Spots, Scales, Shades: Which Animal Are You Describing Today?

This post is shallow (pun intended); it is all about the surface, the skin. Our object of gaze: animals, a recurring descriptive writing topic in examinations. We are going to do some serious wildlife watching this time.

Nobody can deny that the world would be a dull place without our furry friends. With a mind-boggling variety of colours, patterns and textures, they can be quite a task to describe. ‘A tiger has stripes, a snake has scales and a dear has spots’ can sound just meh. How to present the obvious in novel and engaging ways is a continuing challenge at the heart of descriptive writing. Children struggle with it, and so do adults.

In this post, we attempt to create a rich word bank for a stock of images that describe the patterns and textures of our animal friends. Keeping in mind that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, let’s get started with the first skin type.


Many animals in the cat family – cheetah, leopard and jaguar – owe their splendid beauty to their spotted skin or fur. A quick glance at the thesaurus yields some interesting synonyms for spotted: dappled, dotted, peppered, flecked, freckled, sprinkled, speckled, mottled, bedecked etc.

Now we come to the intriguing, and somewhat tricky, part: creating a mesh of these words, together with, strokes of highly sensory language to describe the aforesaid animals:

The blanket of its hazel-coloured fur, embossed with rich black polka dots, radiated grandeur. (Cheetah)

The recesses of rosettes were royal to visualize, whether the beast stood still or was in motion. (Leopard; rosette is the flower or rose pattern characteristic of a leopard’s fur)

Pops of blue, green, golden, and turquoise were daubed in intricate patterns onto its resplendent plumage to imitate the dappled sunlight reflected among the multi-coloured leaves.’ (Peacock)

Let's move onto domestic animals.The dairy cow species – theHolstein Friesian cow – has black and white spots in unique patterns so that no two cows have spots exactly resembling each other’s.

Moo, moo,’ cried the timid cow, swinging its tail to and fro, as though the tail’s tip was supposed to mark places on the peculiar maps created by its mottled skin.

Snowy white speckles sparkled in the sun as the hen foraged the ground for grains and worms early out of bed.


Next, a catalogue of synonyms for striped include barred, stripy, banded, lined, striated, ribbed, streaky, streaked, grooved etc.

Let’s deploy these words to sketch a few animals.

The bright, bold black stripes grooved the amber-orangish base as the tiger attempted to camouflage itself amidst wilderness to cunningly pounce on the prey.

The faded tan streaks were a no match against the glittering twinkle of its dazzling eyes. (Tabby cat)

The striated coat of white and black lines created a picture of ink sprinkled on icy surface. (Zebra)

The charm of the homochromous auburn fur amplified with the solid black bands that barred the entire length of its trunk. (Striped hyena)


A peek at the trusty thesaurus this time showcases checkered, cubed, slabbed, gobbets, lumps, blots, wedges etc.

Here we go with our evocative depictions:

The light bronze gobbets were like tangible squares you felt tempted to touch and press like buttons. (Giraffe)

The pitch-black blots glistened on the domed shiny red body of the beetle, appearing like diamonds lying on a silky sheet. (Ladybug)


Have you ever wondered how sheets of scales covering the skin of a variety of reptiles often look like detachable structures that would break and fall off any moment as the animals move? These scales find interesting complements in the form of plates, flakes, peels, tiles, scutes, lamina etc.

The turtle popped out its bashful face from beneath the sturdy shield of its scutes.

The fish stopped and shed water, as though separately from each of its silvery flakes.

The devilish crocodile opened its jaw and moved quickly from side to side, making the oblong tiles of hard skin on its body more prominent to the eye.


 Although animals with monochromatic skin lack natural shades and colours, we can certainly use vibrant adjectives to vividly represent them. The archive of synonyms to play with entails unicoloured, piebald, pied, homochromous etc.

Let’s first paint the sketches of the adorable penguin and panda.

The pristine white front was feathery and blubbery, contrasting starkly with the deep black flippers which the penguin spread to take its flight.

The teddy bearish appearance of the cute panda was intimately related to its monochromatic fur which symbolized innocence and purity.

The horse's piebald adult coat was an exotic black, blotched with gleaming patches of white.

