Setting Thesaurus Entry: Cafeteria


Long tables, uncomfortable chairs, trash cans, line ups, styrofoam or colored plastic trays, banners, posters, ads, lunch staff, cash register, paper plates, plastic cutlery, menu board, stainless steel, windows, double doors, students (sitting, lounging, grouping into cliques, good-natured pushing &shoving, goofing off, reading), water bottles, pop/juice/milk containers, condiment dispensers, spills/stepped on french fries on the floor, napkins, soup tureens, hot plates, paper cartons (for fries, corn dogs, hot dogs, etc), adults in aprons & hairnets, bowls, ladles, steam coming off food, bag lunches, scrunched-up Saran wrap balls on the floor, crumbs, ketchup/gravy spills on the tables, dirty trays stacked up, pop machines, mushy food, scratched sneeze guards, heat lamps, coolers, bright lighting, crumbs on seats, forgotten magazines and newspapers left on tables, trays and garbage left on tables


Laughter, talking, squealing, shouting, trays slamming down on a table, chairs scraping the floor, chewing, the hiss of a pop can opening, the ding of the cash register, dishes clattering/banging/clanging in the kitchen, food being slopped onto plates, the side of a tray along the counter, the clink of change, the thunk of uneaten food being dumped in the trash, doors banging open/shut, glass side doors opening on coolers, the fridge opening/closing, the whirr of a microwave heating up burritos or popcorn, chip bags being torn open, the crinkle of packaging, shoes squeaking against the floor


Menu items of the day (hot dogs, chili, chicken fingers & fries, corn dogs, burritos, tacos, hamburgers, pizza, etc), grease, pop, sweet ketchup, astringent mustard, burnt smells from spillovers or over-cooked food, butter, spices (chili powder, cinnamon, garlic, etc), onions, bad breath, mingling bodies, perfume, cologne, body spray, hair spray


Whatever's being served that day (soups, salads, hot dogs, burritos, corn dogs, fries, hamburgers, pizza, stews, chili, chicken strips, tacos, subs, bagels, muffins, chips, cookies, candy bars, veggies and dip, salads, wraps) squished sandwiches from home, fruit (banana, apple, orange & grapes the most common), leftovers, cut up veggies, pasta salad, coffee, tea


Hard plastic trays, crinkly wrappers, bendy silverware, cardboard milk cartons, cold perspiring drinks, hot food, greasy fries, slick floor, swivel seats, hard benches, sticky tabletop, press of people crowding into lines and sitting on benches, warmth on hands from heat lamps as you choose food, rough paper napkins, cold metal salad bar utensils, balling up a wrapper and tossing it in the trash, pushing, bumping, shoulders rubbing, reaching to snatch something off a friend's tray, guiding a straw to mouth with a fingertip, shaking a pop can to see if any thing's left, steam against the face as you blow on something hot, ketchup blob on the cheek, wiping with a napkin, squeezing fruit to see if it's ripe, poking a nail into the top of a banana to peel it, feeling someone hook your ankle to trip you, accidentally brushing some one's feet beneath the table, elbows hitting your side as you try to eat all bunched together on a bench, dusting crumbs off a seat, shirt or lap, licking lips, licking a blot of mayo off a finger, tugging a bag of chips open, accidentally burning the tongue on hot food or drinks, licking salt from the lips or fingers, flicking an unwanted topping off food (a slice of tomato, pickles, onions, etc), rooting around in a paper bag lunch, the dry feel of paper, dropping a handful of change back into a pocket

Helpful hints:

--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1:

I stood in the cafeteria doorway, eyes darting from one line to the next. The drool-worthy smell of greasy pizza wafted from the entryway that everyone was jammed into. Stick figures lined both sides of the salad bar. Nothing but the rustle of plastic sounded from the right-hand line: Twinkies wrappers, chips, and Twix bars. I glanced at my watch and growled. If they were going to give us so many choices, we should get more than 25 minutes for lunch.

