Columns > Published on November 1st, 2011

Sixth Sense Settings: Writing Rich, Descriptive Scenes

Original image via Pexels

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

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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