One of the challenges of descriptive writing is making your descriptions detailed enough to put a picture in your reader’s mind and arranging that detail into elegant and unobtrusive prose. Here’s how Orwell does it at the beginning of chapter 10 of Down and Out in Paris and London as he describes the hotel where he has just been given a job:
The Hotel X was a vast, grandiose place with a classical facade, and at one side a little, dark doorway like a rat-hole, which was the service entrance.
At my count, this contains nine details, neatly arranged with adjectives, prepositional phrases, a coordinating conjunction and a relative clause. A less elegant way to arrange these details might look something like this:
The hotel, which had a classical façade, was vast and grandiose, and at one side there was a little dark doorway that looked like a rat-hole, but was the service entrance.
All the same details are there, but this is an awkward, jumpy construction without focus or balance. Good sentences need a little craft after all, especially ones with so much detail.
Not that every description need be so sumptuous. When Orwell describes the chef du personnel, his description is reasonably brusque – rather like the chef himself, but there’s still a bit of art in the writing:
I waited, and presently the chef du personnel, a sort of assistant manager, arrived and began to question me. He was an Italian, with a round, pale face, haggard from overwork.
Again, I’ll take the second sentence of this description and show how much more awkward it could have been:
He was a round and pale-faced Italian man, haggard from overwork.
In fact, this construction is more than just awkward: it’s confusing. Is it his face that is haggard or his whole figure? What is round, his face or his belly? This is clear in Orwell’s description, but not in mine. Simple choices make the sentence elegant and uncluttered – using Italian as a noun so that the short sentence isn’t overloaded with adjectives; making the phrase ‘haggard from overwork’ post-positive (after the noun it describes).
Of course, it’s the wealth of detail, as much as the elegance of its arrangement, that makes a description come to life and Orwell’s prose provides an embarrassment of riches – though that seems an inappropriate phrase given his subject. As the chef leads the young Orwell, through the ‘labyrinthine’ passages of the kitchens, the details come one after the other:
We passed doorways which let out sometimes a shouting of oaths, sometimes the red glare of a fire, once a shuddering draught from an ice chamber. As we went along, something struck me violently in the back. It was a hundred-pound block of ice, carried by a blue-aproned porter. After him came a boy with a great slab of veal on his shoulder, his cheek pressed into the damp, spongy flesh. They shoved me aside with a cry of ‘Range-toi, idiot!‘ and rushed on.
Orwell isn’t lingering on details here, but collecting impressions as they occur. This is much how you experience things when you’re entering a very busy place, especially when you’re entering it for the very first time. In the apparent chaos, your brain registers things as they press on your senses: the sound of shouting, the sight of the glaring fire, the feeling of the coldness, the impact of the ice thumping into your back. As usual, the technique becomes more apparent if we look at a versionwith the same details but none of the craft of Orwell’s prose
We passed a room in which there were some people shouting, then another with glare coming out from the fire inside, then another which made me shudder with a cold draught. Then a blue-aproned porter passed carrying a 100 pound block of ice which thudded into my back.
Here too then, there is design in the writing. We just don’t notice it first time around because we’re too busy enjoying the narrative.
- Write a sentence with a similar structure to Orwell’s opening sentence to describe the place where you work, study or live.
- Write a sentence about your boss, teacher or relative. Use Orwell’s sentence about the chef du personnel as a model.
- Write a paragraph about the first time you went to a busy or chaotic place. Try to put the focus on impressions and sensations.