I attended a workshop given by Donald Maass some time back, where he talked about the different sensory factors you need in a scene to give it depth and ensure it comes to life. For example, don’t just describe the light coming into a room, he said. Describe the quality of the light.
A few weeks ago I was walking along the river-path with my grandson. He’d fallen asleep in his stroller, so I sat down on a bench, pulled out my notebook and decided to apply Donald Maass’ advice to the scene around me. If I was describing this in a book, what particular elements could I find to make my scene unique.
Here’s a selection
- A businessman, dressed in smart suit, and man-bun, chatting on his phone.
- A very pregnant woman jogging – very slowly.
- The soft slap of running shoes of the serious joggers on the river-path versus the staccato clack of ‘smart’ shoes belonging to business men and women out for a noon stroll.
- The gentle ‘ping’ of a bike’s bell as it overtook walkers.
- Hearing snatches of music from people’s ipods as they jogged by.
- A man in an adapted wheelchair zipping along the path.
- The warm colours of the autumnal day.
- Snatches of conversations: A girl breaking up with her boyfriend. “Move your shit out my place before I get back.” A young man meeting a friend. “These are the last two days here. I’m done with this city!” An older man saying to his friend, “Problem is, you get to my age and I think I can still play.”
- A man on the phone, trying to solve a problem for his father.
- A young girl munching on a burger as she walked and chatted on her phone.
- The heavy breathing of runners as they talked to each other in half-sentences.
- Three retired couples walking together, the women in front talking about families, the men talking about baseball.
- Serious cyclists, head down, weaving their way through the walkers.
- Fun cyclists, in ‘sit-up-and-beg’ bikes, meandering along the path.
- A guy pressing down one nostril and snorting into the grass. Yuck!
- An elderly couple strolling along hand in hand.
- A plane soaring into the air in the distance.
- Kids from a daycare, walking along in crocodile fashion, singing, ‘If you’re happy and you know it…”
- Dogs prancing along, tails wagging.
- Young women jogging, their ponytails swinging from side to side.
- A cacophony of different languages.
- The siren from a firetruck in the distance, honking as it went through an intersection.
- A running group… they’d been walking for a bit, resting hands on waists. “Okay guys, lets try this again and pick up the pace.”
- Leaves falling onto the pathway.
- A squirrel with a black body and red tail darting between the trees.
- A crow cawing, high in a branch.
- The breeze rustling the leaves in the trees.
The above took me about ten minutes. Try this in a cafe, in a bookstore, in the bank, at the movies, in church, on the bus, on a plane… anywhere. Really notice what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what you’re smelling.
Take notes, and when you want to add a unique detail to a scene set in one of those places, you’ll have it at your fingertips.
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