It’s a Matter of Taste

In my last post, we took a look at one way to “show, don’t tell” in your writing. Although we tend to describe the things we see, there are a whole host of senses to chose from when you provide those “[s]pecific, definite, concrete, particular details” (Burroway and Stuckey-French 22) that add the necessary sense of depth to your story.

For today, I’ll provide you with a writing exercise focusing on another one of the five senses:

Taste. There are four main types of taste and each has its own words—sweet (saccharine, sugary), sour (acidic, tart), bitter (acrid, biting), and salty (briny, brakish). There are also a lot of objects that have familiar, but distinctive tastes and so are useful in description (fish, lemons, onions, candy, chocolate, pickles, beer, coffee, and so on).

Take some characters out for dinner—Chinese or Greek, burgers or gourmet, it doesn’t matter. Describe a particular course or even a whole meal. What impression does your description give? What do the characters have to say about their meal? How do they communicate with each other through their appreciation of the food? (71)

As always, feel free to share your work in the comments section! 🙂

A Brief Works Cited

  • Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 8th ed. Boston: Longman-Pearson, 2011. Print.

Artichokes on Hold

So, remember the last post I wrote (you know, two days ago 😉 ), when I said that everything would be awesome? Well, it seems like it might be a little longer before awesomeness strikes.

Lee Ann Roripaugh
Random fact: Roripaugh’s username on her blog is “heartichoke,” which could partly explain why she is currently holding an artichoke. Partly.

I was planning to bedazzle you all with an awesome discussion about two poems by an author named Lee Ann Roripaugh. Of course, to do this I would need the poetry books that I (in)conveniently left at my parents’ house three hours away. That’s what I get for being an English major with only one bookcase in my apartment.

Anyway, sorry for (maybe?) getting everyone’s hopes up about that awesome discussion, but if anyone’s interested, check out a poetry anthology called Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes. In particular, take a look at “Octopus in the Freezer” and “The Woman Who Loves Insects.” (I know, the titles are a little strange, but Roripaugh is quirky and awesome. Trust me.)

Now that I’ve spent a sufficient amount of time rambling about Roripaugh, I think I’ll leave you all with a writing exercise from the creative writing class that I took in undergrad.

I’m sure we’re all pretty familiar with the popular saying “show, don’t tell.” (If you’re not familiar with it, count yourself lucky. There are only so many times I can hear that phrase before I want to strangle the person who says it.)

Writing Fiction
Buy it. Read it. Trust me.

Fiction is made more realistic through “[s]pecific, definite, concrete, particular details” (Burroway and Stuckey-French 22). Such details often add to the overall credibility of a piece and allow readers to suspend their disbelief. When readers can glimpse the world of the characters, they experience the action along with them. Stories don’t happen in a vacuum, so description helps you paint a picture for your readers.

That phrase “show, don’t tell” is definitely valuable, but it may be a little misleading. When we think of the word “show,” we automatically connect it with the sense of sight—which causes our descriptions to be mostly sight-based.

But what about hearing, tasting, smelling, touching? There’s a whole range of senses to choose from to help deepen your work and give it that added layer of believability.

Let’s take a look at an exercise based on one of those other senses:

Touch. We sometimes neglect to use tactile descriptions in our writing, but we do touch—all the time. Shopping for clothes, shaking hands, playing with pets, shuffling cards, scrubbing pots, shooting baskets. Think of what it means to touch an odd, rare, or even holy object. Consider temperature (tepid, frigid), moisture content (arid, greasy, sticky, crisp), texture (crinkled, gritty, silky), and weight (ponderous, buoyant). All of these sensations provide us with great descriptive words. Use some of them and find others.

Describe the way an action or event feels—putting on a piece of clothing, engaging in exercise, eating a tough or squishy item of food, dancing, moving across a crowded room, carrying groceries in from the car, kissing, waking up, washing the car, whatever. What impression does your description give? Does it prompt a scene? Can you make some characters talk while they’re doing one of these activities? (Burroway and Stuckey-French 71)

Feel free to share your work in the comments section! 🙂

A Brief Works Cited

  • Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 8th ed. Boston: Longman-Pearson, 2011. Print.
  • Roripaugh, Lee Ann. “Octopus in the Freezer.” 2001. Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes. Comp. Ryan Van Cleave. New York: Longman, 2003. 234-36. Print.
  • – – – . “The Woman Who Loves Insects.” 1999. Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes. Comp. Ryan Van Cleave. New York: Longman, 2003. 232-34. Print.

