1. Ubrechor
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    Ubrechor Active Member

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    Excerpts of brilliant descriptive writing

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Ubrechor, Jun 16, 2011.

    I'm trying to break out of the habit I've formed over the years of supplying my writing with so many adjectives, adverbs and fancy linguistic devices that I smother the true meaning and give my potential readers literary indigestion. I know that the very greatest authors are never "too wordy", but instead take the time to choose the very best words to describe in a brief way exactly what they mean.

    I would really find it interesting (and I'm sure others would as well) if people all posted some of their all-time favourite descriptions from books that they've read. Could be a paragraph of description, or just one really good sentence. And it could be describing a character or a setting or a feeling, or anything really. I'm just looking for really top quality description from your favourite authors.

    ---

    I'm currently reading Writing For Pleasure And Profit by Michael Legat (which, incidentally, has some great, in-depth tips and advice for the beginner and experienced writer). One excerpt I found there was from Barbara Willard's The Sprig of Broom:

    "It was mid-October, the harvest well stored. The sun was as hot as if it shone in the first week of September, but a tumbling sky threw great clouds before the wind, and when the sun was obscured then all the promise of winter was in the air. But it was magic weather, a gift to sweeten the sadness of the ending year. There were still blackberries, thick and dripping with juice, but these would remain on the bushes, for by now, as it was said, the Devil had spat on them and they should not be eaten. So birds gorged themselves, and the ground and the leaves of the brambles were strewn with purple droppings. The water, half shadow and half glitter, threw back the colours of beech and bracken tossing them over the boulders like gold and copper coins."

    This excerpt, Legat goes on to say, "almost goes over the top in its richness - almost, but not quite , because Barbara Willard is a first-class writer and knows what she is doing."

    I just thought it painted such a vibrant picture of the scene in my mind that I was wondering:

    - how many other people have had this problem of overflowing their writing with description upon description
    - if anyone else had come across any similar passages whereupon they just thought "wow, that is some great descriptive writing!"
     
  2. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    "Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as a flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster." - Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"
     
  3. Declan
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    Declan Senior Member

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    I used to have this problem, but found quickly that cutting out adverbs (except the one I just used and the one after this) dramatically improves the standard of writing, as you are using verbs to convey what is happening (showing, rather than telling).

    One of my favourite peices of descriptive writing is actually in T.S Eliots Prufrock:

    And would it have been worth it, after all,
    After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
    Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
    Would it have been worth while,
    To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
    To have squeezed the universe into a ball
    To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
    To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
    Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
    If one, settling a pillow by her head,
    Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
    That is not it, at all.”

    ...and so on and before...
     
  4. Suadade
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    Suadade Senior Member

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    Me, I'm really more of a fan of short & snappy sentences that kind of set the scene with a few crude brush strokes so the imagination naturally fills in the rest. This often crops up in song lyrics, of course, because when writing lyrics you don't have that many words to work with.

    Currently I'm reading Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities and Tom Wolfe doesn't strike me as an author who likes saying things with a few words. Here's a description of a character that I liked, though:

    "Kramer liked to survey his face and his build in the mornings. What with his wide, flat features, his blunt nose, his big neck, nobody ever took him for Jewish at first. He might be Greek, Slavic, Italian, even Irish - in any event, something tough. He wasn't happy that he was balding on top, but in a way that made him look tough, too. He was balding the way a lot of professional football players were balding. And his build... But this morning he lost heart. Those powerful deltoids, those massive sloping trapezii, those tightly bunched pectorals, those curving slabs of meat, his biceps - they looked deflated. He was ****ing atrophying!"

    What I like about this is that it's not just a crass description of the character's appearance; the subtext details a number of things about the character as well. His neurotic relationship to his own Jewishness, his infatuation with his own perceived toughness, the thousand minor annoyances that have come with his new child (his physique isn't up to par because the baby has gotten in the way of his exercise).

    So, subtext, I suppose, is important. All good authors are capable of saying things without putting them into so many words, and of saying many things at once, as well. Other than that, if you really just want a straight-up description, I guess a certain beauty (as in, this is enjoyable to read) and vividness (as in, this reading makes me see what is being described in my head) of the language is what I'd look for first-hand.
     
