Writing, writing advice, Writing Club, writing exercise

Writing Club: Describing a Setting

Yesterday I met with young writers at the Main Library in Little Rock, Arkansas for our first ever NaNoWriMo group. I was blown away by the diverse group that showed up to write with us. After a long day of school, kids between the ages of 8 and 18 trickled in to share their ideas and a little of their passion for books. I heard a fifth grader swapping book ideas with a twelfth grader and saw all kinds of genres represented from poetry to crime drama. Amazing! I know some people have a hard time working with kids, but I am constantly amazed by the creativity and talent demonstrated in some of the youngest writers. I heard a few lamenting that they are forced to write what their teacher’s assign instead of what they love, but I encouraged them to write anyway because every single opportunity to write is an opportunity to improve. Then, someday you’ll be able to write what you love all day long and that is an amazing treat!

Settings
Anyway, in our short time together I shared a few tips for description and reviewed some of the brainstorming concepts I shared with all of you here a few weeks ago. I asked them to come up with three different settings. They suggested a planet, a cave, and a battleship. We listed a few adjectives to describe each setting. Here’s what we came up with:

When I see the word “planet”, I instantly picture something else entirely. Mars with its red dirt and and expansive deserts, perhaps. A green swirling fog is so unique and utterly different from what I pictured, but isn’t that incredible? With just four words we have an entirely different picture in our minds. Now the trick is to show our readers the same image we have in mind.

Show vs. Tell
 We want our readers to be able to visualize our settings, our characters, and their actions as fully as possible so that they feel as though they were in the middle of the story with them. One way to do that is to describe the setting using your five senses. So, to our list we might add a few distinctive words describing the smell of the air, the feel of the dampness on our skin, or the shouts of soldiers on the battleship. Instead of saying the deck of the battleship was wet, we will describe how the main character nearly slips as he races across the deck or we’ll describe the spray of sea water or the raging wind and rain of an enormous storm. We give our readers clues that let them decide for themselves that the deck is wet instead of just telling them it is. This involves them in the scene as a participant and gives our writing a richer quality.

It’s difficult, I won’t lie, but something we should continue to practice if we want to be better writers. So, why don’t you give it a try? Brainstorm a few settings for the story you are working on and list as many descriptive words as you can using your five senses. Then, use those words to help you create sentences to show the reader how it feels to stand in your setting. What will they see, hear, smell, feel as they enter your world? When you’re finished, come back and leave us your favorite sentence. I would love to see what you came up with as you try your hand at the Show vs. Tell technique.

                                                                       Happy Writing!

                                                                                                                ~ Heather

story starters

Story Starter Tuesday

Today’s story starter is a chance for you to practice yesterday’s exercise in describing the setting.

story starter

I crept silently up the marble staircase and down the carpeted hall.  At the end stood two massive oak doors with brass handles.  Reaching up, I tugged on the door handle until it came open with a groan.  I gazed into the massive room, awestruck.  It wasn’t what I had expected at all!  This room was like nothing I had ever seen.

Writing, writing advice, writing exercise

Writing Exercise: Describing a Setting

I had a friend ask me today, “How do [writers] come up with all the details? When I’m reading something and the author is describing every last little detail about something, I’m just in awe because I never would have thought of it.”

What a wonderful question!  I think there are probably several good answers to this one because writers don’t all write the same way.  Still, I am happy to offer two ideas here for you who are interested and I’ll challenge you to try a little exercise with me at the end.

1. The Movie Reel

So far, in my own writing, I find that scenes appear as a sort of vivid movie in my mind.  I work as frantically as I can to describe what I’m seeing as the movie plays on, trying to capture it all while it’s fresh in my mind.  This is both good and bad.  It means that my scenes are vivid and often filled with natural movement or dialogue.  The hardest things, then, are trying to translate the emotions I can feel coming from my characters and also trying not to rush through it.  I often have to go back and do several revisions trying to fill in the blanks because I was hurrying the first draft as I attempted to capture it before the movie moved on without me.

There is a calmer way to do it, and if you aren’t lucky enough to see movies in your head, then it is how you will want to describe your scenes.

2. Twenty Questions

As a writing teacher, this is what I tell my students.  When you are describing a scene, ask yourself a few questions.

  • How does it feel there?

Weather can affect this, but so can other forces like housekeeping or strong emotions.  Ask yourself, Is it windy, warm, mild, sweltering, stuffy, scary etc.  Make a list of the words that come to mind as you imagine how it feels.  Textures can be good in a description, too.  For instance, the wall paper was smooth, the car’s paint was shiny, the cat’s fur against my cheek was soft, the carpet was thick and fluffy, etc.

  • What does it smell like?

Most every where we go has a distinct smell or two, especially when you first arrive somewhere or when something special is happening.  Does your character smell flowers, fresh bread baking, the sweat of a dog or a person, a cloud of perfume, fresh laundry, cookies in the oven, dead fish?  Just this short list of phrases draws to mind a set of images!  Imagine how describing the smell of your scene could help your reader to see your story better.

  • What do you see?

If you were standing in your character’s shoes, what would you see?  Take a look around.  Describe what would stand out to that character.  If they walk into a new house and are thinking about buying it, they will look at the details differently than if they are walking in just to deliver a package or watch some t.v.  So, try to think from your character’s perspective and ask yourself What do I see?

  • Do you hear that?

The tiny buzz of a gnat, the drip of a faucet, the whir of a fan trying to cool a room.  These are sounds that could help the reader to understand your setting better.  What does your character hear?

Try to focus on giving the reader just a few very strong visuals like these as you describe your setting.  It shouldn’t be pages and pages of you describing in painful detail every single thing you would hear, see or smell in a setting.  Just choose the ones that you think would best give the reader a real feel for the place.

Now, Try This:

Choose a setting and place a character there.  If you have a story you have already worked on, then choose one scene and try this with your character.  Close your eyes and enter the scene in your mind.  Take a good look around.  What does it feel like?  What do you smell?  What can you see?  Did you hear that?  What was it?  Then, make a list of your observations.  Choose three or four that you like best and put them together into a short paragraph, describing the scene from your character’s point of view.

Gotta Write,

Heather