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Writing Exercises to Improve Scene and Character Descriptions

Updated on June 6, 2014

I Know What You All Want

And I’m going to give it to you.

How’s that for an opening?

I am convinced that, as writers, we all want the same thing. I know you want to be the best writer you can be, just as I do.

And that’s what this article is all about.

I have written many times about the importance of scene and character descriptions, how we need to write to the senses of our readers. If we do a good job of describing a scene, our readers will be able to see, taste, hear, feel and smell that scene….if we do a good job.

So let’s practice, shall we?

Let me share with you a wonderful description, written by James Lee Burke, and then I will give you a few exercises to try when you have time. Are you ready?

From His Novel “bitterroot”

“The wooded hills above the Blackfoot River where Doc had bought his home were still dark at 7 A.M., the moon like a sliver of crusted ice above a steep-sided rock canyon that rose to a plateau covered with ponderosa. The river seemed to glow with a black, metallic light, and steam boiled out of the falls in the channels and off the boulders that were exposed in the current.

I picked up my fly rod and net and canvas creel from the porch of Doc's house and walked down the path toward the riverbank. The air smelled of the water's coldness and the humus back in the darkness of the woods and the deer and elk dung that had dried on the pebbled banks of the river. I watched Doc Voss squat on his haunches in front of a driftwood fire and stir the strips of ham in a skillet with a fork, squinting his eyes against the smoke, his upper body warmed only by a fly vest, his shoulders braided with sinew.

There is some serious writing in that passage. One can see the scene. One can smell the scene, and feel the cold air. You can hear the water flowing….this is how it is done my friends.

And from John D. Macdonald

From “The Deep, Blue Goodbye”

“It is that flavor exuded by women who have fashioned an earthy and simplified sexual adjustment to their environment, borne their young, achieved an unthinking physical confidence. They are often placidly unkempt, even grubby, taking no interest in the niceties of posture. They have a slow relish for the physical spectrum of food, sun, deep sleep, the needs of children, the caressess of affection. There is a tiny magnificance about them, like the sultry dignity of she-lions.”


Is it possible to write a better description of a character than that?

Thanks to my wife for posing for me
Thanks to my wife for posing for me | Source

Now on to the Exercises

So here is what we are going to do. I am going to share several personal photos for you, and with each photo I am going to write a rather drab description of that photo….you know, similar to the drab descriptions we have seen others write.

Then I want you to do much better than my drab description. I want you to remember the five senses. I want you to remember that we all share emotions, and I want you to remember the beauty of similes and metaphors.

Are you ready?

To the right you will see a picture. Here is my bland, totally dispassionate description of that picture:

The woman gazed out at the majestic vista before her.

This is actually one of my favorite pictures of my wife, Bev, and I’m sure you all can do much better with the description.

Pretty darned lovely, isn't it?
Pretty darned lovely, isn't it? | Source

Let’s Try Another One

Here we have a scene from Yellowstone National Park. This is the Yellowstone River flowing through Hayden Valley. If I were trying for bland, this would be my description:

The blue waters shimmered in the sunlight as they wound their way through the green valley.

Now it’s your turn. What about the different shades of color? What about the sounds that surround this scene? How does the mountain air feel under the bright sunlight? Can you smell anything? What do you hear?

When doing descriptions like this, remember to use similes and metaphors, which are wonderful tools that help readers relate the scene to something they have already experienced.

Source

And Now Another

We have all experienced the sights and sounds of a street fair, right? This picture was taken at our neighborhood street fair last August. Here is my boring description:

We walked through the crowded streets, looking at the colorful displays and listening to our stomachs begging for fair food.

Oh come on, I know you can do better than that. Tell me what you see. Tell me what the fair was like the last time you went to one. Remember back to when you were a young child, and the wonders you experienced. What was your favorite memory from those trips? What still stands out in your mind about those childhood days?

