Exercise the Third:
We’re continuing on a sort of trajectory for this prompt.
While the Pyramid of Abstraction focused on placement of description, last time’s post lent itself toward coming up with the prose itself. By taking thirty minutes to brainstorm and write down EVERY possible physical bit of description, we were able to pick out from the (really) exhaustive list, the details most relevant to character and conflict.
This week’s exercise falls into a similar pit of endless descriptive despair. This time, we’ll answer 21 prompts.
The Basic Premise:
This one isn’t complicated. It’s exactly what it says. Suzannah Windsor Freeman over at Write It Sideways has offered up 21 different questions to get us aspiring masters of our craft thinking about our scene and setting. We’ll use the 21 different questions to get the ideas flowing and help us figure out what aspects of the world surrounding our characters are relevant to the conflict and plot happening inside of it.
This exercise explores another means of brainstorming descriptive ideas.
When I come up with a concept or a scene, I tend to think in dialogue and movement and when I brainstorm bigger picture things, it’s in the form of conflict.
My initial notes read something like this:
“Bek is a paranoid murderer traveling around the wilderness with spears she made from the horns of monsters that hunt her.”
“That must be hard for her.”
“It is, other Meg. She’s always one misstep away from death!”
“Let’s turn that into a theme by giving her a glimpse of safety that her own paranoia and murderous tendencies make impossible for her to comprehend.”
“That sounds delightful, other Meg.”
“I’m glad you think so, original Meg.”
Where did Bek come from? Eh. What does the world around her look like? Um… Not important. Let’s focus on the pain and suffering and dragging her sorry ass through a traumatic set of choices that will eventually draw a larger character arc.
What would be the worst type of people (or sentient talking monsters) that Bek could run into? Who can shake her world view the most? What painful realizations can she make about her situation and herself?
All those drama llamas fill up the space in my brain; I get distracted.
In my natural process of idea generation, world building is always secondary. It’s something that isn’t as organic for me and usually comes last as I put a concept together. I only delve into it as needed to build character and conflict.
So exercises that give me questions to answer help me tremendously. Are the trees purple? I don’t know. I never thought about it. Does the dwarven King have five or seven magic stones inlaid in his glimmering crown? Woah. Let’s not go overboard.
Speaking of overboard…
Suzannah Windsor Freeman includes a caveat to her list of prompts:
“Obviously, you don’t want to incorporate all 21 of these ideas into each and every scene, or your reader would become exhausted, quickly.”
Obviously. That would be horrible. That would be madness.
Yeah. We’re doing it.
If we’re going to grow, we’ve got to do challenging things. Since I don’t have any rings to toss into Mordor, or any capers to solve, or any (komodo) dragons to slay, we’ll settle for writing prompts. Without an arduous twist, the character of Meg isn’t facing enough strife.
While I could just go through, answer the questions, and pick a few to prose-ize, we’re going for maximum growth and that means growing pains. Tears, frustration, anger. ‘Cause artists are like that right? We love it. We know it.
We’re ignoring that caveat. Not ignoring, brazenly rolling right over it in a steamroller made of defiance. We’re going to answer all the questions and then we’re going to make them all fit into one descriptive scene. Partly because it’ll be hard, but mostly because the directions clearly state to not use them all and screw The Man, man!
Yup. When we’re done, if you were a fifth grader in a critical reading class, you should be able take your favorite highlighter and cite the answer to every one of these questions within our prose passage.
The goal: balance. I want to answer all the questions without it being obvious that I’m just answering questions. And, we’re going to do it in the order they appear. (Which makes it much easier to find the answers for that fifth grader with the highlighter.)
Hold on to your butts.
Step 1: Answer the Questions
1 – Where does the scene take place?
Outside Theo’s tent. In the wilderness.
2 – What do the immediate surroundings look like?
Wild? Mossy, rocky plains. The pack of Death Unicorns is eating dinner nearby.
3 – What time of day is it?
Just before sunrise.
