“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~ Anton Chekhov
The most challenging writing exercise I have been set to date is very simple:
Describe this scene. Right here, right now, where we are. Without using any clichés.
So, how do you describe a scene without it being a cliché? As Rory from Gilmore Girls complained in Season 4, “A ‘rain-soaked highway’ is not a cliché, it’s just how you describe a rain-soaked highway!” Well, I’ll give you a few tips, so you can use them next week when NaNoWriMo 2014 kicks off! Then I’ll show you some scenes descriptions I’ve recorded during this week’s visit to Sydney.
Smell ya later:
One of the things many inexperienced authors forget is that they have more senses than just sight and sound.
The markets were a cacophony, riotously loud. I could see a rainbow of fruit, with fifty different colours just in the rows of one stall.
I bit into my vegetable samosa and tasted carrots and ginger and cardamom.
Another good tip that writing students get taught is that the more specific you are, the more real the scene feels for the reader. Was your farmer wearing a rain jacket, or a DrizaBone? (If you live outside Australia, I think you would call this a Mackintosh… right?)
I’m not just talking brand names here. When your detective picks up his phone, is it a mobile phone that he can’t actually afford to pay off; or is it a poorly-designed cordless that he got from the supermarket for twenty bucks; or is it one of the old school handsets with the swirly dial for dialing the numbers one by one, which he inherited from his grandpa who used to use this office as his apartment when he was putting himself through law school and saving money to buy grandma-to-be a ring?
Whether or not one should mention weather:
Totally. I had a writing workshop once as a kid with Simon Somebody (too young to remember him properly, sorry) who gave us this formula for starting a scene, which focuses heavily on the environment around the character, including the weather:
- Describe something about the weather/scenery.
- Describe the sounds.
- Say what specific gesture your focal (not necessarily main) character is doing.
- Describe something that has changed in the weather/scenery.
- Introduce a new sound.
- Have your focal character do something.
- Voice what your character is thinking.
- Introduce a second character into the scene.
- Describe their non-verbal interaction or body language towards each other.
- Have one of them say something.
Scene 1 – Hyde Park:
This week I’ve been visiting Sydney, and today I got to experience a few different scenes of street theatre. Great fun! I saw a man making different shaped bubbles with a large bubble wand, much to the delight of the toddlers who were running back and forth beneath the floating soap globes. I saw a violinist trying out some sort of symphony that unfortunately, he hadn’t quite got memorised yet (busking is a tough gig, no two ways about it).
But my favourite scene to describe would have been as I watched two men play a life-size chess game in Hyde Park.
I sat on a wooden park bench with the curly armrests, so I could put my handbag down before it dislocated my shoulder.
One of the men was old; one of them was young.
The old man stood very still next to his king whenever it wasn’t his turn, looking back and forth over the pieces, his arms held behind his back at parade rest. He wore a floppy hat and a maroon jumper with dogs on it. When it was his turn, he paced back and forth, spending a long time deciding what to do, and finally lifted a piece by its head and walked the path it would have taken, a little unsteadily, before putting it down.
The young man, by contrast, was constantly moving, twitchy. He alternated between slugging down gulps of coffee from a Starbucks’ cup to keep himself alert, and dragging on a cigarette to calm down, rubbing his hand over the olive skin of his shaven head. He wore a black running suit with white joggers. He made his move and immediately slouched down onto the seat behind him, only for a second, then leapt back up and began darting around the board, even walking between the pieces. His friend who sat behind him on the bench wore a three-piece business suit and sunglasses, and laughed infrequently.
It was a very serious game. At one point, the friends and older ‘advisors’ of the young man took over his play and showed him where he was about to err. The crowd had been almost silent until then, smiling to each other perhaps; but suddenly everyone was muttering, telling each other what they would have played next. Looking at the pieces, I realised the game was nearly over; the young man had lost nearly all of his pieces due to his aggressive strategy, and now he was in check himself.
An older man with some sort of emphysema came and sat at the other end of my bench. Every time someone moved a piece, he swore in what I think was Russian. He made me uncomfortable, but I was determined to see who won.
The light was very bright, as it was the lunch hour, but it was broken and softened by the tree who tilted its great arms out over the game board. The breeze was soft and cool.
Near me, a male pigeon puffed himself up and began racing around, cooing loudly at the nearest slender female. Seeming unimpressed by his blue plumes and fat throat, she evaded him time and again. He was persistent, tapping her on the back between her wings, like a lover kissing his lady’s shoulder.
The two men and their advisors played it out until it had been proven that the old man had won. The young man bowed, his theatrics coming off as gracious, not rude, and the old man took off his hat to his opponent. Then he walked over to his king and removed what at first had looked to me like some kind of signpost, but in fact was his shopping bag from the Woolworths across the square.
As for the crowd, they didn’t clap or cheer, but they smiled. The runners who had stopped to watch took off again, leaping away like young goats. I took notes. The board was reset. Immediately, two other old men began their own game.
Scene 2 – Botanical Gardens:
Yesterday, I was in the Royal Botanical Gardens near the Art Gallery of NSW, and the sky was a single shade of grey. These skinny raindrops were punching down, pretending unsuccessfully to be harmless drips, not the precursor to a torrent, so I was staying underneath the cover of this massive tree, like a Moreton Bay Fig or something, spreading its branches out like octopus tentacles. Instead of just standing there miserably, I decided to sit back in the vividly green grass – the kind of green that Van Gogh liked – and watched the leaves moving back and forth, letting the few spits of rain that got through fall onto my face and arms. Accepting the few drops that got through; accepting that the tree had done a good job of protecting me, and because I was grateful to it, I accepted anything that passed by its defenses as being something that it thought I could defend myself against. That was what being in that scene felt like for me. So it inspired me, so I wrote it down.
Have you ever been set a hard writing challenge? Tell me about it!
Or if not, I challenge you now: describe your current scene in the comments here. Are you at a computer in the library? On your phone in the park? Laptop propped up on your knees in bed while your cat licks your toes? (It happens.)
Challenge-related tangent: Anyone doing NaNoWriMo this year? I’m planning to! Sign up to be a writing buddy with me via NaNoWriMo – my username is Miss TJ Withers. (Started NaNoWriMo before I got married.)
This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.