Writing Homework #6: Picture Prompts, Emotive Description, and Prewriting


Find a beautiful picture, or pause a video on something gorgeous–but without people. They’d only get in the way, for this exercise.

Your task is to write a short description of the setting, but do it twice. Once as straight description, factual and precise.

Then write it again, adding a narrator (either first- or third-person is fine) and try to convey some emotion, without creating an entire scene–nothing big has to happen.

The exact emotion is up to you–what inspires you about the picture? Go with that. Or how could you do something unexpected with it, take it in a direction at odds with the visual? Try that, if you’re feeling adventurous.

The multi-level terrace overlooks the sea. It is tiled in mottled brown. The walls are mortared cobblestone, topped with white plasterwork. Bushes grow in planters built into the walls. There are two seating areas, both have small, white tables. One has a red dining chair, and the other has two lounge chairs, dark wood frames with white cushions.

Beyond the terrace is a hill of bare dirt and rock. The water below is calm and reflects the sun. In the near distance, another stretch of land creates a bay, but the details are obscured.

There’s nothing inaccurate about this description, and if I read this in a book, I’d probably imagine something resembling the picture above. Sure, I wouldn’t necessarily have the layout correct, but it would be close.

Now let’s look at the downfall of plain description. What are my verbs? Overlooks, is, are, grow, are, have, has, has, is, is, creates, are. Twelve verbs, and nine of them are forms of to be or to have.


Let’s try this again, and get a person involved.

Will stood on the upper level of the terrace, staring at the empty lounge chairs below. He should have been sitting in one of them, with Cynthia in the other, laughing at some witticism of his while they admired the sunset.

A thorn bit his finger. Will realized he’d been picking at the branches of the shrubs planted along the cobblestone wall, pulling off the new growth at the tips. He sucked the bead of blood off his skin and stepped away–the hotel wouldn’t thank him for destroying their property.

But standing at the wall gave him something to do–gazing at the sea was a reasonable pastime. Without it, he had no purpose on the terrace. If he sat down at one of the pristine white tables in the small dining area, with its posh, red-upholstered chairs, a handsomely uniformed waiter would come out to offer him espresso or wine or a plate of cheeses with names Will couldn’t pronounce. If he ordered something, he admitted defeat.

He wouldn’t be waiting for Cynthia anymore, but dining alone.

Did I get every detail from the original description in? Nope. Does that matter? Not really.

When you first saw the picture, was loneliness what occurred to you? Probably not. It’s a gorgeous view that easily could have inspired feelings of beauty or romance or relaxation. But I saw those two empty lounge chairs and knew I could make the description convey the absence of a loved one, rather than their presence.

Getting a person and some mild action involved in the description works wonders for verb choice, too. I’ve still got some forms of to be and to have in there, but Wills stands and stares and picks and steps and gazes.

I don’t think anyone would argue that the first passage is better than the second, but I couldn’t have written the second without the first. I’m not saying all good description needs to go through two phases, but prewriting is a valuable tool–fleshing out the setting of a scene with concrete, uninflected detail to fix it in your mind allows you to then choose the details that matter for the scene and plan how to work them in. (Especially if you’re not working from a picture–then establishing the particulars of the immediate setting in prewriting is even more helpful, since it becomes the only reference outside of your imagination.)

If you get stuck giving your characters space to hang out in while they have their conversations or fight scenes or sneaky-stealthy spy sequences, step back, take the characters out, and just describe the setting. Pack in as much detail as you want, knowing only the best, most useful stuff will come with you to the real draft. Let yourself go nuts.

Then throw your characters back in, and poof! They’ll have space to play in.

Need to get caught up on your assignments?

Writing Homework #1: Studying Description


So, fellow writers, here’s what I want you to do.

Pick a book from your shelf.  It doesn’t matter if it’s one you’ve read before or not–we’ll get to that in a bit.

Start at the beginning and read until you reach a sentence that is entirely description, whether it’s for a character, object, or setting.

Write that sentence down, then work out everything it actually tells you.

My first example, from a favorite of mine, The Wizard of Earthsea:

Below the village the pastures and plowlands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; above the village only forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights.

This comes at the middle of the second long paragraph–early, but not instantly.

What does this tell me?

  • [From the very first sentence, I already know we’re on an island. I want to mention this so I can refer to it without confusing anyone…]
  • The island contains several different types of landscapes: forest, farms, a river, and mountains high enough to get snow.
  • “Pastures and plowlands” means there are both crop-farming and animal-raising going on, though we don’t know which crops or what livestock.
  • “Vale” plus a river means the part of the island being described here is a river valley.
  • The village in question is the highest village in the valley, because there is nothing above it but forest and stone–it’s remote.

Why is this important?  Our wizard Ged has a humble beginning (as they so often do) in an isolated village, far from the more sophisticated civilization of the world, and that becomes important in his character development.  It’s established early (and often, with further description to come) what Ged’s home is like, both the village and the valley around it.  The scenery isn’t just about painting an impressive picture of the world, but giving the reader insight into the characters who live there, who grew up there, who were formed by their environment.

