“You can’t miss it. It’s the big yellow house on the corner.”
“Officer, he was bald with a tattoo of a turtle on the top of his head.”
“I just asked to borrow a pen, and she gave me a look that would freeze hot coffee on a July day.”
"The classroom was uncomfortably warm"
"The car was a joy to drive"
"The instructor looked more like a homeless person than a college professor."
"The office was obviously a place where serious work was done."
Where would we be without description? It is used every day to communicate the essentials of life and to add the embellishments that keep listeners hanging on every word. In writing, too, description helps readers understand your point and keeps them waiting for the next detail.
1. ELEMENTS OF DESCRIPTIVE WRITING
Every scrap of information we collect about the world around us comes through our five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It is logical, then, that descriptions painted using sense impressions present a more vivid picture to your reader.
In writing, descriptive imagery is most often visual. Visual impressions are strong and lasting. Psychological studies confirm that people are more likely to rely on what they see than on what they hear. For example, you would not be fooled by a clerk’s “Thank you” if his facial expression said, “I hate my job.” If it is true that seeing is believing, then creating a visual picture for the reader is particularly important in descriptive writing.
Our sense of hearing also gives us information about the world around us. We are warned by the blast of a horn, energized by the driving beat of rock music, or soothed by the thunder of the ocean. Imagery that appeals to a reader’s sense of hearing is an essential dimension of descriptive writing.
The sense of smell has a powerful connection to memory. The smell of freshly popped popcorn may summon the claustrophobic feel of a dark, crowded movie theater. Awhiff of furniture polish can bring back an aunt’s
stately dining room. Using imagery related to smell can help to complete the picture you create for your reader.
The sense of touch is a backdrop for all experience. As you sit reading this, you may feel beneath you the hard surface of a wooden chair or the softness of sofa cushions. You may be aware of the chill of air conditioning or the warmth of sunlight, the scratch of a wool sweater or the cottony feel of
an old pair of jeans. Imagery that brings out textures and temperatures adds a special touch to the picture you draw for your reader.
Taste imagery may play a smaller role in your writing unless you are writing about food. However, used sparingly, references to taste add spice to your descriptive writing.
2. SPATIAL ORDER
Spatial order helps you to write about anything that takes up space. Use spatial order to present physical objects in a way that makes sense: bottom to top, left to right, background to foreground, or outside to inside. A partial list of words commonly used when referring to space follows.
above beyond near right ahead by next to south
around down north toward behind east on under
beside in over underfoot between left overhead west
Look at the following short paragraphs. In which paragraph is spatial order used in a more organized way?
The singer looked as if he had just stepped out of the 1960s. His hair, twisted into thick dreadlocks, fell almost to his shoulders. On his feet were chunky leather sandals. A small golden ring pierced his left nostril. His hands, clasped around the microphone in front of his chest, were ringed in silver and turquoise. He wore a faded pair of jeans that flared into a wide bell over his ankles. Over his shirt, he wore a soft leather vest that ended at his waist in a beaded fringe. His shirt, open at the neck, revealed a silver and turquoise necklace. He wore a small golden earring on one ear. He looked as though he belonged on a Woodstock poster.
The model walking down the runway looked like a movie actress from the 1940s. Her hair curved under just above her shoulders and dipped across one eye as she turned her head. Her eyebrows were arched and penciled, and her lipstick was a deep red. The jacket of her gray pinstriped suit was padded at the shoulders and nipped in at the waist. Her skirt hugged her hips and legs tightly and flared below the knee. She wore dark stockings with seams up the back, and stiletto heels that looked impossible to walk in. She looked as though she had stepped out of an old black-and-white movie.