Example 2:

I pushed through the crowd, ignoring the squeak of my sneakers on the linoleum. Was she there? A plastic tray jabbed into my back, followed by a squish and a muttered Sorry. I craned my neck toward her table, nose wrinkling against the frighteningly-close stink of mushy green beans. Was she--ahhhh! I sank to a nearby bench and unwrapped my hamburger, watching her talk to her friends and flip her hair. This was the best part of my day.

--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile)

Today's special: Hamburger Surprise. It's like a veggie burger, only without the veggies or the burger.

Example 2: (Metaphor)

The beautiful people were in one corner, the smart ones in another. The artsy kids sat off to the side, as if to choose a corner would define them too narrowly. The rejects were scattered throughout in ones and twos, without even the cohesiveness to form a group. The high school cafeteria: a microcosm of real life.

Color Thesaurus Entry: Green

Real World Comparisons:


Honeydew melon
Unripe banana
New shoots
Fish scales
Poplar tree bark
Streaky dye job
Over-clorinated hair (swimming pools)
Iceberg lettuce
Tree frog
Pea soup
Cut kiwi fruit
Golf course greens
Timothy hay
Pea pods
Rice paddy
Tree python
Duck weed
Barley field
Fish eggs
Frog eggs
Pea soup
Lime koolaid
Lime jello
Preying mantis
Tree sap
Tree moss (Old Man's Beard, etc)
Safety stripes/Safety clothing (police/firemen/etc)
Parrot feathers


Corn stalks
Aloe Vera
Jalapeno peppers
Green peppers
Grass stains
Bog muck
Romaine lettuce
Lily pad
Mossy rock
Grassy hill
Fiddle heads
Stop light
Pond grass
Carrot tops
Champagne bottles
Tea leaves
Flower stems
Recycle symbols
Onion tops
John Deer products
The Incredible Hulk
Christmas lights
Menthol cigarette packs


Wet leaves
Mint leaves
Bog muck
Pine needles
Bay leaf
Turtle shells
Dirty aquariums
Pond slime
Military clothing
Military vehicles (tanks, jeeps, etc)
Christmas wreath
Stagnant water
Garbage trucks

Shades of Green:


Make every detail count

Colors are powerful descriptors, not fillers. Make sure that if you use a comparison or contrast to highlight a color, you choose the right one. Look at the setting and atmosphere you are working to create, then draw from the viewpoint character or narrator's history, education and past experiences to find the right fit.

A poor example:

When Jasper said his cousin was comin' to visit, I figgered he'd be like the rest of the farm boys: sturdy and dumb as an ox. Boy, was I wrong. His hair was raven black and his skin was fair--you could tell he weren't the type to spend long hours in the sun. And his eyes! Green like emeralds sparkling in the showcase window at Tiffany's.

What's wrong with this example?

The style of writing here suggests the character has minimum education and life experience. It's doubtful he would liken someone's eye color to a high-end, big city jewelry store product, right?

A strong example:

I didn't know what to expect--I mean, I'd never seen anyone poisoned before. They said she had survived, but now after seeing her, I wasn't sure. The hair I'd always envied was straight and dull, like the curl had been sucked out of it. Her lips were as thin and flaky as a waffle cone. And her skin--not only was it pulled tight over her knobby bones, its color was wrong. You know when water sits in a ditch for awhile, it gets that layer of greenish scum floating on top? I covered my nose, in case she smelled like that, too.

Why is this example better?

This example works because the character's thoughts lead to a comparision that creates a vivid and unpleasant image. This detail fits perfectly with the conflict (a poisoning) and supports an atmostphere of erosion and decay.

Introducing...the Colors, Textures, and Shapes Thesaurus

I think most writers understand that the goal of sensory description is to convey a specific image to the reader in a unique way. A good story alone isn't enough, nor is having strong characters. Something needs to bring them to life, and that thing is sensory description.

Description is all about showing, and showing well. And what we choose to show to the reader should always have significance--random details will bore the reader. Targeted description lends power to the manuscript, not only highlighting the character's experiences, but also by sometimes hinting at mood, atmosphere and themes.

By taking a moment to describe how white paint chips dust the overgrown grass beneath an old, leaning fence, it is possible to convey a mood of sadness or loneliness, hint at themes of decay or loss or even suggest a quiet endurance.

