What Makes This Paragraph so Great?

Donald Miller

When I first started writing I made the mistake of thinking I should be descriptive. I’d envision every scene and describe things, the trees as tall as flag poles, the wind coming across the field like music and all that flowery like this and like that. But in truth, many of the great writers don’t describe much at all. It’s true you’ll read Fitzgerald or Steinbeck and feel like you are in the scene, but when you take a second look at the description, there isn’t a whole lot there.

Instead of adjectives, great writers often use verbs. Their characters do, and they are always doing. In this example from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, a Mother and Father have recently lost a child to crib death, and the doctor has pronounced the child dead. Notice how the paragraph feels descriptive, but is actually more full of verbs than adjectives.

    “My father shakes his head. Doctor says he’ll have to take her to examine her and Dad signs a paper. My mother begs for another few minutes with her baby but the doctor says he doesn’t have all day. When Dad reaches for Margaret my mother pulls away against the wall. She has the wild look, her black curly hair is damp on her forehead and there is sweat all over her face, her eyes are wide open and her face is shiny with tears, she keeps shaking her head and moaning, Ah, no, ah, no, till Dad eases the baby from her arms. The doctor wraps Margaret completely in a  blanket and my mother cries, Oh, Jesus, you’ll smother her. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, help me. The doctor leaves. My mother turns to the wall and doesn’t make a move or sound. The twins are awake, crying with the hunger, but Dad stands in the middle of the room, starting at the ceiling. His face is white and he beats on his thighs with his fists. He comes to the bed, puts his hand on my head. His hand is shaking. Francis, I’m going for cigarettes.”


*Photo by I Travel East, Creative Commons

I’ll highlight the descriptive sentences in green and the sentences pronouncing action in red so we can see which the author feels is more important:

    “My father shakes his head. Doctor says he’ll have to take her to examine her and Dad signs a paper. My mother begs for another few minutes with her baby but the doctor says he doesn’t have all day. When Dad reaches for Margaret my mother pulls away against the wall. She has the wild look, her black curly hair is damp on her forehead and there is sweat all over her face, her eyes are wide open and her face is shiny with tears, she keeps shaking her head and moaning, Ah, no, ah, no, till Dad eases the baby from her arms. The doctor wraps Margaret completely in a  blanket and my mother cries, Oh, Jesus, you’ll smother her. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, help me. The doctor leaves. My mother turns to the wall and doesn’t make a move or sound. The twins are awake, crying with the hunger, but Dad stands in the middle of the room, starting at the ceiling. His face is white and he beats on his thighs with his fists. He comes to the bed, puts his hand on my head. his hand is shaking. Francis, I’m going for cigarettes.”

A novice writer will transpose the colors in this paragraph. They will describe the dead baby, the father’s look, the doctor’s white coat, the children’s fearful aspect. Frank McCourt spends little time worrying about it. He trusts the readers mind to imagine details. Instead, he captivates his audience with action. If people are moving and doing, it’s hard to look away. Indeed it is. Nearly every paragraph in this book would be this red. And look at the description he does use. It isn’t flowery. It’s matter of fact. Her face was covered in sweat. Her eyes are wide open. Really? No prose at all, no flowery description.

None needed.

So, if you’re working on a writing project, do readers a favor and cut out the “white as snow” and “cold as a meat locker” and tell us what your characters are doing. Perhaps, like McCourt, you’ll win the Pulitzer for your effort.

(this is a re-post from the archives)

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is all about story. He helps people live a better story at creatingyourlifeplan.com and grow their business at storybrand.com. Follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.