Thursday, 26 April 2018

A Plea about Descriptive Writing

Please, please, please, please, please ...

Are you listening??? 

Good. I'm going to say this just one more time.

So even if the exam task for descriptive writing asks you to include thoughts and feelings, it doesn't mean to digress into interior monologue about how you felt about something, about your thoughts, your flashbacks, your back story, what you hope to find in the future.

In order to REVEAL your thoughts and feelings in a DESCRIPTION, you overlay value to the objects you choose to focus on, you add atmosphere to the moment.

How about an example? A long time ago, there was a descriptive task about being on a cable car that suddenly stopped.

Here's how you DON"T show your thoughts and feelings for a description:

We were stuck sky-high on a cable car and I was hoping that someone would come get us soon. My phone's battery was dead, though, and the lady next to me seemed to be about a hundred-thousand years old and probably didn't have one of her own. I thought about shouting down to people to call the police, but they were whizzing past so fast on their skis that it didn't seem like I could have a hope of catching anyone's attention.

This is a story. There's very little in here that would count as description even if it is revealing your thoughts and feelings, so you'd be in the mark scheme band that talks about "some relevant descriptive content" and "tendency toward narration".

Instead, you want to DESCRIBE the scene you are viewing from your stopped cable car, and if you're feeling scared, include details with an atmosphere of fear or being uncertain.

The cable car swayed side-to-side, and bounced up and down in a rhythm that was like my heartbeat - not a duh-DUMP, but a feooowwwr-RUMP, feooowwwr-RUMP. It was as though we were slicing through the frigid air in slow motion, and the effect on the horizon line - a pale, grey fog of the Tupperware sky meeting a pale-white fog of the snowy slopes - was both unsettling and disorientating.

Or what if this temporarily disabled cable car was suspended above a theme park like Alton Towers, and maybe it's a fun adventure. Then your images and atmosphere will be carry with them a different atmosphere.

The cable car stopped right over the Lazy River in the kiddie part. The ribbon of bright, clean turquoise water stretched away and around a little island of soft turf dotted with miniature palm trees. In the middle of the island, in a thick tuft of grass, a mother duck - white, yellow beak - marshalled her little peeping troops down to the bank of their morning bath. She led from the front. Her broad breast swelled as though proud of her seven soldiers that followed behind, their waddling march somewhat suggesting a drunken state. Occasionally, they would stumble into each other, peeps changing into something that approximated a real quack, but once they slipped into the river, their clumsiness was gone. Sheer grace, like ice skating on glass.

Do you see that the cable car is JUST A CONSTRUCT to get you in place where you have time to observe your surroundings, to respond to them, to dwell on them? I don't have to talk that much about the cable car because the task is just created as a way to let me look around from my vantage point of a non-moving cable car.

The same is true about waiting for someone. Whether in a cafe or a kitchen or in front of a building at lunchtime, the backstory about the person you're waiting on is completely irrelevant! It's just a CONSTRUCT to get you sitting on your own, still, watching.

It's such a cliche in writing circles to emphasise the difference between showing (good) and telling (bad), but it's true, and never so true when it comes to descriptive writing.

Focus on the snapshot of the moment, the focus of a scene, and imbue it with an atmosphere from your objects and what they do or how they emit qualities like darkness, lightness, haziness, quirkiness, jerkiness, waddling, etc.

This is how you show your thoughts and feelings in description.

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