Chapter 1: Describing a Scene or Experience

This morning, as I was brewing my coffee before rushing to work, I found myself hurrying up the stairs back to the bedroom, a sense of urgency in my step. I opened the door and froze—what was I doing? Did I need something from up here? I stood in confusion, trying to retrace the mental processes that had led me here, but it was all muddy.

It’s quite likely that you’ve experienced a similarly befuddling situation. This phenomenon can loosely be referred to as automatization: because we are so constantly surrounded by stimuli, our brains often go on autopilot. (We often miss even the most explicit stimuli if we are distracted, as demonstrated by the Invisible Gorilla study.)

Automatization is an incredibly useful skill—we don’t have the time or capacity to take in everything at once, let alone think our own thoughts simultaneously—but it’s also troublesome. In the same way that we might run through a morning ritual absent-mindedly, like I did above, we have also been programmed to overlook tiny but striking details: the slight gradation in color of cement on the bus stop curb; the hum of the air conditioner or fluorescent lights; the weight and texture of a pen in the crook of the hand. These details, though, make experiences, people, and places unique. By focusing on the particular, we can interrupt automatization.[1] We can become radical noticers by practicing good description.

In a great variety of rhetorical situations, is an essential rhetorical mode. Our minds latch onto detail and specificity, so effective description can help us experience a story, understand an analysis, and nuance a critical argument. Each of these situations requires a different kind of description; this chapter focuses on the vivid, image-driven descriptive language that you would use for storytelling.

Chapter Vocabulary
constraint-based writing a writing technique by which an author tries to follow a rule or set of rules in order to create more experimental or surprising content, popularized by the Oulipo school of writers.
description a rhetorical mode that emphasizes eye-catching, specific, and vivid portrayal of a subject. Often integrates imagery and thick description to this end.
defamiliarization a method of reading, writing, and thinking that emphasizes the interruption of automatization. Established as “остранение” (“estrangement”) by Viktor Shklovsky, defamiliarization attempts to turn the everyday into the strange, eye-catching, or dramatic.
ethnography a study of a particular culture, subculture, or group of people. Uses thick description to explore a place and its associated culture.
figurative language language which implies a meaning that is not to be taken literally. Common examples include metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole.
imagery sensory language; literal or figurative language that appeals to an audience’s imagined sense of sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste.
thick description economical and deliberate language which attempts to capture complex subjects (like cultures, people, or environments) in written or spoken language. Coined by anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Gilbert Ryle.

Techniques

Imagery and Experiential Language

Strong description helps a reader experience what you’ve experienced, whether it was an event, an interaction, or simply a place. Even though you could never capture it perfectly, you should try to approximate sensations, feelings, and details as closely as you can. Your most vivid description will be that which gives your reader a way to imagine being themselves as of your story.

is a device that you have likely encountered in your studies before: it refers to language used to ‘paint a scene’ for the reader, directing their attention to striking details. Here are a few examples:

Bamboo walls, dwarf banana trees, silk lanterns, and a hand-size jade Buddha on a wooden table decorate the restaurant. For a moment, I imagined I was on vacation. The bright orange lantern over my table was the blazing hot sun and the cool air currents coming from the ceiling fan caused the leaves of the banana trees to brush against one another in soothing crackling sounds.[2]

The sunny midday sky calls to us all like a guilty pleasure while the warning winds of winter tug our scarves warmer around our necks; the City of Roses is painted the color of red dusk, and the setting sun casts her longing rays over the Eastern shoulders of Mt. Hood, drawing the curtains on another crimson-grey day.[3]

Flipping the switch, the lights flicker—not menacingly, but rather in a homey, imperfect manner. Hundreds of seats are sprawled out in front of a black, worn down stage. Each seat has its own unique creak, creating a symphony of groans whenever an audience takes their seats. The walls are adorned with a brown mustard yellow, and the black paint on the stage is fading and chipped.[4]

You might notice, too, that the above examples appeal to many different senses. Beyond just visual detail, good imagery can be considered sensory language: words that help me see, but also words that help me taste, touch, smell, and hear the story. Go back and identify a word, phrase, or sentence that suggests one of these non-visual sensations; what about this line is so striking?

Imagery might also apply to describe more creatively. Devices like metaphor, simile, and personification, or hyperbole can enhance description by pushing beyond literal meanings.