The white-black colossal coat of the Orca whale could underestimate the blood thirstiness with which this giant slayer of the waters chased all weaker aquatics.

The pied kingfisher heroically shook its monochromatic plumage, announcing that it was no less a competition in beauty to its colourful counterparts. 


Hope this post helps you to see animal patterns and textures in a new light now.








Interesting Ways to Begin a Descriptive Essay (Part Two)

Let’s pick up where we left off last time. In case you missed it, here it is again: Interesting Ways to Begin a Descriptive Essay (Part 1). We now come to technique number four in our list:

4. Dialogue

“Where's Papa going with that axe?” 

The first line of Charlotte's Web is memorable for its unique take on an opening.

Many cringe at the thought of going through long tedious paragraphs of description right at the beginning. So start off with a dramatic statement to catch the reader at once. Dialogue creates immediacy and proximity between the reader and the writer. The impression that he is in the knowledge of something significant brings the reader in the same room as the writer. 

‘Keep your voices down! This is the library, not a playground,” hissed the stern librarian from behind her desk. (Opening for a descriptive essay on a library)

‘Do not put your hands through the bars. You can't pet it; remember it's a tiger, not a kitten,’ chided the zookeeper. (Opening for a descriptive essay on a tiger).

5. Quote

Begin with a relevant, resonating quote and connect it with your topic in the next line.

‘One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives’ (Euripides)

 ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of Library (Jorge Luis Borges)

 ‘A house that does not have one warm, comfy chair in it is soulless’ (May Sarton)

 Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 

In the forests of the night; 

What immortal hand or eye, 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’ (William Blake)

6. Synecdoche or Metonymy

 Another way to grab your readers’ attention is to go symbolic. Pick on something essentially characteristic about an object, animal, bird, person or place and build your opening around its description. In other words, you must metaphorise that quality, describing it so well, that it comes to actually represent your subject at hand.

 Pars pro toto– part referring to whole – is the technique so that “tickling the ivories” could refer to playing a piano with your fingers. ‘Ivories’ here stands for the white keys of a piano.

 “His eye met hers as she sat there paler and whiter than anyone in the vast ocean of anxious faces about her.” (The Lady or the Tiger? By Frank R. Stockton)

 In the above line, ‘faces’ refers to rows of people surrounding the protagonist. It’s an example of synecdoche.

 Similarly, for a kitten, the first thing that comes to mind is whiskers, paws and golden furs. So your opening can be something like –

 ‘Cleaning its puny mouth – soiled by milk gulped hurriedly – the delicate pair of paws made the visage spotless once again.’

 However, do not reveal the suspense straight away. Let the reader construe a picture in his mind and guess for himself what you could be describing.

 ‘The rich foliage of majestic feathers, hopped on webbed legs and danced the dance of the rainy season.’

 Here, the tropes or symbols are the feathers and legs, representing a peacock.

 In the same way, you can be more adventurous and pick on the most classic, typical or archetypal elements of your entity to frame your opening.

7. Literary techniques

 The momentum of a well composed write-up keeps going if you make a rich use of figurative techniques. Extensively use HAMOPS or Hyperbole, Alliteration, Metaphor, Onomatopoeia, Personification and Simile.

 Here are a few instances presented for you:

 Personification at openings

 ‘The wisdom of seventy years of life experience brooded straight in his austere expression. This was Retd. Colonel John Rake, my dearest uncle.’

 Here, wisdom is being personified as it broods or looks straight from the uncle’s expression.

 ‘The predator made a violent attempt, with the strength of a warrior, raising its large torso towards its prey. It was the king of the wild cat family – a vicious tiger – assaulting a weak deer.’

 In the sentence above, the tiger is being personified as it is referred to as a ‘king.’ Moreover, it raises its ‘torso’ which means the upper part of human body. It is compared to a warrior as well.

 ‘The deep, dark ocean sent its brutal waves far and wide, as though to engulf all terrestrials.

 The ocean is personified as its waves are like brutal arms which would engulf all mortals or humans.

 Metaphor at openings

 ‘Up in the azure sky, beautiful butterflies fluttered, creating a picturesque collage.’ (Description of a holiday or outing)

 The word ‘collage’ is usually used in the context of art. Here, it’s being used for a group of butterflies. It’s an example of metaphor.

