Launch a Description the way Anthony Burgess Does

Get inspiration from unexpected places

You have that new page shining empty in front of you. You feel that moment when an invisible hand grips your throat: “Gawd,” you gasp, “what will I ever write?”

If that’s you (or even if it’s not), try some exercises to loosen up the muses a bit.

Anthony Burgess, asked by a popular magazine about his writing rituals and methods, had this to say:

“I’ll tell you a thing that will shock you. What I often do nowadays when I have to, say, describe a room, is to take a page of a dictionary, any page at all, and see if with the words suggested by that one page in the dictionary I can build up a room, build up a scene. I even did it in a novel I wrote called MF. There’s a description of a hotel vestibule whose properties are derived from Page 167 in R.J. Wilkinson’s Malay-English Dictionary. Nobody has noticed. As most things in life are arbitrary anyway, you’re really doing what nature does. I do recommend it to young writers.”


That gave me a start, so of course I immediately ran for a dictionary. I found American Heritage too technical, with words like mescaline and metagalaxy, and settled on Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, which I have here in front of me. The print is big, so I will use two pages, 1208-1209. I see words like responsibility, restraint, restrict and resting place. To me these suggest not only an idea for a setting, but for character, too.
Here goes!
Leonard had to take responsibility for his own desk. His mom would brook no excuses. Should she find a pencil or rubber band out of place, she would sweep everything to the floor with a flourish. He aligned his pencil cups, books and diary with the discipline of a soldier. He tried to keep these items to a minimum, to ensure himself a much-needed resting place for his elbows.
You could say my effort was a failure: I included only two of the words I selected. I would have included restraint, as well, but switched to discipline. However, a glance at these dry dictionary pages, seen in a new light with a new purpose, gave life to a setting and a character I didn’t know I had in me. The selection of words immediately brought to mind a tired, repressed individual, and I tried to bring that out in the description of his environment. This handful of lines will not be getting me a Pulitzer ever, but the exercise gave me a springboard and a direction with virtually no effort. And it’s fun. Try it!


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  1. Natividad Mayerle

    I was reading through some of your articles on this website and I think this internet site is rattling instructive! Keep on posting.

    1. I’m glad you like it!

      1. Natividad Mayerle

        I tried this writing prompt, and it really loosened me up. I get so totally stressed out when I sit down to write, that I stiffen up and cant acheive anything. This way, since it was “just” an exercise, I could really let go and the results were sparkling!

  2. Oakley

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say good idea!

  3. Marie

    When I get blocked, I try this:


    It’s a great way to get the juices going. I’ve written whole stories following just the plot spit out by this handy tool. I can’t say that I have launched to stardom exactly, but as writing exercises go, I think it’s all right.

    I thought it would be restricting at fist – since I have to follow a random plot, “somebody else’s” idea – if a randomized program can even have ideas; but then I realized it was liberating. I found myself saying. Hey, this is just an exercise. Also the load was off my shoulders. The plot was already there. THough I must mention that it is a challenge to weave in all those cockamamie elements.

    I think your readers should give it a try.

    1. Thanks for the tip, Marie! I think this is very similar to Burgess’s idea. Anything that provides a little impetus, gets a small fraction of the burden off your shoulders, and makes it seem like a game – and play is when we are at our most creative!

      1. Marie

        Pictures can also be a great writing prompt. You can find these prompts on the internet of in writing magazines.

    2. Jerred

      I did this, and I got the following prompt:

      “Your main character is a restless 80 year-old woman. The story begins in a country lane. A handbag is snatched. It’s a story about rivalry. Your character gets into a competition with another character.”

      Maybe I should write it?

      1. Great idea!

  4. Lorena

    Thanks for this.

    1. You’re welcome!

  5. Lyla Dortha

    Real writers don’t use prompts.

    1. Or else they just don’t talk about it. Excepting Burgess!

      More reasons to use prompts:


  6. Victoire

    I prefer to use a really good photo for a prompt. There are really nice ones online. http://photoprompts.tumblr.com/image/111483097400

  7. Here&Now

    I like to use prompts from the internet, which can be really rewarding. Since it is “just an exercise,” I find I can really cut loose, let my hair down.

    One cool thing to do is here:


    It gives you first line of the story, and then you complete it. If it turns out to be good, there’s no reason you can’t go back and change the first line, if the main point of your story has evolved.

    1. I tried that site and got “He had the urge to clear the ground, to look out and see nothing,”

      I might make a few changes, but it is very evocative.

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