Whatever emotion you're trying to evoke through description (either through a comparision or contrast), make sure it is done with purpose and it highlights, rather than detracts, the character's inner feelings.

If your intent is to reinforce a theme or life stage (a turning point, a loss of innocence, a difficult choice) through description, take care to choose setting symbolism that your reader will pick up on.

Describing shapes can be difficult, which is why we often rely on similies or metaphors to convey what we mean. However, the comparisions a writer chooses must fit the story well. Round as an orange isn't going to help you of you live in a world or climate where oranges do not exist, or the character has never seen one.

And what about textures--say the feel of a wool sweater against the cheek? The first thing that comes to mind is sandpaper, but the image is quite overused and may fall flat on the page. The right comparison is paramount for creating strong imagery, which puts readers in the scene, almost allowing them to experience what the character does.

And this is where the Colors, Textures and Shapes Thesaurus comes in!

In each entry, we will explore one of these tangibles and list real world examples for it. We hope this will offer you a great starting point for finding the perfect comparison (similes, metaphors, etc) or contrast for each descriptive need.

You can find entries for this thesaurus in the sidebar! Our first color entry can be found here.

BIG News!

Boy, where to start?

First off, Becca and I are excited to announce the launch of a NEW DESCRIPTIVE THESAURUS this week. WOOT!

We hope this new thesaurus will be a great addition to our Emotion and Setting Thesauri and continue to help all writers build strong description. I would love to tell you all about it, but I'd ruin the surprise and THEN what kind of blogger would I be? You'll just have to stay tuned...

Now, some bittersweet news...we will be retiring the Emotion Thesaurus in order to make room for this new member of the Thesaurus Collection. Now don't panic--all the emotions will continue to be available in our sidebar for you to use. We simply won't be adding more entries at this point.

Which leads me to the third piece of news...

As the Bookshelf Muse grows, so do the amount of emails requesting us to consider putting expanded versions of our thesauri into book form. I'm excited to say we're considering this option, as we have many ideas for descriptive thesauri which we believe will help writers, students and educators.

The issue is, we need to know definitively that the interest is out there for such a book. It would be a large undertaking for us to write and of course we'd need to prove to publishers that this type resource is both wanted and needed.

For this, we need your help!

If this is something you'd be interested in seeing, then please, spread the word about The Bookshelf Muse. The stronger our followship, the better chances we have of proving a solid platform to launch such a book. Let other writers know we exist through forums you frequent, conferences you attend and blogs you visit. But please, only do this is you truly feel our descriptive thesauri will be of use to others. I don't want anyone to feel like we're pushing for visibility for any nefarious reasons. We love being able to help, and the more people we reach, the better.

Because so many people use Facebook, Becca and I have created a page specifically for the support of this venture. If you're on FB and are interested in joining our group, please do! You can find us here. We'll also post Bookshelf Muse announcements there, and *whispers* you'll see a sneak peak of upcoming Thesauri on our radar for a possible book project...including the one that will appear here this week!

Thanks everybody for your continued support. We're always interested in hearing how we can make The Bookshelf Muse a stronger resource for you, so feel free to drop us a line anytime, either here or at Facebook!

Setting Thesaurus Entry: School Bus


smudged windows, black rubber runner down the aisle, torn leather seats, signs (emergency exits, rules, stay behind the yellow line, bus driver's name), red handles on emergency doors and windows, bus driver's seat, big stick shift for opening/closing door, flashing lights, the view outside (urban, rural, etc), trash, crumpled papers, snack wrappers, dirt, backpacks, students, driver, books, pencils, paper airplanes, trash can, sunlight, rain, windows open at all levels, patches on the seats, gum stuck to the floor, crumbs, wrappers, lost or broken pencils on the floor, kids (bouncing on seats, hanging over seats, laughing, waving hands, nudging/jostling/poking, passing notes, checking cel phones, listening to iPods), cars/landscape whizzing past the windows


Laughter, talking, cel phones going off, backpacks thumping against the seat as kids walk down the rows, stomping, whistling, heckling, hooting, squealing, shouting, the bus driver yelling, paper crumpling, candy wrappers crinkling, slurping of pop, water, & juice boxes, Velcro on lunch bags, backpack zippers opening