Using imagery, you can better communicate specific sensations to put the reader in your shoes. To the best of your ability, avoid clichés (stock phrases that are easy to ignore) and focus on the particular (what makes a place, person, event, or object unique). To practice creating imagery, try the Imagery Inventory exercise and the Image Builder graphic organizer in the Activities section of this chapter.

Thick Description

If you’re focusing on specific, detailed imagery and experiential language, you might begin to feel wordy: simply piling up descriptive phrases and sentences isn’t always the best option. Instead, your goal as a descriptive writer is to make the language work hard. refers to economy of language in vivid description. While good description has a variety of characteristics, one of its defining features is that every word is on purpose, and this credo is exemplified by thick description.

Busy Market
People visiting a busy market.

Thick description as a concept finds its roots in anthropology, where ethnographers seek to portray deeper context of a studied culture than simply surface appearance.[5] In the world of writing, thick description means careful and detailed portrayal of context, emotions, and actions. It relies on specificity to engage the reader. Consider the difference between these two descriptions:

Example of regular description and thick description.
The market is busy. There is a lot of different produce. It is colorful. vs. Customers blur between stalls of bright green bok choy, gnarled carrots, and fiery Thai peppers. Stopping only to inspect the occasional citrus, everyone is busy, focused, industrious.

Notice that, even though the description on the right is longer, its major difference is the specificity of its word choice. The author names particular produce, which brings to mind a sharper image of the selection, and uses specific adjectives. Further, though, the words themselves do heavy lifting—the nouns and verbs are descriptive Effective thick description is rarely written the first time around–it is re-written. As you revise, consider that every word should be on purpose.too! “Customers blur” both implies a market (where we would expect to find “customers”) and also illustrates how busy the market is (“blur” implies speed), rather than just naming it as such.

Consider the following examples of thick description:

I had some strength left to wrench my shoulders and neck upward but the rest of my body would not follow. My back was twisted like a contortionist’s.[6]

Shaking off the idiotic urge to knock, I turned the brass knob in my trembling hands and heaved open the thick door. The hallway was so dark that I had to squint while clumsily reaching out to feel my surroundings so I wouldn’t crash into anything.[7]

Snow-covered mountains, enormous glaciers, frozen caves and massive caps of ice clash with heat, smoke, lava and ash. Fields dense with lush greenery and vibrant purple lupine plants butt up against black, barren lands scorched by

eruptions. The spectacular drama of cascading waterfalls, rolling hills, deep canyons and towering jagged peaks competes with open expanses of flat, desert-like terrain.[8]

Where do you see the student authors using deliberate, specific, and imagistic words and phrases? Where do you see the language working hard?

Unanticipated and Eye-catching Language

In addition to our language being deliberate, we should also strive for language that is unanticipated. You should control your language, but also allow for surprises—for you and your reader! Doing so will help you maintain attention and interest from your reader because your writing will be unique and eye-catching, but it also has benefits for you: it will also make your writing experience more enjoyable and educational.

How can you be surprised by your own writing, though? If you’re the author, how could you not know what you’re about to say? To that very valid question, I have two responses:

  1. On a conceptual level: Depending on your background, you may currently consider drafting to be thinking-then-writing. Instead, you should try thinking-through-writing: rather than two separate and sequential acts, embrace the possibility that the act of writing can be a new way to process through ideas. You must give yourself license to write before an idea is fully formed—but remember, you will revise, so it’s okay to not be perfect. (I highly recommend Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts.”)
  2. On a technical level: Try out different activities—or even invent your own—that challenge your instincts. Rules and games can help you push beyond your auto-pilot descriptions to much more eye-catching language!

is one technique like this. It refers to a process which requires you to deliberately work within a specific set of writing rules, and it can often spark unexpected combinations of words and ideas. The most valuable benefit to constraint-based writing, though, is that it gives you many options for your descriptions: because first idea ≠ best idea, constraint-based writing can help you push beyond instinctive descriptors.

When you spend more time thinking creatively, the ordinary can become extraordinary. The act of writing invites discovery! When you challenge yourself to see something in new ways, you actually see more of it. Try the Dwayne Johnson activity to think more about surprising language.

Road to Denali
Road to Denali

Activities

Specificity Taxonomy

Good description lives and dies in particularities. It takes deliberate effort to refine our general ideas and memories into more focused, specific language that the reader can identify with.

Taxonomy of fox
Taxonomy of fox

A taxonomy is a system of classification that arranges a variety of items into an order that makes sense to someone. You might remember from your biology class the ranking taxonomy based on Carl Linnaeus’ classifications, pictured here.

