Creating Effective Descriptions

Character

"As to Helen Burns, I was struck with wonder.... Something in her own unique mind had roused her powers within her. They woke, they kindled; first, they glowed in the bright tint of her cheek, which till this hour I had never seen but pale and bloodless; then they shone in the liquid lustre of her eyes, which had suddenly acquired a beauty more singular than that of Miss Temple's-- a beauty of neither of fine color, nor long eyelash, nor pencilled brow, but of meaning, of movement, of radiance. Then her soul sat on her lips, and language flowed from what source I cannot tell. Has a girl of fourteen a heart large enough, vigorous enough, to hold the swelling spring of pure, full, fervid eloquence? Her spirit seemed hastening to live within a very brief span as much as many live during a protracted existence" (pg 87).

Anne de Guigné.jpg

http://www.annedeguigne.fr [CC0]

Helen was a childhood friend who was very dear to me before her premature death. As a writer, I've tried to capture just how pure her heart, mind, and soul were. I've highlighted in turquoise words I used to convey Helen's inner beauty. Word choice is extremely important in creating an effective description because it helps the reader conceptualize meaning. In this case, the words I chose were ones of a higher power; my words are grand and almost heavenly. The mention of Helen's "radiance" and "soul" capture her essence perfectly as a character. Furthermore, I include a contrast phrase, "pale and bloodless" to further emphasize and illuminate the stark difference between her soul and her previous appearance.

Landscape

"A splendid Midsummer shone over England: skies so pure, suns so radiant as were then seen in long succession, seldom favour even singly, our wave-girt land. It was as if a band of Italian days had come from the South, like a flock of glorious passenger birds, and lighted to rest them on the cliffs of Albion. The hay was all got in; the fields round Thornfield were green and shorn; the roads white and baked; the trees were in their dark prime; hedge and wood, full-leaved and deeply tinted, contrasted well with the sunny hue of the cleared meadows between" (pg 290).

Thomas Cole [Public domain]

When describing a landscape, adjectives are immensely useful. However, sometimes it is equally effective to use simple descriptors, such as color. Here I utilize "green", "white", "dark", "deeply tinted", and "sunny hue". Some of these shades are relatively simple (green & white), while others are a bit complex, like "sunny hue". A sunny hue would obviously entail shades of yellow, but the wording here embodies a comfort and warmth that "yellow" lacks. Thus, giving the landscape a characteristic of emotion instead of just physical features.

Emotional Response

"Incommunicative as he was, some time elapsed before I had an opportunity of gauging his mind. I first got an idea of its calibre when I heard him preach in his own church at Morton. I wish I could describe that sermon: but it is past my power. I cannot even render faithfully the effect it produced on me.

It began calm—and indeed, as far as delivery and pitch of voice went, it was calm to the end: an earnestly felt, yet strictly restrained zeal breathed soon in the distinct accents, and prompted the nervous language. This grew to force—compressed, condensed, controlled. The heart was thrilled, the mind astonished, by the power of the preacher: neither were softened. Throughout there was a strange bitterness; an absence of consolatory gentleness; stern allusions to Calvinistic doctrines—election, predestination, reprobation—were frequent; and each reference to these points sounded like a sentence pronounced for doom. When he had done, instead of feeling better, calmer, more enlightened by his discourse, I experienced an inexpressible sadness; for it seemed to me—I know not whether equally so to others—that the eloquence to which I had been listening had sprung from a depth where lay turbid dregs of disappointment—where moved troubling impulses of insatiate yearnings and disquieting aspirations" (Pg 408). 

Grko-katolicka_crkva_Novi_Sad.JPG: BokicaKderivative work: Mile [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Describing how an event makes you feel may be complicated. To start this task, take the reader through the event slowly and take your time describing said event. For example, I begin by expressing the passionate manner St. John Rivers preaches his sermon with. However, by the end I entail the emotion I experienced as a response. One can accomplish this effectively by being direct, such as "I experienced an inexpressible sadness.." and explaining why. Here, the case is that St. John's heart has not found the peace of God that many other preachers praise and he seems to be disappointed in not following his hidden aspirations.

Intense Emotion

"It is a very strange sensation to inexperienced youth to feel itself quite alone in the world, cut adrift from every connection, uncertain whether the port to which it is bound can be reached, and prevented by many impediments from returning to that it has quitted. The charm of adventure sweetens that sensation, the glow of pride warms it; but then the throb of fear disturbs it; and fear with me became predominant when half-an-hour elapsed and still I was alone" (pg 111).

Zitkala-Sa reading.jpg

Gertrude Käsebier [Public domain]

When describing complex emotions such as anxiety, impatience, frustration, or loneliness; it can be helpful to include a metaphor. In this case I included, I am waiting alone for someone I have never met. I compare this feeling to a sail boat that is unsure of its journey and destination. Through comparison, I have effectively described the anxiety running through my head at the time. However, to explain the entirety of the situation, I address both sides by mentioning the good points of a new experience(adventure and pride). I lastly address the fear behind my situation to place emphasis on the fact that it is my predominant emotion.

Setting

"A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inn rooms have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantelpiece, such prints, including a portrait of George the Third, and another of the Prince of Wales, and a representation of the death of Wolfe. All this is visible to you by the light of an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling, and by that of an excellent fire, near which I sit in my cloak and bonnet; my muff and umbrella lie on the table, and I am warming away the numbness and chill contracted by sixteen hours’ exposure to the rawness of an October day" (Pg 111). 

xlibber [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

In order to create an effective description of a setting, a writer needs to make his reader feel as if they can avidly imagine themselves in the scene. I've included my most descriptive piece about writing a setting here. I think it is important to note my advice at the beginning: address every aspect of the atmosphere! I even go as far to describe the ambiance of the situation by talking about the light provided from an oil lamp. With careful attention to detail, one can achieve the perfect description.

 

With these helpful hints, writer, you will become an expert at descriptions in no time!