  5. ImaginaryRobot
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    ImaginaryRobot Member

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    I love the way Salinger can use description to capture a character in just a few words. This paragraph from his story The Laughing Man is so smooth and beautiful and manages to convey a vivid sense of the people being described as well as the narrator:

    Off hand, I can remember seeing just three girls in my life who struck me as having unclassifiably great beauty at first sight. One was a thin girl in a black bathing suit who was having a lot of trouble putting up an orange umbrella at aJones Beach, circa 1936. The second was a girl aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1939, who threw her cigarette lighter at a porpoise. And the third was the Chief's girl, Mary Hudson.

    I stole the general framework of that paragraph and used it in one of my own stories. Everyone in my writing group picked it as their favorite paragraph. I hated telling them where I got the idea from.

    Karen Russell is another writer who I would gladly steal from - though I haven't yet. Her collection of stories St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is haunting and evocative without ever feeling forced. Here is a great paragraph from the story Haunting Olivia.

    ...I take a running leap down the pier --

    "Ayyyyiii!"

    -- and launch over the water. It's my favorite moment: when I'm one toe away from flight and my body takes over. The choice is made, but the consequence is still just an inky shimmer beneath me. And I'm flying, I'm rushing to meet my own reflection -- Gah!


    Phrases like "one toe away from flight" and "just an inky shimmer" are somehow perfect in the context of the story.
     
  6. darkhaloangel
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    darkhaloangel Active Member

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    Anything by Angela Carter is usually very beautiful - but as an interesting piece of literature there is Jon Mcgregors If No One Speaks of Remarkable Things, which is an entirely descriptive novel.
     
  7. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Just off-hand, I can't give you a f'rinstance of of a piece of writing that particularly moved me. I can say that I have found the writing of some writers, such as Martin Cruz Smith, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ernest Hemingway to be filled with some epic bits of writing (though some of Vonnegut's work fails miserably, too) while other, more commonly lauded authors, such as Stephen King and John Grisham, to be rather pedestrian and not at all worthy of most of the accolades piled upon them. Also, if you have not read it, I found Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture" to be quite moving on so many different levels. Full of colorful and descriptive passages as well as emotion-filled details. I loved it so much I bought dozens of copies and gave them to everyone I know last Christmas.

    What I find most amusing, as well as egoistically soothing is to peruse something of my own work which I have not read in a long while, come across a particularly well-phrased passage and think, "Wow! I wish I'd written that!" and then realize ... HEY! I DID!
    :eek:)
     
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  8. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I usually have the opposite problem, and in that way I'm not a very "girly" writer (it seems to me at least that writers that writes according to the topic's example are usually women) and my descriptions are more like the kind Suadade said, more about characters that scenery. more about feelings and attitude than looks and surroundings. I would like to be able to give more detailed descriptions of the milieu though, usually it is something I add with revision, because it doesn't come naturally to me while writing the scene in the first draft, even though I see it clearly in my head.

    (Sorry if I replied even though I had no example of descriptive writing to contribute with. :) )
     
  9. Suadade
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    Suadade Senior Member

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    Certainly what first springs to mind when I think of King is not his descriptions, no. But he writes horror, and I suppose writing horror does not always require sublime descriptive originality. Sometimes you just gotta pull out the ol' skulls and darkness.
     
  10. Leonardo Pisano
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    Leonardo Pisano Active Member

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    I love this!!!
     
  11. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I don't ever say "I wish I'd written that" about something I've read that I like, but I do sometimes say, "You know, I'm proud of that!"
     
  12. barnz
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    barnz Member

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    My writing can go back and forth: Sometimes I feel I'm too sparse with description, other times I go on and on. I'll fix it in post, I think.

    If that's the kind of writing you like to read and want to write - stories rich in lush imagery and description - then go for it, take the Steinbeck route and spend the first hundred pages describing the setting and such. Just remember to watch your pacing and keep it relevant to the conflicts in your writing. The passage you posted didn't really do it for me however - I felt drawn out of the story. Of course, it was only a passage, if i was embedded in the book already it probably would have been fine. We're not painting a landscape though, we're writing a story. More of a pinhole camera than anything, writing needs a focus, something to ground the reader and give the story movement and conflicts.

