A Lesson in Vivid Descriptions from Captain Phoebus

Descriptions are so hard. It’s hard enough getting all the important details down (including the ones I just take for granted as being there), let alone drawing my audience into the setting, making them feel like they’re in the world with my characters, caring for the same things. 

And once I feel like I’ve finally accomplished this, I’ve filled two paragraphs with description and backstory alone. 

How can we write vivid, immersive descriptions, in a short and interesting space? 

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Let’s analyse one of my favourite descriptions: the bridge of ‘Rest and Recreation’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame musical. Then we’ll write a one-sentence description based on the picture above and what we’ve learnt!

(Context: Captain Phoebus has just returned from a far-off war, and is now in medieval Paris in time for the Feast of Fools. Halfway through the song, he remembers how traumatic the battlefield was in comparison to the fun of the festival.)

Cannon fodder lying in the field below the castle
Is this the third week or the fourth week of the siege?
The air filled with a stench of bodies in a trench;
Whoever pays the most I call my liege.

Alan Menken

*geeks out a little bit at the awesome rhymes*

It’s chilling, isn’t it?

So how can one stanza make me gag?

1. A vivid, deliberate metaphor

Cannon fodder lying in the field below the castle

Similes and metaphors are useful in tight descriptions; you can get a vivid, moving picture in a short number of words.

Menken opens with the metaphor “cannon fodder”. Fodder is what cows eat, and the strange metaphor makes me imagine the balls strewn around a paddock like hay, waiting for someone to pick up and feed to a cannon. Not only is the description shocking, it adds character to the balls, all in just two words.

It’s easy to reach for cliche metaphors, or obvious ones, but surprising and deliberate comparisons will add so much in a very short amount of time. 

And there, in the middle of the skillet, a doughy maze of dripping cinnamon sugar. 

2. A glimpse into Phoebus’ mind

Is this the third week or the fourth week of the siege?

This is a direct quote of Phoebus’ thoughts. This glimpse into his mind positions us behind his eyes, so we see the rest of the description from his point of view.

Thought-quotes are easy to slip into action-packed scenes, and make the description more realistic. This world is real to your character, so if we see it through their eyes, it becomes real for us too.

Another interesting point about this is that it’s a question, and one that the audience can’t answer. Neither we nor Phoebus know how long the siege has gone for, which creates a monotony; a sense that this has gone on forever.

When you’re writing descriptions, see if you can slip in glimpses of the character’s thoughts and feelings, to help ground the reader in their point of view.

Gently pulling the skillet out of the oven, she smiled. They turned out just like mum’s.

3. Use of different senses

The air filled with a stench of bodies in a trench

I always thought he was referring to the stench of dead bodies. I even drafted this section based on that belief, and wondered if I could publish something that talks about rotting corpses. Then I showed the draft to my editor (*cough* sister) and she said, ‘Oh, I thought it was talking about sweat.’

Oh.

But however you interpret it, the description isn’t visual.

Phoebus doesn’t have to say that he can see the bodies–we can smell them, so we assume that we can see them, and feel the sweat, too. Conversely, if we were told we could see them, we probably wouldn’t think to smell or feel it.

Ask yourself questions about each sense as you’re describing your setting. What’s the temperature like? What can your character hear? What smell is most prominent? Are they hungry, or tired? Remember also that your character isn’t omniscient, and will miss details. What do the details they miss highlight about their personalities? 

The warm smell of baked bread burst out of the oven with the wave of heat that fogged her glasses and turned the world white. 

4. Mixes character descriptions with setting descriptions

Whoever pays the most I call my liege.

Why was Phoebus in battle in the first place?

Was he protecting his town’s children? Taking down a tyrant? Fighting for a cause?

It feels so shallow–enduring the constant assault, endless siege and awful smell so that he can be bought by the next highest bidder.

This is another glimpse into Phoebus’ mind, but it feels more like he’s in the present, thinking back. How can you blend your characters’ motivations and feelings with your description of the world around them? What can you show the audience about your characters through their setting?

The rolls were baked to perfection. These will sell in a second, she thought. They always do.


Descriptions can be tricky to get right, especially when we need to portray a lot of information in a short space of time. Hopefully by thinking through our metaphors and our characters’ thoughts, senses and motivations, we can weave together emotive and vivid descriptions, just like this one!

P.S. This was only half the description in the song. Maybe have a look at the rest of it, and see what else you can learn? I’d love to hear what you find!


So, amazing writers/songwriters, what are some of your favourite descriptions? How would you describe the cinnamon buns in the picture?

Published by Debbie Coll

I'm a storyteller, songwriter and author who loves God, fairy tales and music. I write about tales, creative tips and process on my blog, debbiecoll.com.

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