Description Details: Let Your Phrases Multitask

Do your detail phrases multitask?
Do your detail phrases multitask?

Part 3 of 3: Add Detail to Your Descriptions

Here’s Part 3 of 3 on adding detail to your descriptions. Part 1 taught you the importance of using detailed sensory images, motion verbs, and concrete nouns to evoke a reader’s emotions. In Part 2, you learned how to layer details in appositive, noun, and verb phrases.

Phrases Multitask (Do Double Duty)

Today’s post continues the layering, showing you how to add adjective, adverb, and prepositional phrases. You’ll see that phrases often multitask, acting as one type of phrase in one sentence and a different type in another sentence.

Adjective Phrases

Adjective phrases modify nouns, telling what kind, which one, or how many. When building them, avoid the temptation to simply string together vague adjectives; e.g., “The beautiful, gigantic elephants protected their babies.” Instead, show action and rich imagery: “The elephants, an impenetrable barricade of trumpeting thunder, protected their babies.”

Let’s begin with the basic sentence, “You were the girl,” and layer adjective phrases onto the nouns:

  • You were the girl who trampled my heart, laughing at my poetry.
  • You were the girl who trampled my heart, laughing at my poetry littered with mixed metaphors and uneven rhythms.
  • You were the girl who trampled my heart, laughing at my poetry littered with mixed metaphors and uneven rhythms; the one full of dreams.
  • You were the girl who trampled my heart, laughing at my poetry littered with mixed metaphors and uneven rhythms; the one full of dreams invisible to me.

Here’s That Multitasking I Warned You About!

You might be scratching your head. In my previous post I showed you noun phrases that began with who and verb phrases that began with –ed verbs, but now I’m calling them both adjective phrases. This is what I meant above when I said phrases do double duty depending on how they are used in a sentence. In this sentence, who begins a noun phrase acting as an adjective; littered begins a verb phrase acting as an adjective.

It doesn’t matter whether you know which is which. I’m showing you all the possibilities so you’ll know what’s in your repertoire. When you are reaching for details, you just need to come up with the words. It doesn’t matter whether you can name the phrases.

Adverb Phrases

Adverb phrases modify verbs, telling when, where, why, or how. As with adjective phrases, avoid the temptation to simply string together –ly words; e.g., “Usually, Thomas rode his horse happily and quickly.” Instead, show action and rich imagery: “On days his head wasn’t throbbing, Thomas climbed, smiling, onto his horse and galloped across the desert to Shena.

Here again, one of the phrases does double duty: smiling begins a verb phrase that acts as an adverb.

Let’s begin with the basic sentence, “Elizabeth slept, never stirring,” and layer adverb phrases onto the verbs:

  • Although the train rumbled by every hour, Elizabeth slept, never stirring.
  • Although the train rumbled by every hour, Elizabeth slept snuggled into her comforter, never stirring.
  • Although the train rumbled by every hour, Elizabeth slept snuggled into her comforter like an infant, never stirring.
  • Although the train rumbled by every hour, Elizabeth slept snuggled into her comforter like an infant, never stirring until her alarm buzzed at eight.

Prepositional Phrases

Our last phrase is the prepositional phrase, which begins with a preposition and ends with a noun or pronoun and indicates the noun or pronoun’s location. You’ve already seen a few of these disguised as other phrases: of trumpeting thunder (part of an adjective phrase), at my poetry (adverb phrase), with mixed metaphors, of dreams, and to me (all parts of adjective phrases), on days, onto his horse, across the desert, to Shena, into her comforter, and at eight (all parts of adverb phrases). No cautions here! Prepositional phrases are easy to stick in almost anywhere.

Let’s begin with the basic sentence, “A room was delineated,” and layer prepositional phrases onto it:

  • In a corner, a room was delineated.
  • In a corner of the garage, a room was delineated.
  • In a corner of the garage, a room was delineated by a curtain.
  • In a corner of the garage, a room was delineated by a curtain made of crystal beads.
  • In a corner of the garage, a room was delineated by a curtain made of crystal beads, which sparkled in the sun.
  • In a corner of the garage, a room was delineated by a curtain made of crystal beads, which sparkled in the sun when the door was open.

Appositive Phrases + Noun Phrases + Adjective Phrases + Adverb Phrases + Prepositional Phrases = DETAILS!!!

