WRITING A DESCRIPTIVE ESSAY
The aim of description is to make sensory details vividly present to the reader. Although it may be only in school that you are asked to write a specifically descriptive essay, description is an important element in many kinds of writing. Description embedded in an argument paper, for example, may be intended to make a position more persuasive. However, in this TIP Sheet we will discuss the descriptive essay as it is commonly assigned by instructors as an exercise in organizing sensory information and choosing vivid details.
Showing vs. telling
Sensory details are details of smell, taste, texture, and sound as well as sight. If you choose "showing" words, those that supply vivid sensory details appropriate to your subject and purpose, you will succeed in showing rather than telling. "Telling" words are usually vague or ambiguous; they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The following first example mostly makes statements about what is lacking in the room, whereas the second example describes the sights, textures, smells, and sounds of the empty room:
The empty room smelled stale and was devoid of furniture or floor covering; the single window lacked curtains or blinds of any kind.
The apartment smelled of old cooking odors, cabbage, and mildew; our sneakers squeaked sharply against the scuffed wood floors, which reflected a haze of dusty sunlight from the one cobwebbed, gritty window.
"Showing" uses very specific details: cabbage and mildew, scuffed and dusty floors, unwashed windows. Though the writer of the second example does not actually use the word "empty," she nevertheless suggests emptiness and disuse. The suggestion of emptiness in the second example is more vivid than the statement of emptiness in the first. If you don't think the first example is vague, look at another possible interpretation of that empty room:
The sharp odor of fresh paint cut through the smell of newsprint. Four stacked cartons of inkjet printer paper sat squarely in the middle of a concrete floor, illuminated by a shaft of morning light from a sparkling chrome-framed window on the opposite wall.
Do not mistake explanation for description. Explanation is a kind of telling that interjects background material that does not contain sensory details or contribute to the overall effect–a character's motives or history, for example:
The tenants had moved out a week earlier because the house was being sold to a developer. No one had bothered to dust or clean because they assumed the apartment was going to be knocked down and replaced with single-family homes like those built just a block away.
When description devolves into explanation (telling rather than showing), it becomes boring.
Once you are ready to abandon the attempt to explain or to tell about, evaluate your subject in terms of visual, auditory, and other sensory details. Think in concrete terms. The more you are interested in and connected to the subject, the easier it will be to interest your reader, so if you describe a person, choose a person whose characteristics stand out to you. If you describe a place or a thing, choose one that is meaningful to you.
You are painting a picture that must be as clear and real as possible, so observe carefully and, preferably, in person. Note what sets this subject apart from others like it. If the subject is a person, include physical characteristics and mannerisms. Describe abstractions such as personality traits only insofar as you can observe them. For example, do not tell the reader your biology instructor is a neat, meticulous person; show your reader the instructor's "dust-free computer monitor and stacks of papers with corners precisely aligned, each stack sitting exactly three thumb-widths from the edge of the desk." How a subject interacts with others is fair game for description if you can observe the interaction. On the other hand, a subject's life history and world perspective may not be, unless you can infer them, for example, from the photos on his walls or the books on his bookshelf.
Similarly, if the subject of your description is an object or a place, you may include not only its physical appearance but also its geographic, historical, or emotional relevance-as long as you show or suggest it using sensory details, and avoid explaining.
Deciding on a purpose
Even description for description's sake should have a purpose. Is there an important overall impression you wish to convey? A central theme or general point? This is your thesis; organize your essay around it. For example, you might describe your car as your home away from home, full of snack foods, changes of clothing, old issues of the Chico News & Review, textbooks, and your favorite music. Or, you might describe your car as an immaculate, beautiful, pampered woman on whom you lavish attention and money. Just don't describe your car in cold, clinical detail, front to back (or bottom to top, or inside to outside) without having in mind the purpose, the overall impression you want to create. To achieve this impression, you should not necessarily include all details; use only those that suit your purpose.
Avoid telling a story unless it is of central importance to the description or an understanding of it. Keep background information to an absolute minimum or avoid it altogether.
Extended description that lacks organization has a confusing, surreal quality and easily loses readers' interest, so choose an organizational plan. Use whatever progression seems logical–left to right, inside to outside, top to bottom-and stick to it. For example, it does not make sense to describe a person's facial features and hair, then his sonorous voice and impressive vocabulary, and then return to details about his eyebrows and glasses.
A quote from your subject or a brief anecdote about him or her may provide an interesting introduction (or conclusion); dialogue can be a great way to add interest to a descriptive essay. In your introduction, you might be permitted to make general, abstract statements (tell about) your subject or supply background information, as long as you demonstrate these points concretely later in the body of your essay.
Use vivid nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and appropriate metaphors, similes, comparisons, and contrasts. Avoid clichés.
