As a writer who has extensive tech writing experience, I admit that I sometimes have a difficult time with scene description.
I blame it on my Technical Writing training. Tech writing is all about “just the facts, ma’am.” It’s all about the who, what, when, where, and how of an action. And pretty much nothing else.
Creative (and I’m including memoir writing) is all about the facts and then some (ma’am.) When you write for entertainment you need to use the senses – the smell, visual, taste, hearing and sight information that you have literally at your fingertips. You also have to add thought and reason to any action.
As a tech writer, when I write directions, I’ll write something like:
- Add one teaspoon of cinnamon to the batter.
Quick, efficient, absolute no doubt as to want I want the action to be.
But when I write creatively, constant directives like the one above can get pretty darn boring unless you surround them with that something extra. When we read for pleasure, we want to put ourselves into the scene. We want to know what motivates the character and we also want a reason to continue reading.
Here’s a creative writing approach to the above direction of adding a teaspoon of cinnamon to some batter.
Damn it, like always, she was running late. This cake had to be started, she still needed a shower, and even now, she wasn’t sure what she had that was clean enough to wear in public. While reaching for the jar of cinnamon, she tipped over a small bottle of opened vanilla. A tiny waft of warmed vanilla fragrance lifting on the breeze from the fan in the kitchen’s corner reached her. She closed her eyes and deeply inhaled. Suddenly she was no longer in her tiny New York apartment with the leaky shower and the cracked ceiling, but rather she was transported to her grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen where she used to spend her childhood summers.
“A pinch of this and a pinch of that,” her grandmother sang and danced as she added her special combination of spices to the cake batter in the ancient jadeite bowl. “Baking is a living art, never trust a book. You have to feel and smell the ingredients to know what’s right.”
Every cake her Grandmother had made had been perfect. A blend of spices and magic that seemed to capture the beauty of a cloudless sky, the roses near the front steps, a cool glass of tea on a hot day.
Pulled back to her apartment by a car’s shrill horn, she looked out her window, to the traffic, the grey, and the noise that defined New York City. Sighing, she picked up the silver measuring spoons and tipped the cinnamon into the correct spoon’s well . After leveling it off, she added the spice to the batter in the very same jadeite bowl that had been left to her in her grandmother’s will. She refocused on the recipes, one-half teaspoon of baking soda was still needed.
There was no time to feel or smell the ingredients, at least not today. She had to get this cake done for the faculty meeting if she hoped to have any chance of impressing the new department chair.
In the first example, I’ve put forward an action. Do this.
In the second example I’ve taken that action and put it into story form by adding sensory information. It is now: This is done because.
The word count for the direction is 8. The word count for the story is 316.
They both cover the same action.
The directions tell you what to do, the story asks you to put information together to come up with what you think is going to happen.
If you want to write stories then you’ll have to up your game by adding these types of details.
Think of this when you are writing (especially those who come from a technical or reporter background.) Infuse your writing with sensory details. Sprinkle memories. Plant the seed of a plot.
Give your reader a joyous reason to turn to the next page.
Update: In looking over this post, I clearly used the word “she” far too often in my example. I’m leaving it as is to show you that, *everyone* needs a good edit on their work.
Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.
Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.