Okay. Time to put all the phrases together into a single story. See if you can think of phrases to add before I do and compare them to the ones I come up with. Although it’s not necessary for you to know the names of the phrases, give yourself a bonus if you can identify them. I’ll color-code them to help you. Remember that, because phrases do double duty, I might color prepositional or verb phrases green when they act as adverbs or noun phrases orange if they act as adjectives (I left some as plain prepositional phrases, so you could see a few of those!). Whether you identify a phrase by either its basic name or by how it acts in the sentence, you are correct.

Our story is about a woman who’s been abused by her husband for years. He beats her yet again and leaves the house. Bruised and broken, she decides he will never hurt her again.

Here’s our basic sentence: “She struggled to her feet and waited for him to return.”

Now, layer by layer, add the detail that makes the story sing (I’ll only italicize the new phrases):

  1. Her back aching, she struggled to her feet and waited for the man to return.
  2. Her back aching from his jabs, she struggled to her feet and waited for the man to return.
  3. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet and waited for the man to return.
  4. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet, lurched to the hall closet, flung open the door and waited for the man to return.
  5. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet, lurched to the hall closet, and flung open the door. She choked back sobs as she punched in the combination to the gun safe and waited for the man to return.
  6. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet, lurched to the hall closet and flung open the door. She choked back sobs as she punched in the combination—3-4-2-8—to the gun safe hidden in back and waited for the man to return.
  7. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet, lurched to the hall closet, and flung open the door. She choked back sobs as she punched in the combination—3-4-2-8, his and her birthdaysto the gun safe hidden in back. She got a gun and waited for the man to return.
  8. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet, lurched to the hall closet, and flung open the door. Beeps punctuated her sobs as she punched in the combination—3-4-2-8, his and her birthdays—to the gun safe hidden in back. The door greeted her with a familiar metallic groan. She got a gun and waited for the man to return.
  9. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet, lurched to the hall closet, and flung open the door. Beeps punctuated her sobs as she punched in the combination—3-4-2-8, his and her birthdays—to the gun safe hidden in back. The door greeted her with a familiar metallic groan as it swung open, revealing its prize. She got a gun and waited for the man to return.
  10. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet, lurched to the hall closet, and flung open the door. Beeps punctuated her sobs as she punched in the combination—3-4-2-8, his and her birthdays—to the gun safe hidden in back. The door greeted her with its familiar metallic groan as it swung open, revealing its prize—a small black pistol. She waited for the man to return.
  11. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet, lurched to the hall closet, and flung open the door. Beeps punctuated her sobs as she punched in the combination—3-4-2-8, his and her birthdays— to the gun safe hidden in back. The door greeted her with a familiar metallic groan as it swung open, revealing its prize—a small black pistol. As she cradled the weapon in her palm, she felt its coolness and its weight as she waited for the man to return.
  12. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet, lurched to the hall closet and flung open the door. Beeps punctuated her sobs as she punched in the combination—3-4-2-8, his and her birthdays—to the gun safe hidden in back. The door greeted her with a familiar metallic groan as it swung open, revealing its prize—a small black pistol. As she cradled the weapon in her palm, its coolness and weight sent a shiver up her spine. She waited for the man to return.
  13. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet and lurched to the hall closet, and flung open the door. Beeps punctuated her sobs as she punched in the combination—3-4-2-8, his and her birthdays—to the gun safe hidden in back. The door greeted her with a familiar metallic groan as it swung open, revealing its prize—a small black pistol. As she cradled the weapon in her palm, its coolness and weight sent a shiver up her spine. Shuffling to the couch with the gun, she waited for the man to return.
  14. Her back aching from his jabs to her kidneys, she struggled to her feet, lurched to the hall closet, and flung open the door. Beeps punctuated her sobs as she punched in the combination—3-4-2-8, his and her birthdays—to the gun safe hidden in back. The door greeted her with a familiar metallic groan as it swung open, revealing its prize—a small black pistol. As she cradled the weapon in her palm, its coolness and weight sent a shiver up her spine. Shuffling to the couch, she laid the gun in her lap and waited for the man she now loathed to return.

There you have it! All the details you need to create rich, full descriptions. Please share some of your detailed descriptions below…
photo credit: caffeinating, calculating, computerating via photopin (license)

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