It was a dark and stormy night… Or not.

chickensummer“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft


I can’t think of many readers – and I include myself amongst their number – who open a work of fiction in the hope of perusing pages upon pages of description.

And yet whenever a story comes to me it never takes the shape of words alone, it visits as a whole scene: scents, images, sounds and textures alike. For my readers to feel at home in the stories I write, I have to make the effort to translate what I see, give them enough of the world I envisaged for them to be able to make it their own. All this of course, in the hope that they will want to stay.

Description brings both the settings of our stories and the characters therein to life. In many respects the setting itself is another character in the story and it needs conflict and tension to breathe alive. It craves influence.

#1 Know your setting intimately:

Listen into its everyday rhythms, its smells and sounds. Get a feel for its weather patterns. Make a sketch of buildings, fauna and flora that make it distinct. And just like any other character, the setting will relate to others. It may affect their moods and behaviour, and at times it may even reflect their temperament.

Some places are such an ingrained part of our identity that it is almost impossible to detach and commit them to paper. The attempts feel intrusive: as if we were carving out pieces of our own selves. If that holds true of us, then it must be also true of our characters. In describing the spaces they inhabit, we lend them weight and substance. Yet how does one decide what to describe and where to remain silent?

#2 Be selective about the details: make them allude. 

A telling detail will always trump pages of flourish description. It will tell the reader everything they need to know about a character or a place, pull them into the story and make it vivid, while remaining unobtrusive.

Some authors are more generous in their descriptions, others almost spartan. My own approach is one of light brushstrokes. I always try to give the reader enough so that they can get a feel for the place where the action or dialogue takes place and for the characters within, but not so much that they would stop and think: “Aha! Here’s the description.”

No matter how wonderful a passage of description or characterisation might appear at first glance, if it stops me in my tracks on a second reading and I find myself gloating with a poetic turn of phrase or gushing over an exquisite sentence, then I know that it will have to go. Or at the very least it will have to be retired for a story that would allow it relative anonymity.

#3 Aim for specific detail and avoid the generic:

“It was a dark and stormy night” may well have appeared florid even to the 19th century reader who first opened Bulwer-Lytton’s novel. What if the storm were announced by the “parched creak of a door” or “the incessant sigh of the wind” as it does in one of John Le Carre novels instead?

When done well, description will ground both action and dialogue. Characters will no longer be spectres who speak and act in a void. The edges of their physical world will no longer be indistinct and their own bodies and personalities too will gain sharper contours.

#4 Add mood and tone through the use of the senses:

Sight and sound, taste and texture – all serve a double duty. They don’t only enliven a scene or a fragment of dialogue.  More than describe, every one of them can offer a sense of who the characters are and how they relate to the world they inhabit. This allows characters to transcend the fictive reality and become – to the reader at least – real people. After all, the suspension of disbelief is what all authors strive towards.

#5 Use description to deepen key scenes:

Description can be a great aid to setting the pace. Key scenes often require a slowing down of pace. Since the reader has been building up to them for pages on end, these are the moments they want to savour, really be there alongside the characters they are rooting for. Each key beat, each turning point allows the author greater leniency when it comes to description.

Yet no setting, no matter how detailed its exposition and no character description, however masterfully handled, can supplant the rich imagination that a reader will bring to the page. No two people will see the same hillside, abandoned cottage or factory furnace. No two passionate mouths or sylph-like figures will be the same in the eye of the beholder. Each and every one of us will bring our own furniture to the set and populate even the most exotic of locations and radiant faces with that which feels familiar. 

The skill of the author then lies not in the number of details provided, but rather in how those details are woven into the fabric of the story, so that – while seeming subordinate to the rest – they offer a deep sense of place. 


Here are a few passages of description that I am particularly fond of because they do more than offer information, rather they entrap one into a sensual experience of (both) place and people.

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop… [s]omehow it was hotter then… bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. … There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

“…it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I felt a tremendous shock- no pain, only violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shrivelled up to nothing. The sand bags in front of me receded into immense distance.” George Orwell, describing his experience of being hit by a bullet in the Spanish Civil War.

“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonised by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare. 

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

Clichés | Avoid them like the plague!

Let’s Talk Opinion in conversation with michaelalexanderchaney

“These sayings took hold because they bespoke the warped consciousness of a whole people during the infancy of their social contract. Do you want to see civilization’s baby pictures? Take a long cold hard look at a cliché and then say goo-goo gah-gah.” Clichés I Don’t Get


In today’s piece Michael embarked on a humorous investigation of clichés he doesn’t get. Well worth a read if your funny bone is in need of a tickle.

I chuckled from the bird in the bush to the one in the hand and back again, going as the crow flies, and killing two birds with one stone, I got to know his piece like the back of my hand, which nearly slapped me silly as I did my best to avoid getting drunk as a skunk in the process.