4 – Can you intensify the scene with meaningful similes, metaphors or personification?
Uh. Yes, like a jeweler inserts gems into a dwarven crown.
5 – How does the point-of-view character feel emotionally?
Proud she offed one of the beasts, but still wary, tense.
6 – What do they feel physically?
7 – What do the characters hear?
Campfires crackling, eating noises from the Death Unicorns. (CHOMP CHOMP!)
8 – What do those sounds remind them of?
That she’s not safe/surrounded by man-eating monsters.
9 – What do their voices sound like?
Low. Kid is asleep nearby.
10 – What do the character’s facial expressions look like?
Theo looks concerned, reassuring. Bek can’t see her own face. Duh.
11 – What are they physically doing at this moment?
12 – What are the characters saying, or not saying?
Theo assures her of her safety. Bek won’t reveal she doesn’t plan to stay.
13 – What are they remembering?
How she’s taken down a beast in the past/how she plans on taking these out.
14 – What can they smell?
The cooking carcass of the dead Death Unicorn. Theo’s dinner, fire, smoke.
15 – What do those smells remind them of?
Cooking carcass reminds her of the Horn she burned.
16 – Can your characters taste anything?
The rice and beans Theo gives her. It’s lame, but it’s food.
17 – What is the conflict in this scene?
Tension with Theo and Bek’s discomfort at being so close to the pack.
18 – How does the scene’s conflict reflect the overall conflict of the story?
Theo is trying to make her feel welcome/safe. Bek doesn’t trust him.
19 – What do your characters want at this moment?
Theo: Bek to like him. Bek: For Kid to feel well enough for them to run.
20 – Are there any opportunities to foreshadow future events in this scene?
“You’ll get used to things.” “I’m sure.”
21 – How do your overall themes connect to this scene?
Bek’s paranoia is starting to manifest as an obstacle to her safety.
Step 2: Draft each line
I’ve got a rough outline of a scene I’m working with. I find it helpful to have a structure to hang the description on, but I could see this exercise working well for exploratory writing as well. Do what works.
I’m going to go through each one and answer the question in prose. I’ll smooth it out in the next step. Examples, away!
1) Bek followed him outside the tent and took a seat on the ground next to the small cook fire he’d built.
2) She sat with one eye on the tent, on Kid’s sleeping form, and the other on the larger fire (blah distance) away, on the six remaining Horns that gathered around it.
7) She could hear them as they chewed, hacking off pieces of their kinsman’s cooked carcass with teeth as long and sharp as knives. Their lips smacked, teeth gnashing together.
8) She’d sleep tonight with nothing between her and six sets of flesh-rending teeth but the thin fabric of Theo’s tent.
15) The one she’d burned had stunk like that. The hairs melting and shriveling back from the flames licking up the beast’s flank.
16) She chewed the bean mush crushing the grains of rice in her molars. She forced the bland mixture down against the stench of cooking Horn.
20) “You’ll get used to it,” Theo said. He smiled and ducked into the tent.
Arzi’s lips pulled back off her razor teeth into a grin. (metaphor? horrific mirror of Theo’s smile/ attempt at comforting Bek?)
“We’ll see,” Bek said.
21) Okay, some of these end up tying in with other parts. You’re going to have to be a little more observant, highlighter-wielding fifth grader. Earn those dinosaur stickers!
Step 3: Smooth it out and connect anything too jarring
I’ve included the whole exercise below. It ended up being just over 1,000 words to finish up the scene. I’ve formatted it as a blockquote so it’s easily skimmed over if you’ve got some dwarven crowns to bedazzle.
For those of you citing answers to prompts, the answer key (the following excerpt with the numbers added) can be found here!
“Food’s ready,” Theo said. He sat on his folding chair hunched forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He held a wooden bowl in one hand and shoveled a glob of mushy cooked beans into his mouth with a spoon.Bek followed him outside the tent and took a seat on the ground next to the small cook fire he’d built. She sat with one eye on the tent, on Kid’s sleeping form, and the other on the larger fire (distance) away, on the six remaining Horns that gathered around it.
