Description Exercise: Reach for the Sky!

One of the hardest parts of working in pure-prose is really getting across images such that you know people are seeing the same thing you are.

So for this exercise, step outside and look up. Then try to describe it. (I personally find the best skies to base this exercise on are ones with some clouds present and enough light to be able to distinguish said clouds—it doesn’t have to be a particularly spectacular sunset or one of those partially covered moon nights to be interesting, but those are fun too.)

Photo by theswedish on stock.xchng

A lot harder than you thought, isn’t it? It’s easy to write about things that have a definite shape, and particularly ones that always come in the same general proportions, plus or minus size difference. But then there’s the sky, and its annoying tendency to only rarely be sky blue; the clouds, that seem to insist on being shaped enough like something to catch your attention but not enough to really make sense describing them as being shaped like that thing (and don’t get me started on texture); whatever other odd things happen to be occupying the sky at the time, which at least are decently easy to describe but really can’t be relied on to show up.

And sure, there are words for it. We can throw scientific jargon at the clouds, talk about cumulonimbus and cirrostratus until the cows come home, and it’s still only going to get us partway to what it looks like; we can use the old traditional terms (you familiar with mackerel sky and/or mares’ tails, and what to conclude if you see both at once?), but their main advantage is just being a tad more evocative. We can attack the sky with a box of Crayolas, but I’m not sure which is more awkward, discovering you still don’t have the color name anyway or trying to describe something as being “purple mountain’s majesty”. (The markers and pencils at least keep a little more dignity.) But we can’t just lean back on those.

The fun thing about the sky is that it pulls you to the limits of your skills. The clouds start being full of similes as we shove shapes and imagery together in hopes that some combination will get the point across. The sky itself is full of comparisons—I found myself, on last night’s walk, thinking of the sky as “a sort of wimpy blue that had used up all its energy over the course of the afternoon.”

For an added challenge, take the description you come up with and see if you can pare it down to as short as possible. After all, the full version probably isn’t something you can slip into a story without being accused of a scenery pornographer, but who knows, with a little streamlining here and there, you might be able to get at least part of the image across.

Go look up!

Leave a Reply