Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Detail Is Everything In Description

My Friday class were brilliant last week. I was blown away by their response to the exercise and I think we all were amazed at the quality of writing that came out. So, what was the exercise that had produced this fabulous work?

It was very simple. They 'sketched' each other, using words not lines. I had them in groups of three and they did 5 minutes on each of the others - A drew B for 5 minutes, then C. Meanwhile, B was drawing A, then C, and at the same time C was drawing B then A. Strict instructions were given not to make personal comments that might offend (who would think that colour suited them, what a big nose, are those spots?) and concentrate on the detail of what they were observing. I wanted to them really look, in a way that we usually don't.

And the results were terrific pieces of observation. People examined the fall of a scarf and the fastening of boots, the weave of a lacy collar and a tiny, almost imperceptible, line of purple woven into the fabric of a smart jacket. Light caught earrings, gold chains rested on collar bones, a line of crochet edged a cardigan like the crenellations on the Great Wall of China.

The sitters often expressed amazement - they'd not noticed, or had forgotten, the detail about their clothing - and the rest of us listened intently, fascinated by the writing and the depth of the detail.

It confirmed to me that if you're going to describe anything, the generic is a waste of space. All detail should be specific and detailed, and the more depth there is, the more interesting and believable it will be.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Jim Murdoch said...

As I may have mentioned I'm not big on descriptions but I think if you are going to have them then make them interesting like Nabokov's description of Pnin:

Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flannelled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.
     His sloppy socks were of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges; his conservative black Oxfords had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).

If you want to read great descriptive writing read Pnin.

Karen said...

A fantastic idea. I do this in cafes sometimes and it's really useful for little character sketches in my novel :o)

Having said that a woman once asked me what I was doing and I had to explain!

Sarah Duncan said...

Lovely, lovely description. So revealing of character.

Wow, how embarrassing at having to explain. Did she mind? Did she want to read what you'd written? It would make an interesting start to a short story...

Karen said...

Luckily she was flattered - thank goodness I hadn't written anything rude! And yes, there's a story in there somewhere :o)

Penelope Overton said...

I once did that on the train, describing a man opposite who was making a right nuisance of himself. Double benefit of giving me material whilst making him feel very nervous. He stopped.

Sarah Duncan said...

Karen -I'm glad she was flattered not offended.

Penelope, that's proof the pen is mightier than the sword.

Liz Harris said...

Thank you for an excellent blog, Sarah.

What an interesting exercise for everyone, and it was developed from an idea which we can all adapt as a way to add life to our descriptions of people and places.

Liz X