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by Daniel Abraham

Descriptions are tricky in part because they’re working best when they’re doing double duty. The physical details of a place exist in the service of a story not only as a way to help the reader imagine the scene but also as a path for the author to feed information about the tone of the story and the nature of the people who inhabit the space. And, to make things a little harder, long, encyclopedic descriptions are often less effective than one or two telling details.

As an exercise, when you are in an environment — school, office, restaurant, street, car, anything will do — look at it for one or two details which could suggest something about the people who live there. Write one or two descriptive sentences that only reference concrete, specific details that invite the reader to fill in the rest of the scene.

Examples: A pink plastic hairbrush lay next to the sink. The air smelled of artificial freshener and vomit.

The barstools were upholstered in red vinyl with yellow foam showing through at the cracks.

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