Feet, sweat, fruity/minty gum, perfume/body spray, flavored lip balm, fresh air from open windows, mildew/mud (on cold, wet days)


leftover lunch items (granola bars, fruit, sandwiches, chips, cookies, carrots, celery), pop, water, juice boxes, dry mouth from thirst, gum, mints, candy, chocolate bars


Hard seats, cold metal bus walls, unzipping a backpack, the pull on a backpack on the shoulder, lifting a heavy backpack off the seat, shoes sticking to a spill on the floor, kicking the seats, the rush of cool air on forehead from the window, Someone tapping you from behind to get your attention, pokes, prods, nudging, pushing, shoving, leaning head back against the high seat, hugging a backpack to chest, flipping through a book or comic, a cold drink in the hand, scraping frost or fog off the window to see out, pressing a hand against the window, tapping feet against the floor, pulling self up to see over a seat, rooting through a bag or pack, condensation on drinks

Helpful hints:--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1:

I walked down the isle, holding my breath tight inside me like it could somehow make me look smaller, like it could make up for the fact that my hips almost brushed the seats to each side. The bus was silent, dozens of gazes on me. I found an empty seat halfway down and gently settled into it, and for the first time in a long time hope welled up me that this school would be different. A smile started to pull at my lips, and then I heard a voice loudly proclaim, "Wow, she needs a wide load sticker!"

Example 2:

John rubbed his temples, glaring in the rear view mirror above his seat. The image staring back at him was almost worse that the shrieking, brain-melting noise: kids pelting each other with half-full juice boxes, wrestling among the seats, candy wrappers littering the isle. He grit his teeth and slammed the gearshift into drive. Time to dust off the resume.

--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile)

I made a grab for my backpack, but it was too late. Joel, a tenth grader with a cracked front tooth and homemade tattoo on his neck hoisted it over his head and tossed it two rows down. Soon my backpack weaved over the busload of kids like a beach ball at a rock concert.

Example 2: (Metaphor)

Miranda paused at the front of the bus, waiting to be noticed. The first shout of her name caused the others to look to the front, and soon hands poked the air, waving madly for her to come sit with them. Miranda shook her blond curls back and let her regal gaze drift over the crowd, a queen surveying her subjects, then chose a seat next to Brent, the most popular boy in school.

Emotion Thesaurus Entry: Resigned

  • A mirthless smile
  • Giving comfort to another without much energy (rubbing their back, patting their shoulder)
  • Limp hands and arms
  • Staring off at nothing
  • A hanging head
  • A loose jaw
  • Feeling directionless
  • Becoming less verbal
  • Propping the cheek up with a fist
  • A dull or bleak look
  • Slowed responses to stimuli (loud noises, activity, a person speaking)
  • A desire to sleep or tune out
  • Depressed hunger and thirst
  • The head dipping to the chest
  • Silent tears
Good news! This sample has been expanded and streamlined into book form! The full list of physical, internal, and mental cues for this and 74 other emotions can be found in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, available for purchase at AmazonBarnes & NobleiTunes, and Smashwords. The PDF is also downloadable via the Paypal button in the sidebar. 


Category: Middle Grade

Genre: Mystery with Mythological Elements

Usually the dead stay dead, but not in Lexi's case. After a freak accident at a local pool, Lexi dies and then is brought back to life. Most people would be ecstatic at a second chance, but nothing seems quite the same. For one thing, no one is letting her forget about what happened, and if they aren't worrying about signs of brain damage, they're asking her what death was like and what she saw. Then there's the whole dream she had about the three Fates--Atropos, Lachesis and Clotho--where they try to enlist her help in finding a treasured object...after apologizing for botching her death. I mean, that was a dream, right?

Only days after her accident, Lexi recognizes something is very wrong. All around her, plants turn to rot, including her class' science fair project. Crows flock to wherever she is and her little brother's pets are dying. When Derek himself falls ill with a mysterious sickness, Lexi faces what scares her the most: that she is somehow responsible, borrowing the lifeforce of those around her. And if this is true, maybe the only ones who can help are three sisters who can't possibly be real.