You get the idea. Clichés. The bane of writers everywhere.

I can tell you now that I have a handwritten collection of nine hundred and eight clichés to avoid, and I’m pretty sure that my list only scratches the surface. He-he. See what I did there?

I’m sure you all know what a cliché is, but I’d like to be thorough, just in case a novice comes across this post and would like a quick definition.

A cliché is an expression or idea that has become trite due to overuse. They come from all over the world, have different interpretations contingent on cultural knowledge and identity, and are – as we are all well aware – a popular form of expression.

Some clichés are used to describe time, as for example:

  • Time will tell: something will revealed or elucidated over time
  • In the nick of time: when something happens just in time
  • The time of my life: instead of a really great time

There are a plethora of clichés used to describe people, such as:

  • As old as the hills: very old
  • Fit as a fiddle: someone in great shape
  • Weak as a kitten: a very weak person.

Even our inner life is one for clichés:

  • Opposites attract: people who like different things and have different views are likely to fall in love
  • Scared out of my wits & Frightened to death : being very frightened
  • All is fair in love and war: you can do whatever you have to in order to conquer someone’s heart
  • All’s well that ends well: if there were problems along the way, it doesn’t matter as long as there is a happy ending

They all became clichés for a reason. They are a convenient expression shortcut. However, these overused phrases can also be a barrier to communication. When a reader comes across a cliché, they start tuning out and may even miss the message we are trying to get across.

I refer you here to George Orwell’s advice, which I believe is as pertinent today, as it was when first pronounced: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

“At the end of the day” is one that gets my blood boiling, as well as the constant use of “like” as if it were a form of punctuation. “To the bitter end” gets another big NO from me. Also, I cannot stand “That’s ironic”, “virtually” or “literally” when misused. It makes me want to scream “I will literally kill you if you keep saying that!”

There are other repetitions which may not be exactly clichés, but which for me certainly read that way. For example, I will literally die 😉 if I see another exhibition of a “burning gaze”, “looking though thick eyelashes”, “wry smile”, “rearing of an ugly head”, yet another “dumb blonde” and that oh-so-annoying “OMG” in print.

If only walls could talk, they’d tell those cliché lovers to think outside the box and stop chasing their tail or that’ll be the nail in the coffin of their literary career. Walls would of course attempt to communicate in a language intelligible to repeat offenders. To those who are beginners in their craft, they may adapt their language and presumably would find a way to say all this without using clichés.

Which clichés do you find the most annoying?

I’m sure you must have a few favourites at least.

Now I very much doubt that Michael will see my picking this as the topic of today’s Let’s Talk Opinion as the equivalent of taking candy from a baby, although I did feel like a kid in the candy store when I visited his blog earlier today. Just killing time, I thought, but it was certainly a game-changer and I soon realised that comedy like that comes once in a blue moon. That’s that. Cat got my tongue! 😉


Let’sTalk Opinion posts engage with issues that are important to other bloggers, connecting with others on matters close to their heart. If you like a topic and would like to contribute, please feel free to add to the comment box, reblog, share, email or message me on Twitter @shardsofsilence.

Or if you happen to be a fellow Hogwartsian send me a letter by owl. ;)

Some are more equal than others


Let’s Talk Opinion in conversation with The Poisoned Well

I had promised myself to give the issue of Feminism a rest for a while, and fully intended to keep to that promise, until I came across The Poisoned Well’s latest… I do not even know how best to label it. It beggars belief.

Oh well… Broken Promises all over again.

I have always approached the subject with humour, although the message is a serious one: If you are a democrat, you are a feminist, and I will endeavour to be equally moderate (?) in my reply to what I deem a rather immoderate attack on what the movement stands for.

The first poisoned chalice on offer in this well, is the claim that “From day one Feminism has been elevating women at the expense of men.”*

At the expense of men? Is this a superpower zero sum game? Is it truly so difficult to grasp that to consider women to be of equal worth to men is not to the latter’s detriment? Surely the opposite is true.

We live in democracies where all citizens are deemed to be of equal worth. We got to this point by endeavouring to ensure that such equality is not an equality in name alone, and that reality comes as close to our aspiration for mutual respect, equal rights and equal social standing as it is possible.

The kind of Manichean ontology to which my opponent subscribes – that any advance for women is a step back for men – is frankly as outmoded as it is damaging. It is this kind of attitude that hurts both women and men, and not Feminism, as The Poisoned Well would have you believe.

But wait a little. It gets better. Feminism in The Poisoned Well’s depiction comes close to the likeness of a savage werewolf “Tearing men down to elevate women”* apparently.