Source

One More and Then I Will Turn You Loose

Here is a picture from downtown Olympia, walking along the boardwalk looking out at the marina. Here is my ridiculously poor description:

It was a sunny day as we walked along the boardwalk, hand in hand, two lovers enjoying a leisurely stroll and wonderful companionship.

Can you say boring?

So let’s see you do better. You have all taken similar walks, as have all of your readers. Play to that fact and see what you can do.

I’ll Leave You with One More Beautiful Example of Great Writing

Again I will turn to James Lee Burke, a master at painting a literary scene. This is from “Last Car to Elysian Fields.”

“The first week after Labor Day, after a summer of hot wind and drought that left the cane fields dust blown and spiderwebbed with cracks, rain showers once more danced across the wetlands, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the sky turned the hard flawless blue of an inverted ceramic bowl. In the evenings I sat on the back steps of a rented shotgun house on Bayou Teche and watched the boats passing in the twilight and listened to the Sunset Limited blowing down the line. Just as the light went out of the sky the moon would rise like an orange planet above the oaks that covered my rented backyard, then I would go inside and fix supper for myself and eat alone at the kitchen table.

But in my heart the autumnal odor of gas on the wind, the gold and dark green of the trees, and the flame-lit edges of the leaves were less a sign of Indian summer than a prelude to winter rains and the short, gray days of December and January, when smoke would plume from stubble fires in the cane fields and the sun would be only a yellow vapor in the west.”


It really is a joy to read such quality writing from one of the best, and it definitely gives you some idea of what to shoot for when describing a scene.

Can you do as well? I believe you can, but you must believe it, too, if you are to make it a reality.

Close your eyes and picture a scene from your story or novel. See it all in your mind’s eye. Compare it to other experiences you have had. Use the gift of language to make that scene come alive for your readers, and they will thank you for it.

2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”


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    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 2 years ago from New York, New York

      Totally have to try this when I have a bit more quiet time to play and looks like a fun, but worthwhile exercise. Thanks Bill and have a great weekend now!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Good morning Janine and thank you as always. Time? When will you ever have enough? :) Have a marvelous Friday.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Great aspects covered here your suggestions are most informative and I learn more each day from your hubs.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 2 years ago from Central Florida

      Great examples, Bill. I'll have to give this a shot a little later on. You definitely get your readers thinking on the ball!

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 2 years ago

      You have piqued my interest. I am going to try the things you suggest. Have a great week-end! Oh, I almost forget, voted up, interesting, useful and awesome.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 2 years ago from Singapore

      Will revisit and go through some of these!

    • RachaelOhalloran profile image

      Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

      These are good exercises that are sure to get the brain cells in good form. Voted up and interesting.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you very much DDE!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glad to hear it, Sha! Have fun with it and enjoy the heck out of your Friday.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks, breakfastpop, and I hope you get the most out of your weekend as well.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Michelle! I appreciate you sharing.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Rachael....I appreciate the visit, and like your new profile picture.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 2 years ago from Northern California, USA

      This may be easy for some, but it is quite a challenge for me. I like to cut to the chase, so my descriptions do lack finesse, so much more now that the aroma of the ham cooking in that skillet is overpowering my senses.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

      Love this billy, it reminded me that to write we have to get inside the character completely. And I don't mean it in a pretentious way, I mean literally, what are they seeing feeling doing? Great advice as always, and always reminds me of how I should be writing, wonderful! voted up and shared, nell

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Marlene, you crack me up....I can smell the ham from here, and it sure does smell fine. :) Have a great weekend my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Nell. It's a reminder of how I should be writing as well. Have a brilliant weekend!

    • mathira profile image

      mathira 2 years ago from chennai

      billy, excellent exercises to test the writing skill. The National Park was a bit easy for me. Well, I think I faltered on the other ones.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm glad you enjoyed them, Mathira. Thank you for taking part.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 2 years ago from Nepal

      This hub is very useful for a struggling writer like me.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Vinaya. I appreciate you stopping by your old neighborhood at HP.