Scene Challenge of the Week

BartholdiAbstract art makes no sense to me. I like paintings of actual things… that actually look like actual things, and I’ve found that I like sculptures of actual things even more. However, painting or sculpture, if it doesn’t actually look like what its supposed to be about, then I can’t say that I particularly like it. For instance, many of Rodin’s sculptures look like piles of rock in the vague shape of a person, many of Degas’ are similar. Compare this with sculptures from Bartholdi and others that have a more realistic focus and I appreciate the latter much more. I am impressed by the skill required to craft features that look like an actual face, or a real lion, mane and all. Comparatively, I am much less impressed by the skill required to create a pile of rock that looks vaguely like a lion. That being said, I know nothing about art and I doubt I could do either. So, really all I can do is point to one and say ‘I like this better.’ Anyway, I’ve got a scene challenge for you. If you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your Challenge: I want you to write a realistic scene. I don’t mean a scene that simply ‘could happen,’ but a scene rich with detail and meaning, but at the same time not overdraw. For instance, if your scene is in a desert, I want to feel hot and start to get thirsty while reading it, I don’t want to learn 101 facts about what the desert is like. This is going to be a variation of the movie/book scene challenges we’ve done in the past. Choose one of your favorite scenes from a good book or movie that just makes you feel rushed. However, instead of simply rewriting the scene, I want you to write a version of what happens that is entirely your own. Your own voice, your own characters, your own setting. Everything should be your own. This isn’t a simple rewrite for practice. I want you to write a scene that reflects the same mood, evokes the same emotions, and handles plot in the same way, but that is still completely your own work.

The Scene’s the Thing

Professor Gaumer, my Creative Writing teacher. A very interesting man.

“You can have a story without summary in it, but you can’t have a story without scene,” my Creative Writing professor told me during my junior year at college. It’s true, really. I can’t think of a single novel or short story that I’ve read or written that hasn’t utilized the concept of scene. I’ve read and even written some works without summary (it’s hard, but manageable), but it’s impossible to completely leave out scene. Therefore, today we’ll wrap up our discussion of scene and summary by talking about the concept of scene itself: what it is, how it works, and a few tips on when to not use it.

Two weeks ago, we defined scene as taking a short amount of fictional time and expanding it, filling it with details. A scene contains the present action and the dialogue. In writing parlance, summary is the “telling” of what happened, but scene is the showing. This is where you let your readers experience what’s going on in that exact moment in time, storywise. In a scene, you want the readers to be completely immersed in the events, not viewing them as outsiders who aren’t privy to the specifics of it. The scene’s the thing, as Shakespeare might have said if he was composing a play about Creative Writing (hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

One of my literary heroes.

So, characteristics of a scene: since you’re showing the event, this is where you’re going to use dialogue and sensory details to let the reader get involved with what’s going on in this relatively short period of fictional time. If the protagonist spills a cup of coffee on her husband, you’re probably going to give the husband’s verbal response, describe the sight of the dark liquid spreading across his immaculate white shirt, the protagonist’s horror at her clumsiness, etc. Those sorts of details make the scene come alive. We “see” the coffee spilling, “hear” the husband’s response, visualize the liquid staining his shirt, and sympathize with the protagonist’s embarrassment, because most of us have done something similar at some point in our lives. The details are what get the reader involved in the story. They utilize the 5 senses in a way that engages us, connects us to the story. The dialogue gets the story moving, provides character exposition, and allows us to get inside the heads of the dramatis personae. You can’t have sensory details or dialogue in summary; characters don’t speak and the author doesn’t describe things. That’s why scene is so important and necessary to a story and why you can’t have fiction without it. Without scene, all you have is a summary, like a synopsis on the dust jacket of a book or in a critic’s review. No one wants to read that, it’s boring. We want to experience the story, not just be told what happened.

If the plot isn't advanced by what happens on the park bench, summarize it.

Ok, so, what to avoid when using scene: first of all, don’t try to make your entire story consist of a scene, unless that story takes place over the space of a few minutes, no more than an hour (and even that is stretching it). It’s almost impossible to use scene in a story covering a long period of time, because it wearies the reader and bogs down the story. Using scene that way means you have to give details of every single event that happens in the entire time frame of the story, and we don’t want to read that. We don’t need to know everything Jake sees while sitting on the bench in the park for 3 hours. If nothing relevant to the plot happens in those 3 hours, summarize it. Even if a particularly witty piece of dialogue happens that you’re very fond of, cut it if it doesn’t move the plot along. Scene is great, but too much of it all at once makes a reader tired. On the other hand, don’t under use scene. It’s a very powerful tool, and yes, excess of it drags a story down, but it’s vital to the life of your writing. I’ve seen several aspiring writers try to avoid detail and dialogue in their works, so they sprinkle it very lightly in the story. It doesn’t work! It just gives the reader a taste of what’s going on in the story, and never really lets them connect to it. You WANT them to be involved, you want them to experience the story for themselves, especially during important revelations or turning points. Let the reader hear, see, taste, feel, and smell what’s happening. Otherwise, you’re cheating them out of what they’ve been waiting for and what they want in the story. Show, don’t tell.

Well, that wraps up this series on scene and summary. Hopefully it’s been of help to you in your writing. These two tools are very useful for any aspiring writer, so I hope you’ve learned how to use them in a way that will enhance your work, not drag it down. Scene and summary are vitally important….use wisely. Happy writing!