Setting Thesaurus Entry: Frozen Tundra


Blowing snow, ice, snow banks, streaking clouds, flat landscape, far-off snow capped mountain ranges, streaks and whirls on hill crests showing a pattern from the gusting wind, polar bears, rabbits, mice, prints in the snow, a few deer, hardy tufts of grass peaking out of the snow, rock formations, igloos, sleds, sled dogs, skidoos, Inuit dressed in furs and leathers, hunters with jackets ringed in animal fur, skidoo tracks, dog tracks, old fire pits/camp sites, simple tents, tents made of skins, very few trees, animal skat, fogging breath, smoke from fires, few birds, sun, bright and possibly warmless (depending on the time of year), ice crust, icicles, frozen & barren patches of dirt


Howling/whistling/tearing wind, flapping tent, the crackle/hiss of a fire, the whistle of a kettle on the fire, the crinkle of cold fabric (parka, tent, bedding), the crunch of snow beneath the boot, the steady whispering slur of runners in the snow, panting dogs, the rev of an engine, the roar of a bear, the pattering gait of huskies pulling the sled, the creak of harness and buckles, the caw of birds as they scavenge or hunt, sneezing, sniffling, coughing as a result of the cold, snow crystals rattling against coat, the crack of a snow axe cutting a handhold, the scratch of wind blowing through tufts of dry grass


Sweat, clean ozone-like smell of fresh snow, warming leather, rock, dogs & animals, fresh kills and found carrion, the wind carrying the scent of briny open water, woodsmoke, tea, coffee, roasted or raw meat, dead grass, frozen soil


Raw meat, hardtack, biscuits, jerky, tea, coffee, cooked meat, trail mix or other nutritious foods brought for the journey, the tang of melted snow, salty sweat on the lips, gamy wild meat


Wind slicing at exposed flesh, rubbing it raw, chapped skin and bleeding lips, cracked knuckles and skin from exposure, numbness in fingers and toes, sun burn on face, wind burn on cheeks and forehead, pain in the ears from constant wind, dry tongue from thirst, shaking from spent strength, breath sawing at throat, pain in lungs from cold air, the pinging darts of wind-blown snow on the skin, headaches, snow blindness, disorientation, dizziness, spasming muscles, cold snow against hands, tying frozen laces, boots packing down the snow, forcing muscles to slog through deep drifts, snow filling boots, or gloves, lying against the cold snow or leaning against the packed snow of a man-made snow cave, waiting out a storm.

Helpful hints:

--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1:

I pulled the tent flap back and shielded my eyes. The sun had lit up the ice crystals, transforming the ground into snow-crusted treasure. I smiled and took a deep breath of the cold, invigorating air, glad to have such beauty accompany me on the hike to the polar bear observation station.

Example 2:

I tightened my grip on the last match, staring down at its red tip. All around me on the cold ground lay the corpses of its fellows, twisted into useless black ash. Tears streamed in my vision and I bend over the pile of dry grass tinder. If this last one failed, I would not survive another night on the freezing plain.

--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile)

I huddled in the snow shelter, my back against a hastily constructed wall, listening to the storm howl like a crazed Arctic beast.

Example 2: (Metaphor)

High morning cloud streaked the sky, a lofty white mirror of the tundra below.

Emotion Thesaurus Addendum: Wariness

  • Stand-offishness
  • Cutting the eyes at the speaker
  • Increased pulse, adrenaline kicking in
  • Speaking in a soothing, placating voice
  • Snapping at people
  • Racing thoughts as you try to make sense of whatever it is
  • Approaching someone/something in a roundabout fashion
  • A strained voice
  • Flinching at touches
  • Pressing one's lips together
  • White knuckles
  • Rubbing at the forehead or temples
  • Gritting teeth
  • A jutting jaw
  • Pacing
Good news! This sample has been expanded and streamlined into book form! The full list of physical, internal, and mental cues for this and 74 other emotions can be found in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, available for purchase at AmazonBarnes & NobleiTunes, and Smashwords. The PDF is also downloadable via the Paypal button in the sidebar. 

Clichés...Safe To Use?

