Good description in fiction can produce a sensory reality that makes the narrative wholly immersive. Many academic texts discuss the physicality of fiction and stress its importance. I have to agree with all of this. As a writer and a teacher, I know that describing the world of the imagination can probably take a great toll on a writer. But it’s essential to get it right so that readers can enjoy the whole experience of the story.
This week my students were involved with one of my favourite descriptive exercises. It’s one I’ve returned to often and makes for fun practice and I’m sharing it here because I believe lots of practice makes better writers of us all.
- Begin by imagining the place where you prefer to write. This could be a real place: the office, desk or table where you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). Or it could be an imagined place: a castle on a hill, a romantic cottage in the middle of the woods, a luxury cabin on an ocean cruiser, etc. Jot down a few notes about the location.
- Visualise this place and make notes. Make notes on what you see, the colours you encounter, and the objects and artefacts that would be typically in this location. Don’t bother trying to construct full sentences. At this stage it’s enough to simply catalogue everything important in the scene.
- Now make a note of the noises you’d be likely to hear. Start with quiet noises: the scratch of pen on paper, the soft purr of a cat lazing by the fireside, the languid breath of a recuperating lover. After compiling your list of the quiet sounds, move onto the louder noises. Traffic? An asthmatic computer printer? A barking dog? Music? Building works? Again, don’t go into detail. The essential thing here is just to list the noises.
- Next, we should think about ‘touch.’ Go over the list of things you can see in this place and write down how they feel. Is the writing desk you’ve imagined smooth and polished or worn and splintery? Is the temperature warm or cold? Is the air humid or dry? Write down all these various sensations.
- And, finally, move onto tastes and smells. Tastes and smells are hard to differentiate because they are closely related as physical functions. Trust me: if it smells like an orange it probably tastes like one too. If it smells like crap it’s unlikely we’re going to find out what it tastes like. But, because smells and tastes are so rarely used in fiction, the description of them can make for an intensely realistic piece of writing. What can you smell in this imagined writing place? Is there warm coffee brewing? Are there croissants warming over a toaster? Fresh cut flowers in the vase on the table? The perspiration of a close companion as that person walks past?
- Now, armed with all these details, put them together into a short piece of intensely descriptive writing. Describe this writing venue so that your reader doesn’t just imagine the place – they experience it as an immersive reality. Describe the texture, colour, sights, sounds, tastes and smells.
- Edit as necessary.
- And, if you’re wondering how to make this into a piece of erotic writing, imagine what would happen if your dream lover stopped by at your dream writing location…
“The Write Stuff” © 2011 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.