Like the introduction, the conclusion is another place you can get away with reflecting about your subject: Why did you write this description? What is its significance to you? To your reader? If you have achieved your purpose, your conclusion should only confirm in the reader's mind what you have already shown him by your use of selected sensory details.
The Iliad essay sample:
The Iliad by Homer is an epic poem that was set at the time of the Trojan War. The epic poem retells the events and the battles between Troy and Greek states during the attack of Troy. The epic focuses on the quarrels between Achilles and Agamemnon and Hera and Zeus. Achilles rage from the Iliad incorporates activities from the immortals as well as the gods. In the quarrel, Achilles through his anger, acted as a messenger from the gods to refute King Agamemnon’s greedy attribute that contributed to the defeat of Achaeans by taking captive the daughter of Chryses, Agamemnon had angered the gods through disobedience (Tvedtnes 147). The aim of this paper is to analyze and discuss the activities of the immortals and gods in the Iliad.
The account of Greek gods by Homer in Iliad points to the fact that gods interacted with Greeks from different perspectives that reveals the behavior, state and statute of ancient gods in managing community of men and gods of the ancient world. Hector kills Patroclus who is a swift warrior just like Achilles after god Apollo knocked Patroclus armor to the ground, Hector mistook Patroclus for Achilles since he was wearing Achilles’ armor and slays him instantly. The event reveals that gods intervene in deciding human activity. At the same time, the war of words between Achilles and Agamemnon is skillful overcome by the death of Patroclus. Achilles meets head-on with Hector at the walls of Troy where Achilles slays his archrival Hector and in order to avenge the dead of Patroclus, he drags the body of Hector in circles around the Patroclus bier. However, Zeus who is siding with Trojans orders Hermes to guide King Priam to Achilles camp to recover the body of Hector from the group of Greeks. There remains a cordially and sometimes ironical but consistent relationship between the gods and men fighting in the battlefront just before the walls of Troy.
God Apollo purposely approached the Patriarch Zeus to convince Achilles to stop dragging the dead body of Hector and return it for proper burial and accession to the next world. Furthermore, god Apollo specifically protected the corpse of Hector from decaying and rotting, besides staving off scavengers and dogs from touching the body of King Priam’s son. Eventually, Hector’s body was recovered after twelve days after King Priam carried treasure to Achilles under the protection of Hermes dressed and disguised as a Myrmidon soldier. King Priam close encounter with immortal Hermes is quite extraordinary since after paying the ransom to Achilles, overtaken by grief Achilles and King Priam wept until they slept. Hermes is responsible for waking up King Priam to walk out of the enemy camp without anyone noticing the event. Furthermore, Hermes warns King Priam against sleeping in the enemy’s tent.
Hermes is a trickster who helped King Priam to walk to Achilles camp without being noticed by the rest of the Greeks. Moreover, Hermes is dressed like one of the Myrmidon soldiers who are under the care of Achilles. Therefore, besides Achilles being a heroic character, Hermes is ultimately the greatest hero who overcome Achilles’ wrath when he revealed himself before Achilles to avoid another loss since Achilles would have killed King Priam to win over the Trojans so easily. Tracing back the roots of ancestors, Achilles is the son of Peleus and grandson of Zeus. King Priam invokes the power of Peleus in order to win the favour of Achilles to accept the ransom in exchange for the corpse of Hector. Generally, King Priam used the power of pathos to gain Achilles confidence in the matter before the transaction went through (Rabel 473).
Zeus is the King of all gods and husband to Hera who is his sister. Zeus is neutral to mortal beings activities and usually advises all gods to keep off mortal combat. Nevertheless, Zeus eventually supports Trojans. Nevertheless, Hera who is convinced that his husband is unfair throws her weight behind the Greeks together with goddess Athena to eliminate the Trojans. Athena is the goddess of wisdom, purposeful war and art; being Zeus’s daughter, she hates Trojans like Hera since Prince Paris of Troy judged in favor of Aphrodite as the most beautiful woman in reference to Here and Athena. The Achaeans gain supported from many immortals like Poseidon who hurled water at the city of Troy since they did not consider paying him sacrifices after he helped the Trojans built their city. Therefore, Poseidon’s position against Troy is merely a revenge mission just like Hera and Athena. Hephaestus who is a crippled god is a metal smith who helps design a new armor for Achilles at Thetis’ request.
On the contrary, Apollo, who is the son of Zeus and twin brother to goddess of hunt Artemis support the Trojans together with Zeus their father. Hector addresses the Achaeans asking, “If Apollo grants me that triumph, I’ll strip his armour, take it to sacred Ilion and hang it in the temple of Apollo, the far shooter.” (Homer VII 92-95); the assertion by Hector proves that Apollo remained a sincere deity to the Trojans. Equally, the god of war Ares steps in to help Trojans. Equally, Hera sent a fog to confuse escaping Trojan soldiers for the advancing Achilles to devour them in the swirling river, which was borne out of immortal Zeus.
