don’t think I saved it. I don’t suppose you have it?

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