Setting Thesaurus Entry: City Transit (train)


Bench seats, smudged glass windows, folding or sliding doors, leather hand loops dangling from the ceiling, handrails, air vents, posters, ads, graffiti, slumped passengers carefully minding their own business by reading, texting, listing to music, playing games on a phone/iPod, torn cushions, litter on the floor, sliding doors between cars (on some), wet/dirty floor, lights, city streets flashing past the windows, security call boxes, buttons to open the door, signs to stay back from the door, speakers, people standing, sitting, hanging onto railings, newspapers left behind on the seat, groups of animated teens clustered together, train security, street people, gum stuck to the walls, burn or carve marks on the seat


The whoosh of air brakes, the scrape of a door sliding open, voice over the speakers announcing stops, creaks, snaps of electricity from outside, squeaks of rubbing metal during turns, voices, music from headphones, laughter, swearing, the rattle of a newspaper, zippers on purses/backpacks opening and closing, the rustle of plastic bags, the creak of fabric and leather as people shift position, coughing, throat clearing, street noise through open windows, a patterned thump, bells chiming a stop


Feet, body odor, perfume, body cologne, hair products, leather, greasy hair, dirt, cold metal, stagnant air, warm plastic


Gum, mints, coffee, bottled water, food grabbed from a vendor (although most people avoid eating on a train because it’s so unsanitary)


Hard seats, the shaking side to side motion of rolling movement, brushing up against other people, bumping, knocking into someone unintentionally, squeezing past someone to get to the door, a cold metal handrail against the skin, clamping tight to a purse, backpack or bags, keeping an arm around small children or holding their sweaty hand in your own, pushing on a door with a sleeve or shoulder so you don’t have to touch it with your fingers, holding bags on the lap so you don’t have to set them on the dirty floor

Helpful hints:

–The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1:

Anna slid closer to the window as a portly businessman sat down next to her, stealing all the space. He yammered non-stop into a cell phone, staining the air with onion breath so strong that most governments would classify it as a bio weapon. This is what I get for claiming the last empty bench on the train, instead of choosing a seat next to someone else.

Example 2:

The most peaceful ride into city center was always the Monday morning express train. No one jumped around, bopped to music or traded loud opinions about the big game the night before. Instead, glass-eyed travellers lined the seats in ordered rows, a carton of eggs ready for market.

–Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile)

The train stopped at the platform, its overheated brakes whistling like fireworks about to blow.

Example 2: (Metaphor)

After the rock concert let out, a mosh pit of shrieking teens poured onto the train, high on the buzz of music and whatever else had passed hand-to-hand through the crowd.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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12 Responses to Setting Thesaurus Entry: City Transit (train)

  1. The first time I took public transportation, it scared me to death. I had just seen a talk show about shootings on buses, and I almost hyperventilated. The experience is firmly rooted in my brain. Great list, as always.

  2. This brought back memories of my subway-riding days in the Big Apple.

    I’d like to add: lulled to sleep by the movement of the train, air conditioning that doesn’t work, heat that doesn’t work, the deafening noise of moving along the rails, going from daylight into a tunnel, emerging into the light from a tunnel, squashed like sardines in a tin can, missing your stop, the announcements no one can understand because of static. Oh, and let’s not forget a train being taken out of service.

    I could probably come up with a few more. 🙂

  3. This is real neat, not only is it helpful to spring up ideas for our own stories, but I do believe that it will spur some stories all on its own. Nice one!!

  4. Haven’t used city transportation yet in a MS, but now I’m tempted…

  5. Marcia says:

    This just gets better and better. The other day, seriously, I wrote a scene with this blog open to help me with the sensory detail. You guys are awesome. Even when it’s a place we know, the memory jog is wonderful.

  6. This reminds me of taking a bus in NYC. The bus lurching forward again and again, making chuffing sounds as it belched smoke into the air. Our bus kept passing gas. It would chuff forward and then a hissing sound would fill the bus with the sulfur smell of rotten eggs. I tried to see where the smell was coming from and found a vent covered in white powder with an empty bottle of vagisil resting on the grill. Apparently someone had tried to fix the problem. Weird, but true.
    Funny Stuff I Write And Draw

  7. Porky says:

    Public transport isn’t this bad, at least none I’ve ever travelled on.

    “although most people avoid eating on a train because it’s so unsanitary”

    This takes the biscuit so to speak.

  8. Yes the LRT is something I’m glad I don’t have to ride often, Stina!

    Traci, I’ll have to do one soon on railcar trains to better help you with your westerns!

    Bish, glad I got it right–I know that sometimes the city transit design varies city to city–this one is based on Calgary’s transit system.

  9. Karen Lange says:

    This reminded me of when I rode the public transportation bus to school in junior high. And then of the Metro in DC…Great post, thanks!
    Have a great weekend,

  10. Bish Denham says:

    I’ve only been on a few city transit trains in my life (when I was teen) and this brought it all back to me!

  11. Great help, especially with the westerns I write. I just got a first ride seat on a train that’ll help me build realism to it.

  12. This was enough to remind me how much I don’t miss riding the LRT. Especially during hot summer days. 😉

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