 Alliteration at openings

 ‘I still remember the sharp sounds of the breaks as our speeding car suddenly came to a screeching halt.’

 So many words begin with ‘s,’ hence it’s alliteration effect.

 Hyperbole at openings

 ‘We had arrived at our destination. It was the D-day! My school result.’

 Calling the school result day as your D-day is hyperbole, as though it’s a matter of life and death for a student.

8. Zinger

 A zinger is a striking, captivating remark or observation that hooks the audience at once. Additionally, it makes them puzzle over what the narrator exactly means. It is a useful technique to fascinate your readers right at the beginning with your creative abilities.

 Jane Austen’s legendary opening sentence of her novel, Pride and Prejudice reads:

 “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

 This is an example of a satirical remark, tongue-in-cheek mockery, irony or hilarious observation – a zinger. Austen is announcing a socially given reality only to turn it on its head. The idea of arranged marriages as being economic transactions is being targeted and criticized here. She is at first saying: ‘Yes, it’s true that every bachelor who is rich wants a wife’ so that she can actually make fun of this middle class belief. Many middle class parents who have daughters to marry dream of getting their daughters married to rich men and they love to believe that each rich bachelor is looking for a wife which may not be true, but only their false belief. So the novelist is agreeing only to disagree.

Likewise, you can construct openings for the description of a self-smug or self-important uncle or aunt in this way –

 ‘Showering the fountain of his/her greatly respected knowledge on posterity, the chapel of wisdom descended from the staircase.’

 Middle aged men and women like to give advises to younger generations (posterity). The narrator is admitting that their knowledge is ‘greatly respected’ but only on the face of it. In reality, he is mocking this belief that uncles and aunts may have what they say is great for future generations.

9Candid third-person omniscient narration

 Now we return to the folds of what is classic or the most archetypal in English literature. Omniscient or third person narrator is one of the most typical modes of retelling a story.

 Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield begins with:

 “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night.”

 Whether your subject is animate (living) like an animal or inanimate (non-living) like a place, you can make it the all-knowing, straightforward teller of your narrative.

 A busy day in a bank could begin with this line from a third person narrator:

 ‘Buzzing with rows of sulky office goers, tensed elderlies and solemn home-makers,was the most popular and all-time crowded bank of the nation – the Yorkshire Bank.’

 You can describe a library with this opening from a third person narrator:

 ‘This is the scholarly hub of the city, the famous point of learned pursuits –

visited by bookaholics, the daily comers, as well as the occasional readers, like myself.’ 

All you must remember is to capture objects, characters, sentiments or any other kind of entity in a strongly engaging manner. Make them come live. Breathe a new life into your subject with strongly vivid and evocative language. Go uncommon. Use highly out-of-the-box vocabulary which attracts and makes one want to read the whole write-up.

 Also, no run of the mill or clumsy, unrefined sentences. Polish up your opening sentence from all perspectives, as you must do the entire write-up.

Interesting Ways to Begin a Descriptive Essay (Part 1)


Let’s talk about a perennially frustrating conundrum that every writer faces: how do I begin my writing? What are my first words going to be? Where do I find the right words for the idea in my head? We have all been there. Whether we are writing a letter, a story, or an essay, we spend inordinate amounts of time and effort coming up with the perfect line that can catch the reader’s eye. Stephen King in fact claims taking weeks, months, and even years coming up with the perfect opening paragraphs for his work. He compares writing a good opening line to “trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.”

So, what is it about openings that make them so elusive? Why do we fret so much over our first words? The answer probably lies in the truism, “First impression is the last impression.” More so in the world of writing, where the attention span of readers is directly proportionate to the captivating power of the words on the page. A reader in this frenzied, revolutionary age of information is assailed by a myriad of textual forces, all vying for his eye. The first few lines decide whether you have the reader “hooked” or lost forever.

The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.

                                                                                     William Zinsser (On Writing Well)

A strong hook, also called a lede, keeps readers glued to your writing until they have voraciously devoured every word. Your battle is half won, your success sealed in those first few lines. Once the first stumbling block is overcome, your creative juices flow like the fountain of Pirene.

