Sixth Sense Settings: Writing Rich, Descriptive Scenes

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What the heck are we talking about?

Welcome to November. If you are participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), then you have just embarked on your month-long novelling odyssey. To help you reach your daily word counts, I’m going to focus on ways to enrich your description. If you’ve spent even a little time in the creative writing atmosphere, you’ve probably heard the adage “show, don’t tell.” Generally speaking, it’s a reminder to writers to describe what happened in a scene instead of just blurting it out. For example:

I fell asleep at the wheel, and I drove into a tree.

Sure, the reader knows what happened, but written this way, it doesn’t engender much interest or emotion. Here is another way to write the same scene.

I awoke to the violent crunch of metal on wood, the hiss of the radiator, and the sickly sweet smells of antifreeze and gasoline.

By invoking a few senses, the scene comes to life. Adding the sights, smells, and sounds allows the reader to imagine the moment. It’s a relatively simple way to better engage your reader and bring him or her deep into the world you are creating. In addition to the five traditional senses—sight, touch, smell, taste, and sound, use of the sixth sense—mood (not the ability to see dead people) is equally important to writing rich, believable scenes. It can also be called tone. Whatever you call it, even the most detailed description can fall totally flat without deliberate evocation of the appropriate emotion. Let’s try that car-crashing-into-a-tree example again. Below are two examples that each have a particular tone or mood that enhances the actual description.

Example 1:

I opened my eyes to find my Caddy hugging a tree; its shiny blue hood was now ruffled like a prom dress, the radiator was sighing like a lover, and the sweet aromas of antifreeze and gasoline danced to the rhythmic tinks and pops of the car as it settled into its arboreal embrace.

Example 2:

Car. Tree. Bits of bark, leaves, and metal shards everywhere. Blood. I pass a tongue over my smarting lip. My blood. Oh god. What is that smell? Sweet, chemical... and is that a hint of…GAS? OhgodIgottagetouttahere!

In the first example, I overlaid an emotion not typically associated with a car crash—tenderness. The imagery and metaphors suggest a lighter, less scary moment. Though, the reader could reasonably assume that the speaker is not in his or her right mind, too. That adds the question of the reliability of the narrator, and if you were trying to demonstrate to your reader that your narrator can’t be trusted, using this sort of juxtaposition might be a good way to start. (We’ll go more in depth on reliable narrators another day, but if you can’t wait, here’s a decent explanation on the web.)

The second example uses short sentence style and staccato pacing to evoke a panicked tone. Details are fed to the reader in the order that the narrator notices them. Interjections of emotive phrases heighten the sense of danger. It’s a more realistic reenactment of a car crash and the person experiencing it.

See a Master at Work

Ok, now that you’ve read my attempts, let’s review a piece from a Master of Description. Charles Dickens is one of those writers whose settings are known by people who haven’t even read a single sentence of his work. Dickens’ early to mid-1800s London is the baseline for so much of how we see and remember that period of time in books, movies, and theater. His stories were fictional, but his descriptions of his home-city were thoroughly researched and deliberately realistic. They resonate with us even now, long after that city has been replaced by a modern metropolis.  

Let’s read the opening chapter from Bleak House:

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Dickens sets the scene immediately with the simple statement of “London.” Then he draws the reader in closer and begins to show him or her bits of this very specific kind of London in a very specific kind of weather. He evokes all six sense as he moves from the physical environment to the particular experiences of certain people (and animals) who are affected by the weather. Imagine if he’d written this instead:

It was a muddy and foggy November day in London.

If you have some experience of London, or fog, or mud, or typical English November weather, you might be able to conjure a significant mental image. If you know Dickens wrote it, and you knew a little bit about him, you might imagine a few more details. If not, this would give you little to work with. The tone is flat, lifeless. The reader is not given a clear indication of how to feel about it, except by his or her own pre-judgments about fog, mud, November, or London.

Dickens, instead, pulls his reader into the world he’s setting up. Although this scene was contemporary to him, even a modern reader can picture the context of this moment… the omnipresent fog and the primordial mud that seeps into every crevice of life, hindering man and animal alike. It’s hard to read these paragraphs and not feel a shiver, not to smell a whiff of damp, not to sense the foreboding. The tone of the passage, as indicated by the book’s title, is truly bleak.

