What does describe mean?
This is easy to define:
To give an account or representation of a place, a person or an event, real or imagined. If you are asked to describe something, make your description as clear and as vivid as possible.
Part 1: Writing About Places
A. Look at this example of an actual students’ work. This first description is of a place:
I was born on a small island in the Caribbean between two French islands. The land is named Dominica, it is a small mountainous island covered with lush rainforest so when the hot Caribbean sun shone on it the whole island glowed a passionate mixture of dark and light greens. This is why most of the locals called it ‘De green jem of de Caribbean man.’ I lived not close to the beach, I lived high up in the mountainous parts of the rainforest where it stayed cool and moist.
This first extract is both clear and vivid. Try to think about how this has been achieved. The following should get you thinking.
The setting is established clearly in the first two sentences Precise adjectives – ‘small mountainous’, ‘lush’, ‘hot’ – tell us what we want to know More interesting, colourful language is used to create special effects – ‘a passionate mixture of dark and light greens.’ The use of local dialect (like kling-klings in Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom) makes it sound more authentic and real. Is there anything else which you thought worked well? Add you own ideas/examples to the list above.
Whilst this is a good example of descriptive writing there are some punctuation errors. Can you spot them? Is there anything you don’t like about the writing? How do you think it could be improved upon?
B. Now we are going to look at some further examples of good descriptive writing, this time from accomplished writers. In this extract from his book ‘My Family and Other Animals’ Gerald Durrell has used a lot of figurative language to create setting.
The olives seemed weighed down under the weight of their fruit, smooth drops of green jade among which the choirs of cicadas zithered. In the orange groves, among the dark and shiny leaves, the fruit was starting to glow redly, like a blush spreading up the green, pitted skins. Up on the hills, among the dark cypress and heather, shoals of butterflies danced and twisted like wind-blown confetti. The grasshoppers and locusts whirred like clockwork under my feet, and flew drunkenly across the heather, their wings shining in the sun.
N.B. Cicadas are small insects; zithered is to make the sound of a zither (a small stringed musical instrument) and a cypress is a type of tree.
Can you see how the writer has effectively described this particular setting? Consider how the following techniques have been used, identifying where they appear in the extract itself.
Does Durrell use any interesting images here?
What about noises – onomatopoeia?
What else do you find interesting in the writing?
Is there anything else which you found striking? Add you own ideas/examples to the list above.
C. Now let’s look at another extract from the same novel. In one of the most beautiful pieces of description in the book, Gerard Durrell writes about seeing the new house on Corfu when his family moved there from England. He calls it ‘The Strawberry-Pink Villa’:
Halfway up the slope, guarded by a group of tall, slim, cypress-trees, nestled a small strawberry-pink villa, like some exotic fruit lying in the greenery. The cypress-trees undulated gently in the breeze, as if they were busily painting the sky a still brighter blue for our arrival. The villa was small and square, standing in its tiny garden with an air of pink-faced determination. Its shutters had been faded by the sun to a delicate creamy-green, cracked and bubbled in places. The garden, surrounded by tall fuschia hedges, had the flower beds worked in complicated geometrical patterns, marked with smooth white stones. The white cobbled paths, scarcely...
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