“My Family and Other Animals,” by Gerald Durrell

Descriptive Paragraph:

July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky.  A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it.  Along the Bournemouth sea-front the beach huts turned blank wooden faces towards a greeny-grey, froth-chained sea that leaped eagerly at the cement bulwark of the shore.  The gulls had been tumbled inland over the town, and they now drifted above house-tops on taut wings, whining peevishly.  It was the sort of weather calculated to try anyone’s endurance.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Thus begins one of my favorite nonfiction books.  It is a first-person story of several years in the life of the Durrell family, a widowed mother and her four children.  Caught in a Channel town in weather continually bad, they voted in desperation to escape for one year to the inexpensive Greek island of Corfu.  Mrs. Durrell, slightly vague in her suggestions, always charming and never shocked, allowed that year to stretch by vote to five years.

“Red Sky at Morning,” by Richard Bradford

Descriptive Paragraph:

It snowed for three days in early November, and the people of Sagrado put their cars in garages and walked everywhere.  Amadeo, who came in from Rio Conejo every morning in the pickup, put snow chains on the rear tires and loaded the truck with three hundred pounds of concrete blocks to get traction.  An entire family of Navajo Indians froze to death in a drafty hogan near Beclabito, where the temperature went to 46 below one night.  Forest rangers on snowshoes hiked up to Bernal Peak and announced that the 117 inches of snowpack promised a good spring runoff ….

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) This opening of a chapter in a novel is presented here for a purpose.  Instead of a static passage describing the New Mexican town of Sagrado under snow (Santa Fe?), the author shows action, what the local people did as a result of a sudden change of weather.

“The Snake,” by John Steinbeck

Descriptive Paragraph:

It was almost dark when young Dr. Phillips swung his sack to his shoulder and left the tide pool.  He climbed over the rocks and squashed along the street in his rubber boots.  The street lights were on by the time he arrived at his little commercial laboratory on the cannery street of Monterey.  It was a tight little building, standing partly on piers over the bay water and partly on land.  On both sides the big corrugated-iron sardine canneries crowded in on it.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Here the setting shows the protagonist as part of his environment.  A further step gives us his name, and we learn that he is young.  By implication we gather that Dr.  Phillips is not a medical man but a scientist who runs a commercial laboratory on cannery row; therefore, he is no doubt a marine biologist.

Notice that he is in action.  We glimpse the tide pool and the rocks on the beach.  We do not see the town itself until the protagonist arrives at his laboratory.  The time element is mentioned twice, but not by clock.  This gives the impression that Dr. Phillips is a man who works until it is too dark to see.  Notice, too, the active verbs climb and squash, both used without adverbs.

“Samson and Delilah,” by D. H. Lawrence

Descriptive Paragraph:

A man got down from the motor-omnibus that runs from Penzance to St. Just-in-Penwith, and turned northwards, up-hill towards the Polestar.  It was only half-past six, but already the stars were out, a cold little wind was blowing from the sea, and the crystalline, three-pulse flash of the lighthouse below the cliffs beat rhythmically in the first darkness.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) In this opening paragraph the author has added a new element, the protagonist, though the man is not named.  We see him walking in the early evening along the coast of Cornwall, and the description of the setting might have been seen through his eyes.  Since readers are more interested in people than in Setting, this paragraph is more apt to catch attention.

“The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson

Descriptive Paragraph:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.  The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Here again we have the same three elements closely tied together: the setting, a village square; the time, ten o’clock in the morning; and the subject, a lottery.

Not until you reach the last two words—noon dinner—do you realize that the story is set back in time to the indefinite past.  What kind of lottery you as a reader are about to witness is gradually built up in a matter-of-fact way by implication—hints and suggestions rather than explicit statements—until at last understanding sweeps over you with a rising sense of horror.

(from a collection of opening paragraphs at www.secondroot.com)

“The Garden Party,” by Katherine Mansfield

Descriptive Paragraph:

They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it.  Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud.  Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer.  The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine.  As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing.  Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.

(from a collection of opening paragraphs at www.secondroot.com)

“The Chrysanthemums,” by John Steinbeck

Descriptive Paragraph:

The high, grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world.  On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot.  On the broad, level land floor the gang plows bit deep and left the black earth shining like metal where the shares bad cut.  On the foothill ranches across the Salinas River, the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December.  The thick willow scrub along the river flamed with sharp and positive yellow leaves.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) This introductory paragraph takes you to the Salinas Valley—in California, if you know your Steinbeck, the time is winter, specifically December.  You may decide that this description is gray and dull.  Still, note the yellow stubble as well as the willow scrub with yellow leaves.  In spite of the gray environment, something flames up, perhaps within the protagonist, who enters the story in the fourth paragraph.

“Monastery Road,” by Eric Mitchell

Descriptive Paragraph:

Anthony was too excited to sleep.  At midnight he heard the cook’s drunken voice raised in song behind the inn and later a rooster crowing; he saw the first grey light of dawn streak bits of sky through the narrow window.  He sprang up from his mattress before anyone else was awake and hurried, shivering in the early chill, to the wash basin outside the back door … He put on his clothes in the dark.  His loose surcoat had blue and tawny stripes.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues with an exercise) Now underline with your two colored pencils: blue for any of the senses used, red for the color words.

Next, let me say that here is an author who makes use of color words as well as the five senses, and usually he uses both with exactness.  This paragraph, however, happens to contain a flaw, a statement about color, that mars the flow of the narrative.  Can you spot it?  Pause for a moment until you find it.

Here’s the flaw: If our protagonist is putting on his surcoat in the dark, he cannot see its colors, and neither can we.  A small inaccuracy, yes.  Still, it is a tiny hurdle which an alert reader might stumble over.  Therefore, when you present any of the five senses in your writing, take care that your statement is physiologically possible.

“Youth,” by Joseph Conrad

Descriptive Paragraph:

And this is how I see the East.  I have seen its secret places and have looked into its very soul; but now I see it always from a small boat, a high outline of mountains, blue and afar in the morning; like faint mist at noon; a jagged wall of purple at sunset.  I have the feel of the oar in my hand, the vision of a scorching blue sea in my eyes.  And I see a bay, a wide bay, smooth as glass and polished like ice, shimmering in the dark.  A red light burns far off upon the gloom of the land, and the night is soft and warm.  We drag at the oars with aching arms, and suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night—the first sigh of the East on my face.…

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Pay attention to the fact that the author places the protagonist in a certain place—in a small boat offshore—and through that young man’s consciousness we get an impressionistic picture of the landfall, in the morning, at noon, at sunset, at night.  It is a picture in words that appeals to three of our senses, sight, smell, touch.

H. L. Mencken said of Conrad: “There have been, perhaps, greater novelists, but I believe that he was incomparably the greatest artist who ever wrote a novel.”