Now, It's Your Turn

For practice this time around, rewrite Dickens’ scene to convey a completely different tone. Keep the details the same, but change the word choice and metaphors to create a different mood. Do this for at least one other tone, if not two. Please post your versions as comments. I’d love to read them! If you don't want to post, email them to me:

Get Bleak House by Charles Dickens at Bookshop or Amazon

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Bryan Lee Jacobson's picture
Bryan Lee Jacobson November 1, 2011 - 10:32am

LONDON.  Shadows in every corner, lurking at the back of every alley.  The flickering gas lights do little to hold them back.  People everywhere huddled against the cold and dark.  Some striding purposefully with a glint of menace in their eye, others shrunken in on themselves with anxious gaunt, faces. 

All the smells of a city, smoke, leather, the tang of horse manure, a damp air of rot rolling in from the river, and under it all a disturing hint of blood, death and decay.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart November 1, 2011 - 11:43am

Awesome, Bryan! That's great. I sure wouldn't want to be in London in that scene. YIkes. I love that you kept the dark mood, but darkened it up even more--closer to horror. London's not cold, it's downright deadly. Nicely done, and thank you for sharing!

Raelyn's picture
Raelyn from California is reading The Liars' Club November 1, 2011 - 1:37pm

Taylor, all of your articles have been wonderful. Are you planning on teaching a class on LitReactor? 

derekberry's picture
derekberry from South Carolina is reading Eating Animals November 1, 2011 - 2:08pm

This is quite cool. I'm not participating in NANOWRIMO, but the column is appreciated.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart November 1, 2011 - 3:14pm

Aw shucks, Raelyn. Thank you! At this time, I'm not set to teach for LitReactor, but ya never know. Thank you for reading. If you have any requests for topics for articles, let me know!

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart November 1, 2011 - 3:30pm

Thanks Derek! I haven't decided if I'm participating in NaNoWriMo this year or not. I did last year, and it was fun even though I didn't even hit 30k words. It's just nice to give yourself license to write a lot and not worry about editing it (until later.) Very freeing! I probably will this year, too.

Daniel Donche's picture
Daniel Donche from Seattle is reading Transubstantiate, by Richard Thomas November 8, 2011 - 3:19pm

Yes, the column and this article are appreciated. I often forget all about using smell in my scenes, which really stinks.

Andy Domonkos's picture
Andy Domonkos from White Plains, New York November 26, 2011 - 11:54am

London.  The fog sits on the city like its own risen spirit exhumed from its stone and glass body.  Deep breaths sting, the air laced with a barbed chill.  Men hold tightly to their women’s elbows, as the pairs peel their shoes from the muddy glop caked across the city’s streets and corridors.  They step high in woolen garb like cadets on parade, and fine stockings are stained and ruined and even the shoes themselves are filled tight with foul earth. 

The day is not properly lit up, and the Sun seems feeble and lazy.  On the pockmarked streets where paths to work and home have been hard earned, children flicker in the earthen clouds like apparitions.  Painted with mud like miniature savages, they give chase to one another armed with fistfuls of mud to sling.  Their merry laughter and playful screams of ambush chime out in the nether hang, bouncing to and fro, while pedestrians jerk their heads nervously towards the sounds, as the spirit looms around them.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart December 1, 2011 - 10:20am

Fantastic, Andy! Thank you VERY much for sharing this with us. Love the description of the children and the juxtaposition of their merriment with the generalized atmosphere of hardship.

will.mazgay's picture
will.mazgay from Toronto is reading Trinity by Conn Iggulden November 15, 2013 - 9:58am

London. The beating heart of a rich and proud empire. A celestial shroud of fog cloaks the November morning in obscurity, but underneath the wet and the cold, the rich symphony of an energetic metropolis plays on the morning air. There is a resounding clangor of ships sailing up and down the mighty Thames, which is accompanied by softer, more personal notes; the raucous laughter of the pubs, the chaotic din of the markets, the slosh and sucking of mud as the city's inhabitants moved like a school of salmon through the busy streets. 

The pungent aromas of soot and horse dung are almost comforting, for they are able to pierce the veil of mist and remind the grey morning that there is life here.

High above the lively, industrious city, the majestic Tower of London, and Big Ben (the regal crown of the great hall of Parliament), punch through the fog. These stalwart stone sentinels stand firm as they look down in loving protection on their city, both splendiferous symbols of affluence and power.

A dank chill cuts to the bone of the wealthy and the destitute alike, but the warmth of chimney fires, and the emanations of heat from thousands of bodies help to keep the cold at bay.