Reader Friday: Description

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of picked bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been. (Darker Than Amber by John D. MacDonald)

Share one of your favorite examples of description from a novel.

23 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Description

  1. Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. (Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)

    • Scarlett’s eyes turned to Rhett Butler, who leaned
      against a tree, his hands shoved deep in his trouser pockets. He
      stood alone, since Mr. Wilkes had left his side, and had uttered
      no word as the conversation grew hotter. The red lips under the
      close-clipped black mustache curled down and there was a glint of
      amused contempt in his black eyes–contempt, as if he listened to
      the braggings of children. A very disagreeable smile, Scarlett

  2. “The woman had been lovely once. Long trails of her golden hair spread out like rays on the dirty sidewalk. Her eyes, wide and still with that distressed expression death often left in them, were a deep purple against cheeks bloodlessly white and wet with rain.”
    (Glory in Death by Nora Roberts, 1995)

  3. “Modoc soon led into the region of the ice caves. Huge holes gaped abruptly; black vacant apertures stared from under ledges; windows of mysterious depths showed right out of the gray pumice. Each and every cavern was a blow-hole that had formed in the cooling lava. It was an uncanny region where riding a horse did not feel safe. Some of the holes were fifty feet deep and twice as long, black and jagged-walled, brush-filled, with the dark doors of caves somewhere at the bottom. Every one of them led into a cave. And down in these caves there was always supposed to be ice, from which cold crystal water flowed.” Forlorn River, Zane Grey

  4. The year Buttercup turned ten, the most beautiful woman lived in Bengal, the daughter of a successful tea merchant. This girl’s name was Aluthra, and her skin was of a dusky perfection unseen in India for eighty years. (There have only been eleven perfect complexions in all of India since accurate accounting began.) Alutthra was nineteen the year the pox plague hit Bengal. The girl survived, even if her skin did not.
    (The Princess Bride by William Goldman, 1973)

  5. I sat on the low parapet of the turret of the Chateau d’If watching the white stone slowly flush to a tender rose. I watched the softly breaking water of the tideless sea wash and wash across the whispering white pebbles, aquamarine ripped through with liquid gold.
    (Madame, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart)

  6. As caravans go, it must once have held up its head, but generations of beer-drinking bachelors had left tiny teeth marks of bottle caps along the edges of all the fitments, and circular greasy head marks on the wall above every seat. Airport dirt had clogged the brown haircord upholstery into a grayish cake, relieved here and there by darker irregular stains. Shabby pinups of superhuman mammalian development were stuck to the walls with tape, and a scatter of torn-off patches of paint showed where dozens of others had been stuck before. Tired green curtains had opened and shut on a thousand hangovers. The flyblown mirror had stared back at a lot of disillusion, and the bedsprings sagged from the weight of a bored succession of pilots with nothing to do except Honey.
    (Honey is a girl working at the small airport)
    (Rat Race by Dick Francis, 1971)
    I love the work of Dick Francis. This is almost J.D. MacDonald – level work (IMO). I read passages like this one and I’m there, in that story, participating, experiencing everything written. I wish Francis would have seen fit to write a book on the craft of writing. Sadly, he never saw fit to do so.

  7. “Life has not always been so distant. So set apart. There were times when I lived in the middle of it. When I knew great emotion. Drank straight from the fire hose. Sucked the marrow. Stuck my finger in the socket. This was not one of those. This was a cheap counterfeit but it was as close as I could get.
    I wanted to peel off my hat and mask and the name that wasn’t mine, and sit in the middle while the misfits fell and piled up like pick-up sticks around me. Then we’d crack open a worn cover and I’d read, and the words would do what medicine can’t, won’t, and never will.” ~Charles Martin in “Unwritten”.

  8. The following might not be the best description, literary wise, but it nails New England. For that reason, I love it.

    It is no secret, in fact, that we in the Northeast take pride in our culture, our land, our history, our clam chowdah; and don’t realize (or give two shakes) that we pronounce over as ovah, or car as cah, and say things like, What a wicked pissah. There are a wide variety of museums, science centers, wineries, antique shops, historic homes, nature trails, rivers, streams, mom-and-pop penny candy stores, lakes and reservoirs, even several casinos, not to mention scores of maple syrup farmers.

    We claim Nathan Hale and Jonathan Trumbull as our own; Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe; Katharine Hepburn and Martha Stewart. Just about anywhere you turn in good ol’ New England, you walk on historic, sacred ground, with echoes of splendor beckoning your attention and respect.

    Murder, New England by M. William Phelps

  9. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn’t really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as tarantula on a slice of angel food.

