Are you stretching your description muscles?

Writers need to use great descriptive musclesThis week I was working with a group of kids (Grades 5 and 6) on poetry, and one thing I like to do is expand their use of language through the five senses. We talk about details and how they bring all kinds of writing alive, both poetry and prose. In poetry it’s often called imagery – I like to call it word pictures. If you can describe something in a way that “transfers” the image from your mind to the page to the reader’s mind, then that’s description that enhances your writing.

There are some great poems to use as examples, but I wondered whether there were examples from children’s novels that would be great to show them, too. So I went looking.

“He was a tall man. Nose  like a bird’s beak. Eyes of a bird, too. He gave Carl a brief glance and went on surveying the room, jerking his head in precise movements, the way a hawk surveys the ground beneath it. The eyes missed nothing.” A Bridge to Wiseman’s Cove by James Moloney.

“The afternoon wore on towards evening, and the broken glass and mica of the roadside glittered in the last, low sunlight of the day. The snowy fields glowed briefly and went dark. At the dump the fires of burning rubbish smouldered, red and smoky in the dusk.” The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban.

“We watched her sit down in class and pull from her canvas bag a blue and yellow ruffled curtain that she draped over three sides of her desk. We saw her set out a three-inch clear glass vase and drop into it a white and yellow daisy. She did and undid this in every class she attended, six times a day.” Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli.

“But with legs slotted under metal armrests, ten thousand watts of fluorescent light glaring directly overhead, hundreds of disgruntled travellers for company, an abandoned acrylic airline blanket for a cover and his loyal dog at his feet, Justin slept like a baby.” Just In Case by Meg Rosoff.

“There were dark green dots of trees and lines of windbreaks, the flashing of galvanised-iron roofs like little square pools of water, the tanks and sheds and stockyards and dams, the endless boring fences. It was my country, even more than the bush and the mountains, and definitely more than the cities and towns. I felt at home in those hot, rustling paddocks.” The Dead of Night by John Marsden

What interested me when I went looking for examples was how easy it was to find them. So many readers (young and old) say they skip lengthy descriptive passages, but I could have picked almost any page from these novels and provided examples. I think the key is that they are not only short-ish, but also very evocative, and they are in the story at a point where the reader will benefit immensely from being able to visualize where the characters are or what they look like.

Great details enhance any writing, and are a tool we dismiss at our peril.



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