To practice shifting from general to specific, fill in the blanks in the taxonomy[9] below. After you have filled in the blanks, use the bottom three rows to make your own. As you work, notice how attention to detail, even on the scale of an individual word, builds a more tangible image.

Taxonomy Worksheet
More General General Specific More Specific
Example: animal mammal dog Great Dane
1 organism conifer Douglas fir
2 airplane Boeing 757
3 novel Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
4 clothing blue jeans
5 medical condition respiratory infection the common cold
6 school college
7 artist pop singer
8 structure building The White House
9 coffee Starbucks coffee
10 scientist Sir Isaac Newton
11
12
13

Compare your answers with a classmate. What similarities do you share with other students? What differences? Why do you think this is the case? How can you apply this thinking to your own writing?

Micro-Ethnography

An is a form of writing that uses thick description to explore a place and its associated culture. By attempting this method on a small scale, you can practice specific, focused description.

Find a place in which you can observe the people and setting without actively involving yourself. (Interesting spaces and cultures students have used before include a poetry slam, a local bar, a dog park, and a nursing home.) You can choose a place you’ve been before or a place you’ve never been: the point here is to look at a space and a group of people more critically for the sake of detail, whether or not you already know that context.

As an ethnographer, your goal is to take in details without influencing those details. In order to stay focused, go to this place alone and refrain from using your phone or doing anything besides note-taking. Keep your attention on the people and the place.

  • Spend a few minutes taking notes on your general impressions of the place at this time.
    • Use imagery and thick description to describe the place itself.
    • What sorts of interactions do you observe? What sort of tone, affect, and language is used?
    • How would you describe the overall atmosphere?
  • Spend a few minutes “zooming in” to identify artifacts—specific physical objects being used by the people you see.
    • Use imagery and thick description to describe the specific artifacts.
    • How do these parts contribute to/differentiate from/relate to the whole of the scene?

After observing, write one to two paragraphs synthesizing your observations to describe the space and culture. What do the details represent or reveal about the place and people?

Imagery Inventory

Visit a location you visit often—your classroom, your favorite café, the commuter train, etc. Isolate each of your senses and describe the sensations as thoroughly as possible. Take detailed notes in the organizer below, or use a voice-recording app on your phone to talk through each of your sensations.

Image Inventory Worksheet
Sense Sensation
Sight
Sound
Smell
Touch
Taste

Now, write a paragraph that synthesizes three or more of your sensory details. Which details were easiest to identify? Which make for the most striking descriptive language? Which will bring the most vivid sensations to your reader’s mind?

Hiking in Denali
Hiking in Denali

The Dwayne Johnson Activity

This exercise will encourage you to flex your creative descriptor muscles by generating unanticipated language.

Begin by finding a mundane object. (A plain, unspectacular rock is my go-to choice.) Divide a blank piece of paper into four quadrants. Set a timer for two minutes; in this time, write as many describing words as possible in the first quadrant. You may use a bulleted list. Full sentences are not required.

Now, cross out your first quadrant. In the second quadrant, take five minutes to write as many new describing words as possible without repeating anything from your first quadrant. If you’re struggling, try to use imagery and/or figurative language.

For the third quadrant, set the timer for two minutes. Write as many uses as possible for your object.

Before starting the fourth quadrant, cross out the uses you came up with for the previous step. Over the next five minutes, come up with as many new uses as you can.

After this generative process, identify your three favorite items from the sections you didn’t cross out. Spend ten minutes writing in any genre or form you like—a story, a poem, a song, a letter, anything—on any topic you like. Your writing doesn’t have to be about the object you chose, but try to incorporate your chosen descriptors or uses in some way.

Share your writing with a friend or peer, and debrief about the exercise. What surprises did this process yield? What does it teach us about innovative language use? This activity was inspired by Susan Kirtley, William Thomas Van Camp, and Bruce Ballenger.

  1. Writing invites discovery: the more you look, the more you see.
  2. Suspend judgment: first idea ≠ best idea.
  3. Objects are not inherently boring: the ordinary can be dramatic if described creatively.
    Share your writing with a friend or peer, and debrief about the exercise. What surprises did this process yield? What does it teach us about innovative language use?

Surprising Yourself: Constraint-Based Scene Description

This exercise[10] asks you to write a scene, following specific instructions, about a place of your choice. There is no such thing as a step-by-step guide to descriptive writing; instead, the detailed instructions that follow are challenges that will force you to think differently while you’re writing. The constraints of the directions may help you to discover new aspects of this topic since you are following the sentence-level prompts even as you develop your content.