It's been a while since I've posted about Clichés being a bane to writers, so I thought I'd stroll over to the other side of the literary fence and look at when it's actually okay to use them.

Yes, you heard me--sometimes clichés can be used and not leave you feeling dirty afterwards. Hey would I lie to you?

Clichés... Dialogue:

If Granny May is the kind of gal to tell her young ins, "The early bird gets the worm," on the first wake up call but then screams, "Get down here or I'll tan your hide till it's black and blue!" on the third one, feel free to show it. Just make sure it works--this type of clichéd 'isms' can be done on purpose to show the character's tendency to fall back on these adages. It's part of who they are.


--If all your characters do this, then you've got problems.
--If your hip teen is telling her friends the early bird catches the worm and it isn't tongue-in-cheek, you've got problems.

Bottom line:

To work, clichéd dialogue has to be done with intent and backed by strong characterization. The clichéd 'isms' should feel like natural dialogue, personal to the speaker. Thoughts:

Similar to dialogue, some characters may be predispositioned to 'think' in clichés, perhaps as a result of how/when they grew up, or to show prejudice or bigotry. If they see a street person, they might think of him as a 'no-good bum'. A drug dealer might be 'a waste of good air'. Maybe they observe that the caked-on make up a friend is wearing for ladies night looks like Tammy Faye Baker was her beautician.

Bottom line:

To work, the cliché thoughts need to be a valid part of the characterization, not sloppy/lazy writing.


Your character can think in clichés if it is believable and effective for them to do so. You can't. Make sure your narration/description isn't cliché. Plot:

There is a loose belief that there are seven basic plots that all stories fall under (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth). Does this mean that ultimately no matter what story we come up with, it's been done before? Some would say Yes. I say go ahead and write the story as uniquely as you can and don't worry about who's done what before you.


Keep perspective in check. If you've just finished reading Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books and are frothing to create your own vampire series based on a sect of vampires living at peace with society yet at odds with others of their kind and the heroine is new to town, clumsy and requires constant saving...well, do I really have to tell you to back away from the keyboard?

Bottom line:

It's okay to write about a topic that's been covered before. Just make sure the story is your own. Description:

Clichés can be justified when it's important to get something across to the reader quickly that is difficult to describe accurately. On rare occasions, the best choice may be a familiar wording that's instantly recognizable.


This is a last resort only. With some thought, you'll almost always find a fresh way to describe what you need to, and still make it clear to the reader.

Bottom Line:

An example where this might apply would be in conveying a type of technology, a complicated procedure or how something works to the reader. Sometimes a recognizable expression or comparison is more prudent than paragraphs of explanation when the pace of the story or reader understanding is at stake.

Don't be fooled, though. Just because something is hard to describe doesn't mean you should resort to clichés. One example is showing a shiver of fear. This occurs often in books as it's a body's natural reaction to this emotion. We've all read about shivers racing/tingling up the spine, down the spine, along the spine...writers use these images because the sensation is accurate, and creates immediate recognition with the reader.

Even something as overused as this can be freshened by changing the verb (charged, stampeded, trampled), losing the spine reference all together or by using an effective simile that mimics the sensation of something creeping over something else: a spider flashing across exposed skin, ants walking along a branch, etc.

Final Thoughts

If you do feel a cliché is justified, then use your best judgement on what type to use, and what you can get away with. There are levels of cliché, after all. You've got overused phrases like fluttering curtains, rosy cheeks, a flush of pleasure. Then there's the more annoying stupid jocks, the nosy mother-in-law or ugh, the geeky smart girl who, with the aid of a makeover, is suddenly super hot. Worse still are trysts between boss and secretary to spice up a book yet have no bearing on plot or the simple farm boy who is happy with his lot in life suddenly must go on a quest to save the world. Lets face it, some of these should scream, "Run away! Run away!" to the writer and be avoided at all costs.

Can you think of other instances when the use of a cliché (an idea, a phrase, a too-common expression/description) might be okay to use in writing?

