Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: description

Gesture and Detail: An Exercise

I just finished Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, which started slow but got really good later on (full review forthcoming). Anyway, she has a chapter each on gestures and details, the upshot of which is that if you’re going to write a gesture a person makes into your manuscript, or a detail of a place or person, you should make every effort to make that a unique, distinguishing feature of that person or place.

For example, rather than:

“Is that so?” Joe took a drink of wine.

… think about why Joe would drink wine, what it reveals about him that he drank it at that moment, or in what way he takes the drink that can tell us how he’s feeling. Like:

“Is that so?” Joe raised the glass to his lips, his eyes never leaving hers as he sipped.

So my exercise to myself is to try to look around each day and notice one person’s gesture and/or one detail about a person or place, something unique and individual, and note it in my notebook. Part of being a writer is being a reader, not just of books but of the world around you.

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Active Description

Being character-centric as I am, I focus on dialogue a lot. The journal story I’m writing, which technically has very little dialogue in it, is really like a monologue, so that doesn’t count. Anyway, it means that when it comes to writing description, I often flounder. How much longer do I need to go on writing all this boring stuff where nothing is happening, nobody is acting, I will often ask myself half a paragraph in.

(Strangely, I have more tolerance reading description, though I do tend to skim.)

Anyway, a trick I have been using lately to get through description is to try to make it more active. Whenever you can, use the description to help move along the story, or introduce it as other things are happening in the story. For instance, instead of:

“She wore a sleek, low-cut green dress. Her shoes were the latest fashion, matching her artificially blue eyes. Over her shoulder, she carried a small handbag bearing a Gucci label.”

Why not:

“The clack of heels turned my head. My eyes were drawn immediately to the low-cut neckline in the sheer green dress behind me, before a cleared throat drew my attention to a pair of annoyed eyes, tinted-lens blue. Having conveyed her annoyance, she reached into the small handbag at her side, its designer label too fashionable for me to know, and pulled out a compact. While I stared, she opened it and began a completely unnecessary examination of her face…”

You get all the description from the first example (mostly), but instead of the character standing still while you take a snapshot, you already have a sense of her character and the interaction with the main character. This is the kind of description I try to write when I can. Clearly, you can’t do this all the time; there are moments when you just need a paragraph to describe the room your character’s just stepped into, or the completely bizarre alien creature he’s just met, but whenever you can, try to include reactions and interactions, not just appearances.

At the very least, I will enjoy reading your stuff more. :)

Be aware of your surroundings

I’m taking a two-weekend class on “Tension, Conflict, and the Unknown,” and one of the writing exercises we did during Saturday’s 10-4 session (which was more like five hours ’til you count getting-started time, 45 minutes for lunch, and a twenty-minute break) was to write a scene between two people who wanted different things, in a specific environment that would intrude on their scene.

It was a very helpful exercise, and it clicked with a piece of advice I got from our last screenwriters workshop, which was that you never write a full page of screenplay with only dialogue. There’s always something going on, some direction, some way the actors interact with the set. It gives the scene texture and depth. The same applies in prose writing: you don’t just want a pair of talking heads. They should be in a setting that complements their scene.

The scene I chose was a library, where two college students were doing research for a history report. One wanted to talk about something they’d done (presumably a date), while the other didn’t want to talk about it at all. The setting of the library worked in favor of the one who didn’t want to talk about it, of course, as it’s a quiet venue. Imagine how much harder it would be to resist talking to someone at an outdoor fair, where everything is loud and noisy.

Now as I’m going back through the works I’m editing now, I’m hyper-conscious of the setting for each one of my scenes. How does the main character (and others) interact with his/her surroundings? Could the scene be set in a better place? What aspects of the setting intrude on the scene? If they’re in a restaurant, use the waiter, the food, the nearby couples–bring them all in as they pertain to the discussion the characters are having.

Yet another thing to remember and think about while writing. This feels more like something you would highlight for a second or third draft–not something you necessarily worry about when getting your first draft down on paper. Still, it’s important, and you really improve your scenes by thinking about it. Go on. Try it.