  1. Bring your place to mind. Focus on “seeing” or “feeling” your place.
  2. For a title, choose an emotion or a color that represents this place to you.
  3. For a first line starter, choose one of the following and complete the sentence:
    1. You stand there…When I’m here, I know that…
    2. Every time…I [see/smell/hear/feel/taste]…
    3. We had been…I think sometimes…
  4. After your first sentence, create your scene, writing the sentences according to the following directions:
    • Sentence 2: Write a sentence with a color in it.
    • Sentence 3: Write a sentence with a part of the body in it.
    • Sentence 4: Write a sentence with a simile (a comparison using like or as)
    • Sentence 5: Write a sentence of over twenty-five words.
    • Sentence 6: Write a sentence of under eight words.
    • Sentence 7: Write a sentence with a piece of clothing in it.
    • Sentence 8: Write a sentence with a wish in it.
    • Sentence 9: Write a sentence with an animal in it.
    • Sentence 10: Write a sentence in which three or more words alliterate; that is, they begin with the same initial consonant: “She has been left, lately, with less and less time to think….”
    • Sentence 11: Write a sentence with two commas.
    • Sentence 12: Write a sentence with a smell and a color in it.
    • Sentence 13: Write a sentence without using the letter “e.”
    • Sentence 14: Write a sentence with a simile.
    • Sentence 15: Write a sentence that could carry an exclamation point (but don’t use the exclamation point).
    • Sentence 16: Write a sentence to end this portrait that uses the word or words you chose for a title.

5. Read over your scene and mark words/phrases that surprised you, especially those rich with possibilities (themes, ironies, etc.) that you could develop.

6. On the right side of the page, for each word/passage you marked, interpret the symbols, name the themes that your description and detail suggest, note any significant meaning you see in your description.

7. On a separate sheet of paper, rewrite the scene you have created as a more thorough and cohesive piece in whatever genre you desire. You may add sentences and transitional words/phrases to help the piece flow.

Image Builder

This exercise encourages you to experiment with thick description by focusing on one element of your writing in expansive detail. Write your responses as an outline on a separate piece of paper.

  1. Identify one image, object, action, or scene that you want to expand in your story. Name this element at the top of the page.
  2. Develop at least three describing words for your element, considering each sense independently, as well as emotional associations. Focus on particularities. (Adjectives will come most easily, but remember that you can use any part of speech.) Use the 5 senses.
  3. Then, on the next page, create at least two descriptions using figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, etc.) for your element, considering each sense independently, as well as emotional associations. Focus on particularities.
  4. Finally, reflect on the different ideas you came up with.
    1. Which descriptions surprised you? Which descriptions are accurate but unanticipated?
    2. Where might you weave these descriptions in to your current project?
    3. How will you balance description with other rhetorical modes, like narration, argumentation, or analysis?
  5. Repeat this exercise as desired or as instructed, choosing a different focus element to begin with.
  6. Choose your favorite descriptors and incorporate them into your writing.

  1. Section One EndnotesAttributions for images used in this section are located in the Alt Text for each image. Complete citations are included at the end of the book. There is a school of writing based on this practice, termed остранение by Viktor Shklovsky, commonly translated into English as defamiliarization.Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique.” 1925. Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Blackwell, 2004, pp. 12-15.
  2. Excerpt by an anonymous student author, 2017. Reproduced with permission from the student author.
  3. Excerpt by an anonymous student author, 2017. Reproduced with permission from the student author.
  4. Excerpt by Ross Reaume, Portland State University, 2014. Reproduced with permission from the student author.
  5. The term “thick description” was coined by Gilbert Ryle and adopted into the field of anthropology by Clifford Geertz.Ryle, Gilbert. Collected Essays (1929-1968), vol. 2, Routledge, 2009, 479 .Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, 1973.
  6. Excerpt by an anonymous student author, 2017. Reproduced with permission from the student author.
  7. Excerpt by Noel Taylor, Portland State University, 2014. Reproduced with permission from the student author.
  8. Excerpt by Chris Gaylord, Portland State University, 2017. Reproduced with permission from the student author.
  9. This activity is courtesy of Mackenzie Myers.
  10. This activity is a modified version of one by Daniel Hershel.

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EmpoWord 111 by Doug Bourne and Shane Abrams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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