I know this because I’ve read this many times, so I see where the description is leading me, and what purpose it’s meant to serve.

But what about a book I haven’t read yet?

I grabbed The Night Circus from my TBR shelf, because I hope to get to it soon.  Let’s see what I find.

From the first page, third paragraph:

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen.

So what does this tell me? Not as much as AWoE, but to be fair, it’s a far shorter sentence.

  • [And we’ve already established from the title and first line we’re discussing a circus, so off we go…]
  • We know the tents are tall and striped in black and white.  I know that’s obvious, bear with me, please–
  • But by deliberately mentioning two brighter, more vivid colors the tents are not, this stops being a simple observation, and becomes a statement of how different this circus is from your garden-variety circuses, which usually riot with color.

Now, I haven’t read this yet, so that’s as far as I can go with my analysis; but already, a strong image has been created in my mind.  (Aided by the cover, too, in this case, which is gorgeous.)

So what have we learned about descriptive styles from only these two examples?

AWoE uses a long, lyrical sentence to provide a lot of information about the setting quickly, and extra meaning can be teased out of word choice.  TNC uses a short, emphatic sentence to say less, but make its message clear and powerful.  (I could hardly have picked better contrasting examples if I tried, which I totally didn’t.  I browsed a few of my favorites for good lines to analyze before settling, then grabbed TNC without opening it, so my reading would be honest.)

Both styles have advantages, and in AWoE‘s case, the expansive tone matches the landscape and the style of the rest of the prose–long sentences with little punctuation (less than I’d use, certainly, being a comma devotee) but vivid word choice.  As for TNC, I’ll have to read the rest to find out.

Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to try this exercise with at least two books, one you’ve read and one you haven’t.  And more, certainly, if you like! If you want to go deeper, ask yourself these questions about what those first description-only sentences tell you:

  • [Read] Does this particular bit of description set the tone for the book? Does it tie into the theme? Does it reveal something important about the character(s)?
  • [Unread] What do I expect, based on this first description? What can I predict, if anything?

And then, apply this to your own work.  How strong is your first descriptive sentence?  Do you even have a single one, or are your descriptions dribbled in piece by piece through dialogue or action sentences?  What’s your style, and how does it fit the tone of your piece?  (Or does it?)

Brainstorming Under Pressure

Over the past few days I’ve been taking advantage of one of the features of Quoll Writer to help me develop my ideas for my newest project.  You can choose to do a warm-up exercise and QW will provide you with a quote from a book as a prompt–or you can opt to create your own prompt instead.  At first, when I was getting to know QW during the falling-in-love stage, I thought to myself, “Why would I do that?”

But it’s an excellent brainstorming tool.  On Saturday, on a whim, I brought up the warm-up screen and thought, “I should really work out what this library looks like, so I can have a picture firmly lodged in my brain when I start actually writing.”  (This is for the Haunted Library idea I started in last week’s What If–I liked it so much I’m trying to make it work.  I have character notes and some scene ideas and hopefully soon I can string them together in something that could, possibly, be called an outline.)

I set the conditions for the exercise–500 words or 30 minutes, whichever came first–and let myself run wild describing the library, both in the physical and mystical sense.  Not everyone works well on a timer, but I’ve always loved doing word sprints, so trying to hit the word count goal before time was up got the words flowing.

I didn’t let myself stop typing for more than a few seconds, and I didn’t let myself edit.  (That was really hard, I can’t abide leaving obvious typos behind.)

Framing the brainstorming session as a timed exercise kept me from staring at a blank screen testing ideas out in my head without recording them.  Which is something I do plenty when I’m not staring at a screen–some of my best ideas hit me while I’m doing dishes, of all things.  I’ve been known to dry my hands off and jot something down on a scrap of paper before continuing to wash, then trying to remember to get that scrap of paper somewhere on my desk before it disappears.

Today I think I’ll brainstorm more quirks and powers for my characters to have.  I’ve got the main characters settled–I think–but everyone who works for this strange library is going to have something supernatural about them…

Another “What If” Session: The Haunted Library

Since I like to talk about all points in the writing process, today will be another brainstorming session for a new project.  I have to keep my hands and brain busy while my devoted friends are hammering my novel to bits!

So I’ve decided to build on the Gothic Library post I mentioned last week.  I don’t know that I’m going to end up incorporating any of these prompts/suggestions directly.  But I’ve been reading a lot of fantastical stuff lately (I’m just about to start the third book in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, so I’m up to my ears in vampires and witches) and I’ve become attached to the idea of setting a romance (duh, it’s what I do) in a haunted or otherwise mystical-magical library.

So, let’s try to construct some logical questions and see how the answers go.

