Writing Exercises to Improve Scene and Character Descriptions
I Know What You All Want
And I’m going to give it to you.
How’s that for an opening?
I am convinced that, as writers, we all want the same thing. I know you want to be the best writer you can be, just as I do.
And that’s what this article is all about.
I have written many times about the importance of scene and character descriptions, how we need to write to the senses of our readers. If we do a good job of describing a scene, our readers will be able to see, taste, hear, feel and smell that scene….if we do a good job.
So let’s practice, shall we?
Let me share with you a wonderful description, written by James Lee Burke, and then I will give you a few exercises to try when you have time. Are you ready?
From His Novel “bitterroot”
“The wooded hills above the Blackfoot River where Doc had bought his home were still dark at 7 A.M., the moon like a sliver of crusted ice above a steep-sided rock canyon that rose to a plateau covered with ponderosa. The river seemed to glow with a black, metallic light, and steam boiled out of the falls in the channels and off the boulders that were exposed in the current.
I picked up my fly rod and net and canvas creel from the porch of Doc's house and walked down the path toward the riverbank. The air smelled of the water's coldness and the humus back in the darkness of the woods and the deer and elk dung that had dried on the pebbled banks of the river. I watched Doc Voss squat on his haunches in front of a driftwood fire and stir the strips of ham in a skillet with a fork, squinting his eyes against the smoke, his upper body warmed only by a fly vest, his shoulders braided with sinew.
There is some serious writing in that passage. One can see the scene. One can smell the scene, and feel the cold air. You can hear the water flowing….this is how it is done my friends.
And from John D. Macdonald
From “The Deep, Blue Goodbye”
“It is that flavor exuded by women who have fashioned an earthy and simplified sexual adjustment to their environment, borne their young, achieved an unthinking physical confidence. They are often placidly unkempt, even grubby, taking no interest in the niceties of posture. They have a slow relish for the physical spectrum of food, sun, deep sleep, the needs of children, the caressess of affection. There is a tiny magnificance about them, like the sultry dignity of she-lions.”
Is it possible to write a better description of a character than that?
Now on to the Exercises
So here is what we are going to do. I am going to share several personal photos for you, and with each photo I am going to write a rather drab description of that photo….you know, similar to the drab descriptions we have seen others write.
Then I want you to do much better than my drab description. I want you to remember the five senses. I want you to remember that we all share emotions, and I want you to remember the beauty of similes and metaphors.
Are you ready?
To the right you will see a picture. Here is my bland, totally dispassionate description of that picture:
The woman gazed out at the majestic vista before her.
This is actually one of my favorite pictures of my wife, Bev, and I’m sure you all can do much better with the description.
Let’s Try Another One
Here we have a scene from Yellowstone National Park. This is the Yellowstone River flowing through Hayden Valley. If I were trying for bland, this would be my description:
The blue waters shimmered in the sunlight as they wound their way through the green valley.
Now it’s your turn. What about the different shades of color? What about the sounds that surround this scene? How does the mountain air feel under the bright sunlight? Can you smell anything? What do you hear?
When doing descriptions like this, remember to use similes and metaphors, which are wonderful tools that help readers relate the scene to something they have already experienced.
And Now Another
We have all experienced the sights and sounds of a street fair, right? This picture was taken at our neighborhood street fair last August. Here is my boring description:
We walked through the crowded streets, looking at the colorful displays and listening to our stomachs begging for fair food.
Oh come on, I know you can do better than that. Tell me what you see. Tell me what the fair was like the last time you went to one. Remember back to when you were a young child, and the wonders you experienced. What was your favorite memory from those trips? What still stands out in your mind about those childhood days?
One More and Then I Will Turn You Loose
Here is a picture from downtown Olympia, walking along the boardwalk looking out at the marina. Here is my ridiculously poor description:
It was a sunny day as we walked along the boardwalk, hand in hand, two lovers enjoying a leisurely stroll and wonderful companionship.
Can you say boring?
So let’s see you do better. You have all taken similar walks, as have all of your readers. Play to that fact and see what you can do.
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- William Holland | Thoreau of the 21st Century
Stop on in and we'll share writing tips and have discussions about the art of writing.
I’ll Leave You with One More Beautiful Example of Great Writing
Again I will turn to James Lee Burke, a master at painting a literary scene. This is from “Last Car to Elysian Fields.”
“The first week after Labor Day, after a summer of hot wind and drought that left the cane fields dust blown and spiderwebbed with cracks, rain showers once more danced across the wetlands, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the sky turned the hard flawless blue of an inverted ceramic bowl. In the evenings I sat on the back steps of a rented shotgun house on Bayou Teche and watched the boats passing in the twilight and listened to the Sunset Limited blowing down the line. Just as the light went out of the sky the moon would rise like an orange planet above the oaks that covered my rented backyard, then I would go inside and fix supper for myself and eat alone at the kitchen table.
But in my heart the autumnal odor of gas on the wind, the gold and dark green of the trees, and the flame-lit edges of the leaves were less a sign of Indian summer than a prelude to winter rains and the short, gray days of December and January, when smoke would plume from stubble fires in the cane fields and the sun would be only a yellow vapor in the west.”
It really is a joy to read such quality writing from one of the best, and it definitely gives you some idea of what to shoot for when describing a scene.
Can you do as well? I believe you can, but you must believe it, too, if you are to make it a reality.
Close your eyes and picture a scene from your story or novel. See it all in your mind’s eye. Compare it to other experiences you have had. Use the gift of language to make that scene come alive for your readers, and they will thank you for it.
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”