Model Place Descriptions

Descriptive place paragraphs give readers a sense of cohesion

Greenwood Subway Station Toronto
Greenwood Subway Station Toronto.

melindasutton/Flickr

In each of these four paragraphs, the authors use precise descriptive details to evoke a distinctive mood as well as to convey a memorable picture. As you read each one, notice how place signals help establish cohesion, clearly guiding the reader from one detail to the next.

The Laundry Room

"The windows at either end of the laundry room were open, but no breeze washed through to carry off the stale odors of fabric softener, detergent, and bleach. In the small ponds of soapy water that stained the concrete floor were stray balls of multicolored lint and fuzz. Along the left wall of the room stood 10 rasping dryers, their round windows offering glimpses of jumping socks, underwear, and fatigues. Down the center of the room were a dozen washing machines, set back to back in two rows. Some were chugging like steamboats; others were whining and whistling and dribbling suds. Two stood forlorn and empty, their lids flung open, with crudely drawn signs that said: "Broke!" A long shelf partially covered in blue paper ran the length of the wall, interrupted only by a locked door. Alone, at the far end of the shelf, sat one empty laundry basket and an open box of Tide. Above the shelf at the other end was a small bulletin board decorated with yellowed business cards and torn slips of paper: scrawled requests for rides, reward offers for lost dogs, and phone numbers without names or explanations. On and on the machines hummed and wheezed, gurgled and gushed, washed, rinsed, and spun."
—Student assignment, unattributed

The theme of this paragraph is abandonment and things left behind. It's is a wonderful example of personification in which emotion and action are projected onto machines and inanimate objects. The laundry room is a human environment that serves a human function—and yet, the humans appear to be missing.

Reminders, such as the notes on the message board, reinforce the feeling that something that intrinsically belongs here just isn't here. There's also a heightened sense of anticipation. It's as if the room itself is asking, "Where has everyone gone and when will they be back?"

Mabel's Lunch

"Mabel's Lunch stood along one wall of a wide room, once a pool hall, with the empty cue racks along the back side. Beneath the racks were wire-back chairs, one of them piled with magazines, and between every third or fourth chair a brass spittoon. Near the center of the room, revolving slowly as if the idle air was water, a large propeller fan suspended from the pressed tin ceiling. It made a humming sound, like a telephone pole, or an idle, throbbing locomotive, and although the switch cord vibrated it was cluttered with flies. At the back of the room, on the lunch side, an oblong square was cut in the wall and a large woman with a soft, round face peered through at us. After wiping her hands, she placed her heavy arms, as if they tired her, on the shelf."
—Adapted from "The World in the Attic" by Wright Morris

This paragraph from author Wright Morris speaks of longheld tradition, stagnation, weariness, and capitulation. The pace is life in slow motion. Energy is present but sublimated. Everything that happens has happened before. Each detail adds to a sense of repetition, inertia, and inevitability.

The woman, whether the original Mabel or one of a series of women who may have succeeded her, appears both enervated and accepting. Even in the face of customers she may have not served before, she has no expectations of anything out of the ordinary. Although dragged down by the weight of history and habit, she'll simply do as she's always done because, for her, this is how it's always been and how it will likely always be.

Subway Station

"Standing in the subway station, I began to appreciate the place—almost to enjoy it. First of all, I looked at the lighting: a row of meager light bulbs, unscreened, yellow, and coated with filth, stretched toward the black mouth of the tunnel, as though it were a bolt hole in an abandoned coal mine. Then I lingered, with zest, on the walls and ceilings: lavatory tiles which had been white about fifty years ago, and were now encrusted with soot, coated with the remains of a dirty liquid which might be either atmospheric humidity mingled with smog or the result of a perfunctory attempt to clean them with cold water; and, above them, gloomy vaulting from which dingy paint was peeling off like scabs from an old wound, sick black paint leaving a leprous white undersurface. Beneath my feet, the floor a nauseating dark brown with black stains upon it which might be stale oil or dry chewing gum or some worse defilement: it looked like the hallway of a condemned slum building. Then my eye traveled to the tracks, where two lines of glittering steel—the only positively clean objects in the whole place—ran out of darkness into darkness above an unspeakable mass of congealed oil, puddles of dubious liquid, and a mishmash of old cigarette packets, mutilated and filthy newspapers, and the debris that filtered down from the street above through a barred grating in the roof." —Adapted from "Talents and Geniuses" by Gilbert Highet

The stunningly observed recitation of foul matter and neglect is a study in contrasts: Things once pristine are now covered in filth; the soaring vaulted ceiling, rather than inspiring, is dark and oppressive. Even the gleaming steel tracks that offer an avenue of escape must first pass through a gauntlet of decomposing flotsam and jetsam before making a bid for freedom.

The first line of the paragraph, "Standing in the subway station, I began to appreciate the place—almost to enjoy it," serves as an ironic counterpoint of the hellish description of corruption and decay that follows. The beauty of the writing here is that not only does it describes in gut-turning detail the physical manifestation of the subway station itself but also serves to shed insight on thinking processes of a narrator who can find enjoyment in so clearly repulsive a scene.

The Kitchen

"The kitchen held our lives together. My mother worked in it all day long, we ate in it almost all meals except the Passover seder, I did my homework and first writing at the kitchen table, and in winter I often had a bed made up for me on three kitchen chairs near the stove. On the wall just over the table hung a long horizontal mirror that sloped to a ship's prow at each end and was lined in cherry wood. It took up the whole wall, and drew every object in the kitchen to itself. The walls were a fiercely stippled whitewash, so often re-whitened by my father in slack seasons that the paint looked as if it had been squeezed and cracked into the walls. A large electric bulb hung down the center of the kitchen at the end of a chain that had been hooked into the ceiling; the old gas ring and key still jutted out of the wall like antlers. In the corner next to the toilet was the sink at which we washed, and the square tub in which my mother did our clothes. Above it, tacked to the shelf on which were pleasantly ranged square, blue-bordered white sugar and spice jars, hung calendars from the Public National Bank on Pitkin Avenue and the Minsker Progressive Branch of the Workmen's Circle; receipts for the payment of insurance premiums, and household bills on a spindle; two little boxes engraved with Hebrew letters. One of these was for the poor, the other to buy back the Land of Israel. Each spring a bearded little man would suddenly appear in our kitchen, salute us with a hurried Hebrew blessing, empty the boxes (sometimes with a sidelong look of disdain if they were not full), hurriedly bless us again for remembering our less fortunate Jewish brothers and sisters, and so take his departure until the next spring, after vainly trying to persuade my mother to take still another box. We did occasionally remember to drop coins in the boxes, but this was usually only on the dreaded morning of 'midterms' and final examinations, because my mother thought it would bring me luck."
—Adapted from "A Walker in the City," by Alfred Kazin

The hyper-realistic observations on Jewish tenement life in this paragraph from Alfred Kazin's Brooklyn coming-of-age tale is a catalog of the people, things, and events that made up the writer's early day-to-day existence. More than an exercise is mere nostalgia, the juxtaposition between the pull of tradition against the push of progress is almost palpable.

One of the most significant details is the kitchen's enormous mirror, that, just as the narrator has done, "drew every object in the kitchen to itself." The mirror, by its nature, shows the room in reverse, while the writer delivers a version of reality filtered through a perspective informed by his own unique experience and personal reflection.

Sources

  • Morris, Wright. "The World in the Attic." Scribner's, 1949
  • Highet, Gilbert. "Talents and Geniuses." Oxford University Press, 1957
  • Kazin, Alfred. "A Walker in the City." Harvest, 1969