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- Revision: Quality not quantity.
- The Poetry Flower - How to Read and Compare Poems
Take the following example:
'He was imprisoned in a room. It was dark. He felt cold, and the ceiling was grey.'
It's clear and it's simple, but it's not very interesting to read.
Isn't there a more interesting story to tell? Saying a room is dark doesn't tell you much about it; it doesn't evoke a vivid image. You want your reader to feel like they're part of the world you're creating, so they can see it in their own mind and imagine being there. Take 'Lord of the Rings' or 'Harry Potter'; both worlds are completely fictional and unrealistic, but they're so well-realised that you feel like you're part of them. A dark room with a grey ceiling is neither interesting nor distinctive.
What about other details, such as how the imprisoned man feels, or why it's so dark, or what kind of room it is?
Take this as an example:
'He was imprisoned in a dank, gloomy room. The only obvious illumination was a solitary and feeble chink of light which filtered in through a crack in the dilapidated stone walls. There was a sour smell in the air and a bitter taste in his mouth. He could feel countless mice scurrying frantically across the smooth floor, fighting for morsels of stale bread which he'd thrown across the room.'
This is far more sophisticated. It's filled with adjectives such as 'dank', 'gloomy', 'solitary', 'feeble', 'dilapidated', 'stone' 'sour', 'bitter', 'smooth' and 'stale', and the same adjective doesn't appear twice. We are told not only about the room, but also about the walls, the smell in the air, the taste in the prisoner's mouth, what he's been eating and what else he's sharing a cell with (mice in this instance). If we added another sentence, such as 'Emaciated and weak, he'd almost given up hope of rescue,' it would also tell us that he's been there a long time and is hungry. It also gives us an insight into his mind (i.e. that he's almost given up).
Take the example of a student describing a climbing frame as being old and yellow - there are plenty of other things you might say about it. For example, what shape is it? How big is it? Is it bright yellow or dark yellow? Is it falling apart or not? Are there cobwebs on it? Is the paint peeling off? Is it plastic or metal? How does it feel when you touch it?
So instead of saying, 'There was an old yellow climbing frame,' you could say:
'There was a garish lemon-coloured climbing frame which looked almost as ancient as the gnarled trees which surrounded it. Its paint had started to peel off, and its cold metallic ladder was tinged with rust. Cobwebs covered its immense entirety, and even a moderate gust of wind would cause the whole climbing frame to creek and groan like an over-exerted octogenarian.'
You get a lot more from that description, including a sense of its age. The cobwebs, rust and creaking and groaning tell you that it's old. Again, there are plenty of adjectives and there's lots of variation in terms of vocabulary.
Vary your vocabulary. It's fine to describe something as 'old', but don't use the word 'old' every time you describe it. You could also, for example, say that it's ancient, elderly, aged, decrepit, fossilised or venerable. If you say that someone is walking, they could also be lolloping, lumbering, scurrying, hobbling, striding, marching, parading, treading, trampling or strolling. Something doesn't just have to be 'big', it could also be gigantic, massive, huge, immense, gargantuan, mammoth, monstrous, enormous or colossal.
Of course, while many words have synonyms (words with the same or similar meanings), they're not all completely interchangeable. Synonyms very often mean slightly different things. However, these subtle differences are important when you're doing creative writing. For example, something that is 'ancient' is older than something which is simply 'old'. If something is decrepit it suggests that the object is worn out or ruined because of its age. If a person is venerable, it suggests they're very respected because of their age. If you march rather than walk, it suggests a military regularity, while hobbling suggests an injury. Trampling implies a lack of care and crushing, aggressive movements. Scurrying is a quick, frantic movement, while strolling is very casual. Word choice is everything.
Use all five senses. You don't always have to just describe how something looks. You can also describe the smell, sound, taste and feel (touch). Use appropriate similes and metaphors as well as adjectives and adverbs. Saying 'He reached for the button' is different from, 'He frantically reached for the button.' You don't always even need an adverb - sometimes a more specific verb will help. Instead of, 'He frantically reached for the button,' you could say, 'He lunged for the button' - lunging for something suggests a sudden, energetic movement.
You don't need to describe every single feature of your story in minute detail, and nor indeed should you, but these are just a few of the simple ways to make your creative offerings more interesting and to really engage the reader and bring them into your world.