    • jcressler profile image

      James E Cressler 2 years ago from Orlando, Florida

      Thanks for the reminder...helpful

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Good exercises are always appreciated! Thanks, again, for sharing! ;-)

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, jcressler. Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You betcha Dr. Bill. Thanks and have a great weekend.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      Long ago I believe I may have been ruined of this type of writing but I do marvel at that of others. The internal I know remarkably well.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 2 years ago from Southern Illinois

      As i ambled slowly down the crowded street, i could smell the tangy aroma of hamburgers sizzling on the homemade grill.The handcrafted display caught my eye, beautiful lace napkins and bright sunny oil paintings, i just had to have one of each. The air was warm and still like strolling in a forest on a balmy evening.The sound of laughter in the distance urged me forward, there's nothing i enjoy more than a comedian on stage at a summer social get together.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 2 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for these great examples of great scene descriptions. This is also reminder for writers to keep reading. I like the following one-sentence description of the scene outdoors as well as indoors: "Just as the light went out of the sky the moon would rise like an orange planet above the oaks that covered my rented backyard, then I would go inside and fix supper for myself and eat alone at the kitchen table." Powerful!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks, Flourish, and I'm sorry you were ruined on this type....have a wonderful weekend.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Nice work, Ruby. I especially liked the simile of the forest. I appreciate you playing along. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Dora, that really is powerful writing. I am reminded of the saying "easy reading is darned hard writing. Thank you for your thoughts and have a lovely weekend.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 2 years ago from Texas

      Bill, I enjoyed this learning session, and thankful for the lessons.

      Right this moment I am so brain dead and sleepy I can't think, but will come back and describe an amazing street fair.

      Voted up UABI and shared.

      Have a great weekend.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

      Hi Bill, I am sorry I arrived too late this night (wee morning hours really) for these fun exercises, but I do love participating. So, I shall see you in the morning with a fresh brain lol.

      Blessings for a lovely weekend ahead

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Great hub!

      I have read some authors whose descriptions of the scene, made me feel as if I was there and the characters as if I am seeing them. You truly mean this by this hub.

      Very nice tutorial. Thanks!

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 2 years ago from Shelton

      okay, Im going to print this hub out to actually try the exercises ....again thanks for the heads up

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

      Hi Bill, here is my first one that I came up with the photo of Bev:

      "A curvaceous silhouette wishes to linger with wings folded basking in the blue smile of Heaven while pure billows below flit around the bluish-purple mountain valley below."

      Hope you like it and I do hope these exercises get the juices in my brain going so I am able to write something this weekend to publish.

      I had many versions of this sentence, but I settled for this one. Now, on to the next one ...

      Blessings

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Shyron, I hope you got some rest. Thanks for stopping by despite the exhaustion.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Faith, you are never late for the party....a party never really begins until you show up. :) Have a wonderful weekend, Faith, and thank you.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      yes indeed, ChitrangadaSharan....those are very good writers if they achieve those two things.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks for playing along, Frank. I hope you find them useful.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 2 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Bill, another very useful interactive hub, well done.

      I love the photo of Bev, so here goes. " She drank greedily of the pure mountain air, yielding into the caress, as bracing breeze washes over her, like the eagle, her soaring spirit lifted, the noise fades, she is free, at one with nature.

      These exercises are fun to do, they also fire the imagination so keep them coming.

      My best as always.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I think these exercise hubs are my favorites. (However, I still love “The Chicken Chronicles.”) I loved the excerpt from “Bitterroot,” and will look to purchase this over the weekend. I like these descriptive exercises. If I close my eyes, I can imagine being in the photographs, sensing what is suspended in movement of that moment. Very cool! Thank you, Billy. :-)

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 2 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for teaching us more ways to improving our craft, Bill!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Faith, that was beautifully done my friend. Well worth the wait. Thank you for giving us a perfect example of what this hub is all about. Well done.

      blessings always

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jo, what a talented group of friends I have. Interestingly, you all have a different slant to the same picture, and I love it. Well done....brilliant!

