In Stella Gibbons’ 1932 comic masterpiece, Cold Comfort Farm, the author obligingly stars the most purple of descriptive passages with one, two or three stars to allow readers to skip or admire her descriptions. The first of her starred passages is a description of the eponymous farm and begins:
“Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm. The farm was crouched on a bleak hill-side, whence its fields, fanged with flints, dropped steeply to the village of Howling a mile away . . . “.
The novel parodies Laurencian, over-romanticised accounts of rural life but Ms Gibbons is still working (mostly) within the rules of descriptive writing, albeit with a comic twist. In the extract above we see extended metaphor (and a mixed one at that) and a density of poetic techniques placed cheek by jowl with an appeal to the reader’s senses. There is also a unity or direction to the description that attempts to paint this world as a dark and menacing place.
Of course, it doesn’t quite come off as Ms Gibbons well knew. The creeping white animal (some sort of cat?) becomes ‘sluggish’ and the wind, personified by its ‘snarling cries’ loses its menace when it encounters the absurdly over-detailed list of ‘dormers and mullions and scullions’. When we read that the neighbouring village is called ‘Howling’, the joke is complete. Ah-ha, we think, this is parody – the clumsiness in style is all part of the deliciousness of the conceit.
Right now, I expect that Ms Gibbons would be amused. My attempt to analyse her technique with a degree of seriousness would have her chuckling heartily because that’s pretty much the point really – it’s a style of prose that is quite deliberately awful in order to make us smile. We don’t need to analyse it, we just feel it. Nevertheless, it’s a great starting point for more able students when teaching them about some of the finer points of writing to describe.
Progression in this topic begins with the basic definition of descriptive writing as being rich in an appeal to the five senses and full of poetic techniques. I usually start with a sense chart (see below). Students use the frame to capture details of a scene, making sure that all columns contain at least one or two details.
For the least able students, using this chart as a basis for writing can create a pleasing first draft.
As with teaching any form of writing, the teaching sequence follows the flow chart pictured below.
To take this one step further, each sense detail may be developed, usually with reference to simple poetic techniques like simile or metaphor. There are many ways of achieving this with students and a handy reminder of the range of techniques available to writer may be useful (the resource below is suitably simple although as you can see it was made for a different purpose).
Middle ability students now have the basis for a very pleasing piece of descriptive writing. It contains an appeal to the readers’ senses and has that density of poetic techniques that is the hallmark of description. However, the work does not need to stop there. The most able writers don’t just describe; their writing has an overarching unity, a direction, a point. One way to introduce this to students is to examine some critically acclaimed examples.
The choice is almost limitless but three that immediately spring to mind are the killing of an iguana from ‘Out of Africa’ by Isak Dinesen; ‘The Shooting of an Elephant’ by George Orwell and the description of Coketown from ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens (see resource link at the foot of this posting).
More able students can admire their rich use of sensual detail and the wonderfully poetic language but, more than those, they can see in these descriptions something else – that overarching unity, the drive to harness description to the writer’s purpose.
Once I have modelled my reading of one, students explore the others, recording the three main elements – sensual detail; poetic language; and writer’s purpose. Now, they have a way of shifting their writing to the highest level.
I usually follow this reading sequence with a writing task that gives students a chance to explore their new-found knowledge. They plan their writing using a frame divided into three sections and headed with the elements of descriptive writing outlined above. The results are startlingly original and often reach the highest levels of attainment. You may even want to explore with your learners the delightful Ms Gibbons’ work.
Resources to download