This post (exclusively on descriptive writing) is going to be the first in a series (not necessarily in a chronological manner) on finding the perfect opening for any genre of writing. A word of caution: the following list is not intended to be a comprehensive compilation. Nobody can put a cap on creativity; these are a few of the tried and tested methods.

Anecdotes, Vignettes or Recollections

Kick off spectacularly by writing a short anecdote or conjuring a memory of the subject. Stories are the universal language of mankind. They contextualise a subject, or in other words, provide flesh and blood to it, pulling the reader into the tangible or the here and now.

An effective anecdote contains details relevant to the rest of the writing and presents them in a vivid fashion (show not tell). To write an anecdote, you need the following ingredients: a focalised event (who, what, where, when) accompanied by the resulting sensations and thoughts. Gather all the mentioned essentials, throw in some sensory words and flavour them with a bit of emotive language to create a rich first impression.

When I think of John, I am always reminded of his big bang entry three years ago in my life. The day had started with the most boring subject: history. Most were trying to stifle their yawns as the new, enthusiastic teacher, unfortunately mistaking our mournful silence for awe, droned on and on about the War of the Roses. The summer heat and the constant hum of history were pulling me into a deep reverie. Bang! The door flung open and brought everyone back from the dead past to the present. A boy with dishevelled auburn hair and half-moon spectacles stood in the doorway, his nose in the air and his beady eyes studying our faces with conspicuous scorn. Despite appearances, he was soon to become my best friend.

John has not much changed since then.  A predilection for being the centre of attraction colours all his actions even now.

If space constraint (three to four hundred words only) is a factor, then rather than writing a full-fledged anecdote, you can create a vivid snapshot (in a line or two) of the most enduring impression of the subject. This image could be the time you lost your first baby tooth or the last time you saw your grandmother.  

A scruffy girl with ugly blue bruises on her knees and a diabolical smile on her freckled  face stood between the burly bullies and my petite, shadowy figure. Anabelle, my best friend, saved me then and forever.

A good descriptive essay balances physical characteristics of a subject with the sensations and memories it evokes. Often, for lack of space or time, one is sacrificed at the cost of the other. Beginning a descriptive piece with an anecdote or a brief recollected image ticks one essential off your list of requisites.

Deferral or Procrastination

Cowering inside a discarded shopping bag and seeking shelter from the pelting rain was a white furry ball of cuteness. It found me. My feline friend, Scooter.

I bit into the succulent ripeness of the apple, savouring its mellow sweetness. When I opened my eyes again to take another bite, I saw a glittering milky pearl surrounded by a couple of ruby red drops. And just like that the endless agony of the last few days was over: I had lost my first tooth.

Note the above given examples. What do they have in common? Answer: delayed introduction of the subject. In both the examples, the reader is left wondering who the author is talking about. You can write one enigmatic paragraph, playing hide and seek with the reader before revealing the identity of the subject in the opening of the second paragraph. An opening that does not provide easy answers instantly piques the reader's curiosity exponentially. The reader has no choice but to get at the bottom of things. (Be careful of stretching this technique beyond the patience of the reader)

In Medias res

Out with the predictable “Once upon a time”; the middle is the new opening. In medias res, a Latin phrase meaning “in the midst of things,” is immensely popular in the literary world as a storytelling technique to defer the subject and tease the reader into unbearable curiosity. In medias res doesn't waste time and space on exposition. It hooks the audience immediately, shoving him into the middle of the action. 

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies doesn’t open with the description of the plane crash; it jumps straight to the action on the island:

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.

Gabriel Garcia Marques begins his celebrated novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, not with the founding of the village of Macondo, but with the distant childhood memory of one of the central characters facing a possible death:

Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buenda was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Why not try something similar in a descriptive essay? Begin not at zero coordinates but some way far off on the descriptive scale.

The books were a month overdue. With tremulous hands, I opened the ponderous oak door and stepped into the library. (Opening for a descriptive essay on a library)

So here are a cluster of creative precepts for dynamic openings in descriptive write-ups. In our next blog, we’ll continue the discussion and roll out a couple of techniques more on this topic.