    And Stephen King is lauded because he demonstrates an extraordinary understanding of human interactions and emotion, I think.
     
  13. SteamWolf
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    SteamWolf Senior Member

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    My favorites all seem to come from Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams as they always make for brilliant descriptive writing.

    Pratchett:
    '...the river Ankh is so polluted even an athiest could walk across it.'

    Very little description of the river, but it brings up a huge amount of imagination for the reader.

    Some of my stories have had parts pointed out by readers as being memorable which is always nice, as they seem to be things I have written off the cuff with very little planning put into them.
     
  14. Suadade
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    Suadade Senior Member

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    Exactly. Which is what makes his horror work so well.

    And SteamWolf, while we're on the subject of Pratchett, there's also the bit about the fishes in the Ankh looking like "a cross between a soft‑shelled crab and an industrial vacuum cleaner" =)
     
  15. SteamWolf
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    SteamWolf Senior Member

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    Yes, he's brilliant at one liners! Way too many to list. Though I notice his later work has been slipping into literature :D
     
  16. Ged
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    Ged Senior Member

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    Contains spoilers.

    King Renly's camp, Catelyn's viewpoint, from A Clash of Kings.


    Edit: Am I seeing things, or are some clauses in that really fysked up?
     
  17. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    one of the best at it in contemporary work is james lee burke... i'm currently reading his entire robicheaux series and reading his descriptions is like watching a 3-d movie!
     
  18. Ubrechor
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    Ubrechor Active Member

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    Some great descriptions here, guys! I love the Pratchett one-liners :p

    That sounds intriguing :) if you have the time do you think you could post a short excerpt for us?
     
  19. LaGs
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    LaGs Banned

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    Here's an excerpt from Nabokov's Lolita:

    Never will you get such a mean lesson in grammatical fluency and be treated to such perverted beauty in your life.

    The moment I can think of calling MY THING, "The scepter of my passion" I'll be on top of the literary world lol
     
  20. Ged
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    Ged Senior Member

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    ^Wow, that's some ghastly purple shizz right there. "Scepter of my passion?" TF?
     
  21. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ubrechor...
    here are a few of his gems from "Sunset Limited"... they demonstrate james lee burke's power to write paragraph-long sentences you simply can't complain about being too long, yet also capture the essence of a person or a room, in a single medium-sized sentence:

     
  22. JeffS65
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    JeffS65 Contributing Member

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    Catcher in the Rye:
    "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

    Sets the tone straight away and no flowery language.
     
  23. Gigi_GNR
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    Gigi_GNR Guys, come on. WAFFLE-O. Contributor

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    The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood blew me away with its writing. Very descriptive and almost poetic prose.
     
  24. ImaginaryRobot
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    ImaginaryRobot Member

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    Lolita is full of great descriptions. Here's one I think is particularly brilliant:

    One night, she managed to deceive the vicious vigilance of her family. In a nervous and slender-leaved mimosa grove at the back of their villa we found a perch on the ruins of a low stone wall. Through the darkness and the tender trees we could see the arabesques of lighted windows which, touched up by the colored inks of sensitive memory, appear to me now like playing cards--presumably because a bridge game was keeping the enemy busy. She trembled and twitched as I kissed the corner of her parted lips and the hot lobe of her ear. A cluster of stars palely glowed above us, between the silhouettes of long thin leaves; that vibrant sky seemed as naked as she was under her light frock. I saw her face in the sky, strangely distinct, as if it emitted a faint radiance of its own. Her legs, her lovely live legs, were not too close together, and when my hand located what it sought, a dreamy and eerie expression, half-pleasure, half-pain, came over those childish features. She sat a little higher than I, and whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face. She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion.
     
  25. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    with all due respect to m. nabokov, can you imagine any respected author today describing what the whole world saw trying to escape a us congressman's grey bvd's as 'the scepter of my passion'!? ;-)
     

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