Goddess Hera, the witty Queen of immortals deceives the all-seeing Zeus into sleeping with him in the mountains away from the war in order to help the Achaeans gain advantage over the Trojans who were sponsored by Zeus. Sweet Sleep who is also an immortal entity that beckoned on Poseidon to call on the Achaeans to wake up, organize and fight. Kings of Achaeans, Agamemnon, Diomedes and Odysseus moved their warriors into action with Poseidon leading the army with a sword to execute the worst battle scene in which Ajax hit Hector with a stone that made him reel and drop down until he was picked and put on his horse behind the battle line to avoid death. During the combat, Ajax struck Satnuis son of Enops whom was conceived by a Naiad Nymph. Further, Ajax threw his spear and killed Archelochus, Antenor’s son-“the gods had planned his death” (Homer XIV 542). Precisely the gods lots fell on Ajax as the appropriate hero to kill most of the heroic Trojan warriors, thus immortals meddled in human affairs according to the progress of the war (Snider 368). The Earthshaker Poseidon changed the tide of the war against the Trojans while Zeus slept being held by Aphrodite charms that Queen Hera was wearing. The power of Ajax to slay, spear and run after people is compared to the Zeus force that made many flee.
Hera egged his son Hephaestus to fashion blazing fires to help Achilles out of the river; the fires burned the dead corpses and cleaned the fields besides attacking the river to help Achilles. The river in a blaze spoke to Hera promising never to help the Trojans if her son stopped the fire from killing all river life like fish. Then Hera spoke to her son, “Hold off, Hephaestus, splendid child. It is not right to hurt a deathless god like this, just for the sake of mortal men” (Homer XXI.456-458). The conflict spilled to Olympus where Ares attached Athena with his bronze spear, which destroyed Athena,’s tasseled aegis provoking her to hit Ares by a stone that he fell headlong covering seven hundred feet with dust and dirty covering his head at which Athena laughed. Aphrodite who helped Ares to walk away from the battle was attacked and hit by Athena’s powerful fist after Hera’s complaint that Aphrodite was interfering like a dog fly. King Laomedon seemingly robbed Poseidon and Apollo wages, besides threats that disgusted the gods, but Apollo being the god worshipped by Trojans avoided the desire to avenge instead worked towards protecting Troy from wrath of other immortals led by Hera, assisted by Poseidon and Athena. Hera calls Artemis a shameless bitch once she tried to persuade Apollo to fight Poseidon in vain; instead, Hera challenges Artemis to duel, instead, Artemis is afraid and sobs after Hera beats her, she runs to Zeus silver-floored house to report the matter to the patriarch father (Bell 115).
The anger of Achilles likened to Hera’s anger at Zeus drives the activities of the war. When the Trojans overpowered the Greeks, Agamemnon noticed that he made a mistake by not listening to Achilles and letting him go. Agamemnon sends Achilles an embassy to convince Achilles to return to war. Agamemnon sends the embassy with gifts. Achilles welcomes the embassy but refuses to accept Agamemnon’s offer. Achilles does this with the help of the gods when he requires that Agamemnon pay back for Achilles heart-rending injury (Schein 109)
The revenge of Achilles after the death of Patroclus on the hands of Hector is an activity involving both the gods and the immortals. Achilles anger towards Agamemnon turns to the anger towards Hector and Trojans (Alter 1). After the death of Patroclus, Achilles cries to the gods by tearing his hair and dirtying his face in honor. Achilles then vows to returns to fight. Achilles even accepts the prospective death from the revenge when confronted by the mother. Achilles acknowledges that Zeus had the power to take his life. During this battle, the gods intervene for both the Trojans and the Greeks as Zeus lifts the ban preventing the interference from the gods (Tvedtnes 147).
After the revenge mission, Achilles gets a visitation from Patroclus’ ghost asking for a decent burial. The Greeks reserve a day for the game burials where Achilles gives out prizes. The dream urging Achilles is an activity between the gods and the immortals. The gods are angry if war warriors do not receive an honorary burial after death. The gods, through the dream, urges Achilles to bury the body of his friend.
The Iliad “Achilles Rage” incorporates the activities of both the immortals and the gods. The Iliad tells the activities of the immortals such as Achilles and Hector but also incorporates the activities of the gods. Activities such as the revenge of Achilles on the Trojans, the burial of both Hector and Potraclus, and the message by Agamemnon to Achilles incorporates both the activities of the immortals and the gods. The war remains won because of revenge tactics employed by Hera, Poseidon and Athena to bring victory to the Achaeans.
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