Jon on Writing: Descriptive Prose

City Academy's Head of Writing Jon Barton shares his top five do's (and one don't) for perfecting your descriptive prose.

Take a moment to absorb your surroundings. You could be at your desk, in a cafe, on a train. It might be in a dark place lit by the light of your phone, or against the UV rays of what we affectionately call Summer.

If forced to describe where you are right now, what might you say? Remember I am not in this place. Perhaps I have never been there. Yet (and do excuse artistic license) it is imperative I understand the world of your writing. In doing so your readers feel present. The world itself comes alive. That might seem like a tall order but consider Hogwarts and Middle Earth, Orwellian Britain or Dickensian London. Worlds matter in fictional writing, and we remember them when they feel real to us.

For this blog let us consider some approaches to descriptive prose…

1. Do Paint the Picture…

Picture yourself as a photographer looking through the lens. Now imagine: your reader will never see the photograph. You can try this with a real photo from a newspaper or magazine, remembering that the reader will never see it. So: what do you need to say to make it real? Is it necessary to write everything you see? Short answer: not necessarily! The trick (I think) is to conjure a world the reader can interact with:

“The room was warm. The gaslights in the ornamental brackets were turned up high, and a coal fire burned in the grate. The assembled crowd put out a good deal of heat themselves, fortified by the tea they had consumed earlier, and the odours of tinned salmon, cold tongue, potted shrimps, beetroot and blancmange lingered heavily in the air. There was a good deal of brow mopping and fanning, but no-one would have considered for a moment removing a jacket or loosening a tie.” Phillip Pullman, The Shadow in the North

Notice that Pullman doesn’t bore you with floorplans or décor. Instead, he uses specific detail to help us understand the room in the moment.

2. Do Use the Senses

If it seems obvious, that’s because it is! Take a look at Phillip Pullman’s writing above. He describes the heat of the snug and the smell of the food; the atmosphere in a room full of men that hold etiquette in higher esteem than comfort. Pullman is using the senses to talk about the society at the heart of the novel. Take the same photograph from earlier and try describing it from every sense except sight. It’s great fun and adds texture to your writing.

3. Do Remember the Gesture

If that word gesture feels vague, consider the following passage:

“Over the rim of the waiting earth, the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings. And once more they began to see surfaces – meadows wide-spread and quiet gardens – and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed. Washed clean of mystery and terror, radiant as by day, but with a difference that was tremendous.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Grahame has decided what affect his writing can have on the reader. He wants to enchant; to enthral; to capture our imagination. The “gesture” is the active verb you could use in your writing. What do you want your reader to feel in the moment?

4. Do Say What You Mean

Be honest. How often does a book lose your attention? Do you find yourself skimming through Tolkien? Whisper it: no-one would blame you. The trick is to remember you’re not writing an essay here. This is creative writing. Do we need verbiage? Do we need to show off our literary prowess? To make my point I’ll ask George Orwell. In his book Politics and the English Language, he translates a passage of Ecclesiastes into pompous modern English. Here’s the original:

“I returned and so under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Here is Orwell’s translation:

“Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendencies to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

Orwell takes Concrete Language and turns it into Abstract English. So be honest: which do you prefer? When editing your work, strip out the verbiage and see what happens. You don’t need to show off your literary prowess. Say What You Mean!

5. Do Write for Yourself

I always say this to writers on the Creative Writing Beginners course. It’s easy to talk about writing but sitting down to actually do it is another kettle of fish. If you’re giving it a go, the only advice that really matters is to write for yourself. Paint the picture that enchants you and say what you mean. Don’t bore yourself. Be present and write what haunts you.

Trust that we will come along for the ride.