Setting Thesaurus Entry: Alley


Crates, garbage, garbage bins, empty liquor bottles, broken glass, plastic, oil spills, puddles, dirt, grime, grease, ratty blankets, cardboard, homeless people, rats, cockroaches, spiders, ants, bird that eat refuse (magpies, pigeons, etc), street cats or dogs, mice, employees on smoke breaks, broken & discarded furniture, dead tires, graffiti, vomit, mold, mildew, newspapers/leaflets, grimy barred windows and doorways, chain link fences, flickering streetlamps, broken lights, brick walls, peeling paint, cracked pavement, pot holes, small signs on doors with the business name on it, signs that say "loading area", "Private" or "No loitering", parked or broken down cars, crime (muggings, drunken brawls, murders, break ins)


Wind shuffling trash into corners, dogs rooting through garbage, cats meowing, people coughing/talking in low voices or snoring if the alley is inhabited, music from clubs with back entrances, the clink of bottles, a trash bin lid slamming down, the crinkle of a trash bag as it's emptied into a bin, garbage lids being knocked to the ground, the jingle of keys as a door is locked/unlocked, shouting, glass shattering, the clatter of chain link fence as someone climbs over it to escape, the sputter of a car being turned over, chatter/footsteps & car noise from the adjoining street, far-off wailing of a siren, overheard arguments from building tenants in residential areas, music/TV/laughter/arguing from open windows, groaning as someone gets sick, shuffling footsteps through alley debris, the rattling wheels of a homeless person's shopping cart, feet scuffling down steps, swearing as bouncers throw someone out of a club or drinking establishment


Rotting garbage, body odor, animal and human waste, motor oil, cooking smells drifting from open windows or restaurants, wet cardboard, mildew, vomit, 'beer smell' from broken bottles, cigarette smoke & butts, moldy furniture, car exhaust


Bagged lunch from shelters, leftovers from restaurant bins, alcohol, cigarettes, vomit


The rough bricks beneath the hand, using the wall to steady one's walk, falling in a pile of garbage from drunkenness, grime sticking to the shoes, litter crunching underfoot, the cold metal of a garbage bin lid, forcing a heavy garbage bin open, rattling a discarded bottle to see if it has any alcohol in it, the sudden click of a switchblade opening, the prod of a gun or blade during a mugging, pain at being pushed, shoved, punched, kicked or otherwise beaten, tripping against debris left in the alley, sifting through garbage for something usable, accidentally stepping in a cold oily pool of water, slipping in motor oil, metal wire digging into fingers as you climb a chain link fence, shattering a window with an elbow, using a shoulder against a door to break in, ripping a pull handle or door knob, leaning against the wall, sleeping on a musty & legless couch

Helpful hints:

--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1: The wind was howling like a pack of arctic wolves, but hunkered down under his newspaper-and-scraps blanket, Alfred could barely feel it. The bricks at his back were warm from the ovens on the other side. He took a deep breath, smelling the fresh-baked scent and hardly any dumpster at all. Pulling his rough cap down over his eyes, he burrowed into his warm corner with a smile.

Example 2: Matilda gave the doorstep a final, crisp sweep, then looked around in satisfaction. The dumpster was still dingy but sat straight in its corner, where it should have been from the beginning. The wet smell of whitewashed walls assured her that, for now, her alley was graffiti-free. Something skittered in the corner. Matilda cocked her broom and advanced on the sound, eyes cutting to the rat holes, but the concrete she'd filled them with still held. Ah...a rogue leaf. She dropped it in the dumpster and swept her way back inside, shutting the door behind her with the confidence of a job well done.

--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile) The smell in the alley was overwhelming, like a thousand cats had come to this specific place to do their business.

Example 2: (Metaphor) The alley was a black hole into which every piece of trash, every sinister sound, every dead end had been sucked.

Emotion Thesaurus Addendum: Defensive

  • Arms crossed
  • Squinting eyes
  • Lowered, angry brows
  • Cheeks sucked in
  • Shaking the head
  • Raised voice
  • Blowing out a noisy breath
  • Going on the offensive and verbally attacking the accuser
  • Deflecting blame
  • Flinching, jerking back
  • Difficulty being articulate, stuttering
  • Splaying a hand across the chest, mouth gaping
  • Spots of color in the cheeks


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