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March 12, 2010 / Chersti Nieveen

analysis: the shadow in the north

Warning: This analysis may contain spoilers. I take an in-depth look at what makes this book work and why. And it may only be helpful if you’ve actually read the book. However, continue reading at your own risk. For more information on the Friday Analysis, go here.

THE SHADOW IN THE NORTH by Philip Pullman

For the history of the books or more general information, click here. For a synopsis, click here.

For this book I’d love to talk about DESCRIPTION.

Mrs. Mooney’s house was  a crazy, stinking, tottering ruin, kept from falling into Allen’s Yard only by the fact that there was no room for it to fall into. The little light that reached the court from outside and from the dim windows of the house showed that the floor of it was little better than a cesspool…

What works: This is an amazing description that not only lets you visualize the place, you can even smell it. And it’s not the prettiest picture. The character descriptions are the same.

If you called at Burton Street and sat for a portrait, the photographer who’d take it, as likely as not, would be a dark, solidly built young man by the name of Charles Bertram, of whom Webster Garland thought very highly: he was imaginative and skillful, and his portraits caught a real air of life and movement.

Why it works: it works because it doesn’t stop the flow in the narration. It adds to the story’s flavor. If you’ve read the story, the description is in the same narrative voice as the rest of the story.

Hard Rule:

  1. Keep your descriptions short (sometimes even just one to two sentences works) and concise.
  2. Sprinkle your descriptive sentences throughout the narration. Don’t bring it in all in the first paragraph.
  3. Pick your words carefully. If you notice, Pullman used precise adjectives to describe the house. To describe the yard, Pullman uses the word “cesspool” instead of saying it was a wet, muddy, smelly yard running with sludge, it’s all combined into this one word.
  4. Bring in all five senses. Pullman uses adjectives that bring in more than one sense. “Crazy” implies noisy as well as messy. When the floor is described as a “cesspool,” it lets you see the muddy, wet ground as well as bringing in the smell.

Bring it home: So now let’s apply this to your writing. Here’s a little writing exercise  Write a description of the pictures you see below. Write what you see. Make sure you use all five senses.

Okay, now go back and look at your paragraph. Circle all the words that describe the picture. Can you find a better word to use? Use a thesaurus to open your mind, if you need.

Next, write a scene that involves the description. Make sure you pepper those descriptions throughout the scene. (Bonus point: did you make sure that any characters you used in your scenes also had descriptions?)

So now that you’ve done this, you might be asking: great, now what? Now go apply this to your own writing–and if you want some feed back, feel free to email your descriptive scenes to me!

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