Careful, ladies! Make sure to get that muzzle on when the Full Moon’s a-calling. I chain myself up to the bedpost too, just in case. Never know when the blood thirst will strike, and that pulsating manly vein… Argh! The scent is too much to withstand. You know what they say: the best way to avoid temptation, is to give into it.

Just when I thought I’d taken all precautions, the poison dosage was upped. Listen carefully. Did you know that “Men are excluded from most victim services even though men are more often the victim of every single crime including rape”*?

Umm… Dearest, The Poisoned Well, you might want to look into some stats on this. You will find that women are overwhelmingly the victims of rape. I’m not sure what country you live in to have experienced this, but in most civilised places, men are not excluded from most victim services. They are not excluded full stop.

What next? Here’s a juicy one for you: “Harass a man, it’s Tuesday.  Harass a woman, it’s the end of the world.  Inequality and discrimination really have become part of our every day lives.”*

You are right that inequality and discrimination is part of our everyday lives. It has not “become” this, it’s always been the case, but implying that the Feminist movement is somehow responsible for this is beyond inaccurate. You clearly have an axe to grind – in waiting for that Feminist Werewolf lurking under your bed, I imagine – but you may want to take on socio-political, class and economic factors into consideration, rather than bandying all societal evils under the standard of Feminism.

But The Poisoned Well has plenty more in store for your pallet’s delight: “Men are murdered much more often than women, but women suffer from catcalls.  We must ignore mens lives and protect the women’s feelings.”*

Men are murdered by other men mostly, so… this is relevant to a discussion of Feminism… how?

And men’s lives are not ignored. It is not for Feminism as a movement to take on this particular issue. Perhaps you may want to call on Law and Order from the State instead. It is the failure of the state to protect its citizens that results in the type of crime you describe.

You seem to be under the erroneous impression that society should ignore sexual harassment because there are other “more important” things to resolve first. Perhaps you would like for children to continue being molested too until all murderers have been jailed?  Using your logic society ought to say that it’s only assault, after all, and punishing those guilty of causing death takes precedence, right?

How can it be useful or helpful in any way to make such arguments?

For another meaty offering, The Poisoned Well decides that an attack on Religion is in order next. “Women are baby factories and men are disposable meat shields. […]Religion oppresses everyone except for the Plutocrats that own the religion.”*

Now, I find myself – a declared atheist – the defender of religion. Oh the irony!

Whatever system of thought or belief you may subscribe to, reducing religion to the above formula hardly cuts the mustard. It is a parody at best, and it’s hardly the way to encourage equality, or even the most basic form of mutual respect in this context.

Breaking News! “Women make the same as men in the same jobs. The problem of “The wage Gap” isn’t unequal pay for equal work.”* 

Well, aren’t I lucky to have been disabused of this notion about the continued gender inequality when it comes to salaries? Clearly all those other studies undertaken by highly respected economists, all reports on the matter submitted after thorough investigations: researched, documented, and backed up with relevant statistics – all nonsense apparently. Thank you, The Poisoned Well for clearing it all up for us. Eternally grateful, I’m sure.

Now I could go on and tell you about some other of The Poisoned Well’s brilliant insights, such as the fact that Feminism has apparently abolished the heroic male lead in cinematography, and that there is no such thing as men’s professional sports – they are gender neutral – I say! Jolly good – and women simply can’t keep up, so now they’ve come up with their own sports that make tons of money and objectify men in the process.

Aha! You heard me right, ladies. Down, boy. Down! Let me take a look at ya simmering swim-suited bod. That’s all you’re worth to me. It’s all hot-hot bunga-bunga and no emotional involvement. Cry me a river!

Then men get objectified some more and are excluded from reproductive rights. Just as they thought they were safe, hop! they go down a dark alley and get mugged for flashing their wealth around – wealth that of course is no greater than women’s because the pay-gap is a myth obviously – and this is all because of Feminism. The horror! What kind of a world do we live in?

And the Feminist coup de grâce? Men are NOT represented in the White House!!! No. Apparently the politician’s desire to be re-elected puts them well and truly at mummy’s skirt and under women’s Jimmy Choos. Result!

Final Poisoned Well pearl for the grand finale: “There is nothing that turns my stomach more.  Don’t worry I won’t be reading Jesus Feminist any time, ever.  If I want to read a distopian horror I’ll just read 1984 or Animal Farm.”*

I hear you, sister. Don’t think I’ll be turning to dystopias any time soon either. I mean… just read your article. That’s quite enough dystopia for one day, thank you very much.

*All quotes in this article are from The Poisoned Well‘s How Feminism Hurts men.


Let’sTalk Opinion posts engage with issues that are important to other bloggers, connecting with others on matters close to their heart. If you like a topic and would like to contribute, please feel free to add to the comment box, reblog, share, email or message me on Twitter @shardsofsilence.

Or if you happen to be a fellow Hogwartsian send me a letter by owl. ;)