Good description paints a picture of a place, a scene, or a character with just enough detail to let the reader fill in the blanks. Using details which involve the five senses–sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches–helps description come alive.
To give students models for good descriptive writing, copy, share, and analyze favorite descriptive passages from books:
Notice the abundance of smells (and their attendant sights), in E. B. White’s description of the barn in Charlotte’s Web:
The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell–as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. and whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.
In the following passage from Patricia MacLachlan’s The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, notice how MacLachlan reveals something about Minna’s character in addition to showing us the passing scene from the bus, and people on the bus:
The bus passes cars and bicycles and people walking dogs. It passes store windows, and every so often Minna sees her face reflection, two dark eyes in a face as pale as a winter dawn. There are fourteen people on the bus today. Minna stands up to count them. She likes to count people, telephone poles, hats, umbrellas, and, lately, earrings. One girl, sitting directly in front of Minna, has seven earrings, five in one ear. She has wisps of dyed green hair that lie like forsythia buds against her neck. (p. 1)
MacLachlan uses the barest of details to sketch a picture of Minna’s brother. Notice how her description touches on McGrew’s personality–in relationship to Minna–as well as his physical appearance:
Minna smiles at her brother. He is small and stocky and compact like a suitcase. Minna loves him. McGrew always tells the truth, even when he shouldn’t. He is kind. And he lends Minna money from the coffee jar he keeps beneath his mattress. (p. 2)
Here’s MacLachlan’s description of Minna’s mother. What do the details tell us about what Minna’s mother is like?
Her mother wore a white oxford cloth shirt that belonged to Minna’s father. The sleeves were rolled up, her brown curly hair wild around her face. The typewriter clacked. Papers littered the floor. The television was on. By her mother’s feet there were laundry baskets, one piled on top of another, clothes pouring out, one basket filled to the brim with striped soccer socks. (p. 18)
In the first of two passages below from Attaboy, Sam, Lois Lowry shows us a “snapshot” of an aquarium on a busy day. Notice how in the second passage we are very much “inside” Sam’s head as he looks around:
The Aquarium was very large, and today it was crowded with children. There were groups from schools, like Sam’s, with teachers and mothers telling the children again and again to stay together and hold hands. There were parents pushing strollers and pointing out fish and sharks and turtles to babies who were sucking pacifiers and looking sleepy. There were teenagers wearing Walkmen and dancing a little bit to music that no one else could hear. (p. 64)
He looked around. The Aquarium lady was talking, and most of the children were paying attention to her. Mrs. Bennett was also listening to the Aquarium lady. Leo was examining the underside of a starfish, and Leah was making her fingers walk along the rim of the tidepool area. No one was looking at Sam. (p. 67)
A place and a character description from Bruce Coville’s Goblins in the Castle:
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. (p. 2)
About three feet away from me a strange-looking person rolled on the floor, shaking with laughter. His snorts echoed weirdly from the stone walls.
After a while the man (if man he was) caught his breath and pushed himself to a sitting position. He had huge, deep-set eyes and a balding head that glowed softly in the torchlight. His nose looked as if it had once been squashed, for it spread broadly across his face – most of which was covered by a huge black beard that hung halfway to his knees. A large hump rose from the upper right side of his back. He wore an old fur coat that reached almost to his feet, which were covered by battered boots laced with thick strips of leather. (p. 8)
In Absolutely Normal Chaos, author Sharon Creech does a wonderful job of staying in the voice of her young narrator, Mary Lou, while describing Mary Lou’s first look at the cousin who has come to stay with her family for a while:
Carl Ray is tall and skinny, about as skinny as a person can be and still be alive. He has the blondest hair, almost white, and it sticks out in places like at the top of his head and by his ears where it is cut kind of short. He is real pale and has a million freckles all over his face and his arms, which were the only parts of him sticking out, but I bet he has those freckles everywhere. He has tiny little eyes and a tiny nose; in fact, his whole head looks like a miniature of a real person’s head. So there is this tiny little head perched on top of this tall, thinnnnnn body, and off this body hand two longggg, thin, freckled arms and two longgggg, thin, legs and two long, thin hands and two longggg, thin feet. What a guy.
Ask students to share and/or copy into their journals favorite descriptive passages from books they are reading.
Having a good memory is helpful when writing description, but observation can fill in where memory fails. Here are some writing exercises to teach descriptive writing AND observation skills:
- Ask students to go to a place and actually take notes on what they observe happening there. The place could be a park, a room in their house, a ball game, a museum, their dentist’s office, etc. They should write down everything they see, hear, smell, taste, touch. Later, they can use these notes to help construct a description of the place. Ask them to write themselves into the place as first person narrator.
- Have students close their eyes and imagine a place they know well. This time they will be taking notes on the place from memory (rather than direct observation). As before, ask them to use their notes to construct a description of the place with themselves as first person narrator.
- Ask students to observe someone in action–their mother fixing dinner, their sister playing basketball, a stranger in the grocery store, a classmate on the playground. They should take notes on what the person does or says, what he or she looks like, what the person’s surroundings are like. Ask students to use these notes to write a third person description of what they saw happening: (Example: Leaning over the stove, Mom lifted the lid from a potful of broccoli. Steam rose up, clouding her glasses. “I hate it when that happens,” she said, setting the lid on the counter. Pulling off her glasses, she wiped them on the hem of her apron, then shoved them back onto her freckled nose. She poked at the broccoli with a fork… )
See also: Show Don’t Tell
From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com