    Farewell, My Lovely
    Raymond Chandler

  10. “Alice was momentarily startled as she saw the world in front of her flash a bright red as she jumped willingly from insane rage into full insanity itself. She was looking through a tunnel at the scene in front of her, seeing it through fiendish eyes, yet still inside her body. The rage enveloped her, and her fury coalesced into its own being. It surrounding and encased her as an outer shell from the pit of hell. Her hand moved of its own accord and picked up a long screwdriver from the tool bench.” – Alice Arnold in “Gabriella”

  11. “Clete Purcel had heard of people who sleep without dreaming, but either because of the era and neighborhood in which he had grown up, or the later experiences that had come to define his life, he could not think of sleep a anything other than an uncontrolled descent into a basement where the gargoyles turned somersaults like circus midgets.” ~~ SWAN PEAK by James Lee Burke.

    The master, none better.~~ I remember reading Taylor Caldwell in the 70s, and loving her purple prose, but Burke takes purple prose, turns it inside out and back again, gilds it, polishes it, and you never knew what hit you. (A little too much coffee this morning.)

  12. The Judge has not shifted his position for a long while now. He has not stirred hand or foot, nor withdrawn his eyes so much as a hair’s-breadth from their fixed gaze towards the corner of the room, since the footsteps of Hepzibah and Clifford creaked along the passage, and the outer door was closed cautiously behind their exit. He holds his watch in his left hand, but clutched in such a manner that you cannot see the dial-plate. How profound a fit of meditation! Or, supposing him asleep, how infantile a quietude of conscience, and what wholesome order in the gastric region, are betokened by slumber so entirely undisturbed with starts, cramp, twitches, muttered dreamtalk, trumpet-blasts through the nasal organ, or any slightest irregularity of breath! You must hold your own breath, to satisfy yourself whether he breathes at all. It is quite inaudible. You hear the ticking of his watch; his breath you do not hear. A most refreshing slumber, doubtless! And yet, the Judge cannot be asleep. His eyes are open! A veteran politician, such as he, would never fall asleep with wide-open eyes, lest some enemy or mischief-maker, taking him thus at unawares, should peep through these windows into his consciousness, and make strange discoveries among the remniniscences, projects, hopes, apprehensions, weaknesses, and strong points, which he has heretofore shared with nobody. A cautious man is proverbially said to sleep with one eye open. That may be wisdom. But not with both; for this were heedlessness! No, no! Judge Pyncheon cannot be asleep. — HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Chapter 18.

    This whole chapter is just a description of Pycheon’s dead body as it sits for a day and night. His ancestors, good and evil, as well as their victims seem to gather around him. I can’t give the sense of what’s happening in one long paragraph, but Hawthorne manages to create a circular camera shot panning around the body and the room. Pretty dang awesome long before the days of film. It blew me away when I first read it.

  13. I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar. It’s not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. One lick of strawberry-blond hair escaped the band of his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not a color I’d ever seen in a man’s eyes. When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948. DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, Walter Mosley, 1990.

  14. I’ve always admired the subtly hooky opening to Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday” and its unapologetic use of an involved third-person omniscient narrator and an opening that’s exposition rather than action (kids: don’t try this at home):

    When the war came to Monterey and to Cannery Row everybody fought it more or less, in one way or another. When hostilities ceased everyone had his wounds.

    The canneries themselves fought the war by getting the limit taken off fish and catching them all. It was done for patriotic reasons, but that didn’t bring back the fish. As with the oysters in Alice, “They’d eaten every one.” It was the same noble impulse that stripped the forests of the West and right now is pumping water out of California’s earth faster than it can rain back in. When the desert comes, people will be sad; just as Cannery Row was sad when all the pilchards were caught and canned and eaten. The pearl-gray canneries of corrugated iron were silent and a pacing watchman was their only life. The street that once roared with trucks was quiet and empty.

    Yes, the war got into everybody. Doc was drafted. He put a friend known as Old Jingleballicks in charge of Western Biological Laboratories and served out his time as a tech sergeant in a V.D. section.

    Doc was philosophical about it. He whiled away his free hours with an unlimited supply of government alcohol, made many friends, and resisted promotion. When the war was over, Doc was kept on by a grateful government to straighten out certain inventory problems, a job he was fitted for since he had contributed largely to the muck-up. Doc was honorably discharged two years after our victory.

  15. You were conceived on a hunting stand, they say.

    Which means: We had no other place.

    The homestead is full of my mother’s siblings. On the stove, a pot of potato chow big enough to feed twenty. See my mother, back roughed against the wooden platform in the trees. See my father, finger on the trigger—in case.

    You have to gut a moose right away, they say, or the meat rots in its skin.

    Which means: We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.

    The night of my making, my father shot a moose through the eye, through the skull and brain and bone, through to the other side. My mother found the red-tipped bullet in the summered dirt. They keep it on the mantle next to a sepia photo—them steering the rack of the dead bull.

    They say, you came into the world with a bang.

    Which means: Do something to deserve us.


    From, Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories (Which is really a novel in stories), by Melinda Moustakis

    • Wow. There has been some great prose shared here, but the rawboned ferocity of this one took me by surprise!

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