      Have a wonderful weekend my friend.

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, Genna. I would like to do more Chicken Chronicles, but they take more time than I have right now. Maybe after this novel is published I'll be able to turn my attention to the little cluckers. :)

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It's always my pleasure, vkwok. Thank you!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      The story excerpts are wonderful, Bill! I'm looking forward to trying your writing exercises. Thanks for sharing them.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

      Thank you so much, dear Bill, for the "perfect" ... on my first one with the photo of Bev.

      I am ready to give it a go with your second photo here of Yellowstone River, so here it goes. I hope you like this one as much. I added a moose lol.

      "Serene is the palette of color displayed permeating all senses as a meandering river seemingly undisturbed and clear as glass reflects the azure skies above, while the moist earth laughs when tickled by the hooves of a moose of Hayden Valley."

      Blessings for a wonderful Sunday.

      Will return with my attempts with your other photos here.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Alicia. I'm glad you liked the story excerpts.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Faith, you were born for this. "Serene is the palette of color...." very well done my dear.

      blessings today and always

      bill

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 2 years ago from Singapore

      The descriptions are exquisite.Great examples and exercises.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      They really are, aren't they, Michelle? I'm glad you agree.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I almost gave you a piece of the book that I began a while ago, but it is on the back burner. It must stand fast, as there is a new project in the making with the State of Maine regarding the loss of breeding Great Blue Herons on the islands...

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      you go, Deb! Keep doing that thing you do so well.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      Wonderful examples from such great writers here. Your suggestions should make everyone, including those who've never put pen to paper, want to sit down and write a masterpiece. You have just the right amount of encouragement mixed with an 'I dare you', 'you can do better' flavour.

      I find it fun to use photos in this way and see what develops; sometimes the outcome is a complete surprise!

      Ann

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I agree with you completely, Ann, but I would be a fool not to. :) I dare you...I used to tell my students that. LOL

      Have a marvelous weekend my friend...I dare you! :)

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      You have given us some examples of great writing and ideas of how to embellish our own writing skills by making us think about how to best describe scenes, people, feelings, etc. Ann is right in that those photos spark some ideas and each person would likely come up with differing descriptions. Nice job!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you, Peggy. Who better to learn from than those who have been successful in the past. Now, if I can only learn to write like them. :) Have a great weekend.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 2 years ago from South Africa

      Billybuc, you surely have a way to make a writer's fingers itch with eagerness to write awesome descriptions. You also made me feel like crying because I just don't have the time at this specific time of my life to write my favourite genre - short stories.

      Excellent motivation!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Martie, I hope that time comes soon, because you are an excellent writer. Thank you and best wishes to you.

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 2 years ago

      I liked your writing exercises. Very explanatory and thorough. Really helpful to those wanting to make those characters and scenes pop right out of the page. Voted up.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Torrilynn. I am glad you found these helpful.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 2 years ago from Singapore

      All in the description. Excellent tips, Bill.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Michelle!

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 2 years ago

      Well, like your tips for recipe writing from yesterday I am now trying to think of more descriptive ways to write my recipes and crafts. Geez who knew writing was so hard. I think I'm too cut and dry for really descriptive writing LOL. I remember taking a personality test when I was getting my certificate for subbing and it broke the class out in groups. I was in the group that was straightforward and to the point. Each group had to do a list on the board about the traits of their group. What was really fascinating was how the groups wrote out their list. I wrote out with bullets and one, maybe two words but the artistic group wrote out each trait in a different colored in, various script styles and long flowery descriptions. It was one of the most fascinating exercises ever and I realized how different people/styles can be but how that is ok too.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glimmer, I have been a part of similar exercises, and they really are amazing. I love that you did bullet points...that's what I do all the time....but when I'm writing, I leave that realm and see things differently. Strange. :) anyway, thank you.

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