  1. Who are my main characters?  I feel like I want the bulk of the story to take place within the library, so it makes sense for at least one, if not both, of my romantic leads to be librarians.  If only one, I imagine the other would start out as a new patron and transition to becoming a regular (and the love interest) as the story progresses.  So I already have two ways to go; right now I’ll focus on having them both work at the library.  I can always come back to the librarian/patron combo later if this doesn’t pan out.
  2. So they’re both librarians.  How do they meet?  This one’s easy.  One has worked there for years and the other one just got hired to replace a retiring colleague.  Or possibly a deceased one, whose ghost still lingers.  Yeah, I like that.
  3. If the library is haunted, how can anyone tolerate working there?  Because everyone who works there has some sort of supernatural ability–the library itself rejects candidates who are mundane.  Or the ghosts do.  I’m not leaning towards making my characters into magic-users to the degree of formal witchcraftmore of psychic quirks and limited powers.
  4. Such as? I got caught up in the idea of telepathic touch.  One of my librarians can read minds, but only with skin-to-skin contact.  Which makes her (or him, I haven’t decided which of them to give it to) take precautions to avoid touching people, like wearing long sleeves no matter what the weather is, and wearing gloves at all times.  Which she could pass off as protecting the books, or lie about, saying she’s covering up scars.  As for other quirks…telekinesis would be handy to reshelve books quickly.  I’m sure I’ll think of more.
  5. What are the obstacles to this romance?  Well, one partner’s reluctance to touch would certainly be a start.  On top of that…the new librarian, living in a new and strange town, feels off-balance about everything in his life as he tries to settle in, and his sudden, somewhat inexplicable feelings towards his strange coworker don’t reassure him that starting over will be easy.
  6. Starting over?  Why’s he starting over?  His power got him into trouble in his old life.  Since I haven’t assigned who has what power quite yet, this one will have to stay vague, but I’m sure it will be a snap to flesh out once I’ve settled everyone’s quirks.
  7. So how does the romance begin? The library decides they’re perfect for each other!  They’re both reshelving books on a quiet night and the shelves themselves move, boxing them together in the romance section.  Hmmm.  That might be too heavy-handed.  Maybe the ghosts steal things from her desk and hide them in his, so that he has to keep bringing them back to her.  Or they lock him in the book sale room near closing time one night, so that he has to call her to let him out.  Oh, those wacky ghosts!

There’s still plenty of work to do–names and character histories, putting together their personalities and families; grounding this odd library in an equally odd town, where things are out of the ordinary but no one ever raises much of a fuss about it; and coming up with some sort of extra-romantic conflict as well, something about the library itself (since it’s so important to the story) to drive the plot forward in addition to the romance.  That, I haven’t worked out yet, but most of the bones of the story are there.

I like this.  I think I’ll keep working on it for a while.

The “What If?” Exercise

Time for me to play a little game with myself, and you get to follow along.

I have a novella I wrote for a contest some time ago kicking around in the back of my mind, because most of the feedback I got on it was “Expand this!”  I sat on it for a while, and now I’m tossing around ideas.

It was a fantasy story with a touch of magic involved, but given the space constraints, I never got into how the magic system worked, and I lampshaded the fact that I never explained it.  Not a crime when you’re trying to tell a good story in about 10,000 words, but if I want to rework it?  I need a real system.

So…what if magic was powered by starlight?  Not an entirely original concept, I know, but run with me, here.

Things I can extrapolate from that:

  • Magical practitioners would likely spend part or all of the night awake.  If magic use was uncommon in this world that I’m playing around with, then we’ve got a ripe opportunity for a secret society.  On the other hand, if magic were commonplace, it’s possible that vast bulk of this society would be nocturnal, with only certain jobs needing to be performed during the day.  (Farming comes to mind as the most notable exception.  Plowing and planting by starlight might be difficult!)
  • Well, what is the sun but a star that’s really close, you say?  Psssh.  Sunlight’s too powerful–or, alternately, because there’s so much of it readily accessible to a practitioner, it could be dangerous to use because it would be easy/tempting to draw more power than the person’s skill could handle.  (Also my world could have a different sun, or more than one!  But let’s set that aside, because it’s another kettle of fish.)
  • So what forms could this magic take?  Let’s use scrying as an example.  That’s often depicted as looking into a mirror or still water to see elsewhere, or elsewhen.  But in my system, it could only be done at night, when the scrying surface reflected the stars.  Which leads to my next point…
  • …Limitations.  Wielders of starlight would be helpless to perform magic during the day (or, alternately, it would be dangerous to), but they’d also be hampered by the weather at night.  Cloudy skies?  Too bad!  So where would they live?  Somewhere with little rain and clear nights…like a desert, to choose the first thing that popped into my head.  Not the only option by any stretch, but it certainly fits the nocturnal theme–if I made it a hot desert, then it’s pretty believable that people might be more active at night, when the temperatures are more comfortable.

“What if?” is one of my favorite questions as a writer.  Asking that gets the ball rolling, and every answer leads to more questions, until you’ve got full-fledged concepts to play with.  Now I’ve got choices to make, and a story to revise.