The pack had stripped the hide off their kinsman’s carcass and tied the lanky dead Horn up on a spit over the fire. The rising red of the morning blended into the flames reaching up to char the animal’s remains.
Bek watched as the pack performed the funeral rites of her latest kill. One down. One of those monsters sent to its end by her hand, but six of them remained. She sat up straighter. She’d killed it, but not without effort. The exertion from the past days’ vigilance throbbed through her limbs.
“Eat,” Theo said. He shoveled another glob of food in his mouth. He’d noticed her distraction. “They’ve got their meat. They won’t look Kid’s way.”
Bek exhaled relaxing the tightness in her shoulders.
She turned to the source of his messy food. The smaller fire in front of her hosted the humans’ dinner, some mixture of beans and rice Theo had overcooked.
“Better one of them than one of us,” Bek said. She scooped some of Theo’s simmering dinner mash into a wooden bowl he’d set out.
He turned his head to look over his shoulder, eyes wide, brows up.
Bek followed his gaze over toward the pack, but they were busy. Arzi, their leader, the big mean one, had torn her jaws into the first bites of her dead underling. The others followed suit. Bek could hear them as they chewed, hacking off pieces of their kinsman’s cooked carcass with teeth as long and sharp as knives. Their lips smacked, teeth gnashing together.
She’d sleep tonight with nothing between her and six sets of flesh-rending teeth but the thin fabric of Theo’s tent.
Theo looked back at Bek and leaned forward a bit. “You can’t talk like that,” he said, his voice low.
She watched as his face pinched in genuine worry, as though the peril lay in her worldview and not between the teeth of the half ton monsters devouring one of their fallen brethren.
“Your master finds me amusing.” Bek stirred the unappealing mush in her bowl. Her stomach growled against her will.
“For which I’m thankful,” Theo said. “But I had to convince her to let me keep you and I’ll be sad if that work goes to waste because you cross a line.”
“Sure.” Bek shoved a spoonful of food into her mouth. She could behave. She could tread lightly if it kept Arzi pleased. But she’d only do it long enough to steal back her spears, only long enough to buy the chance to drive one of them through that beast’s gloating maw. Just like she’d done to the one on the spit and the three others whose horns topped her spear shafts.
The smell of burning hair wafted over from the larger fire. The pack had cut their dinner’s pelt around his long neck, leaving fur on the skull. The first Horn she’d burned had stunk like that. The hairs melting and shriveling back from the flames licking up the beast’s flank.
She chewed the bean mush crushing the grains of rice in her molars. She forced the bland mixture down against the stench of cooking Horn.
“You hate how meat smells, too?” Theo eyed her as he chewed.
“It’s the hair not the meat.”
Theo put his bowl down and pulled a small bundle from his pocket as though she’d reminded him of some errant thought. He unwrapped a vial from a small rag, popped the cork, and dabbed some of the container’s contents onto the cloth. He rubbed it against the fleshy part at the base of his left thumb, leaving black streaks of grease pen on the cloth.
The tallies. The marks she’d noticed on his hand when he’d tended to Kid.
“You clear it when you feed them?” Bek asked.
Theo looked up at her and smiled. “I get fourteen marks. At fourteen days, a Horn starts to starve.”
“Then what?” She knew. She wanted him to admit it.
He shrugged. “They eat me. Make for home.”
“Sounds safe to me.”
His grin widened. “It hasn’t happened yet.”
Bek chewed to keep from scoffing.
“You’re welcome here. You’re safe,” he said. He shrugged. “Or not, but you’d be on that spit now if you weren’t here with me. Four hours for fourteen days is a good trade.”
She couldn’t argue with that. She looked toward the tent at the bundle of blankets on Theo’s cot.
Kid slept. Her covers rose and fell with her even breaths.
“And Kid’ll feel better real soon, trust me.” He nodded at the pack he kept full of medical supplies. “I know what I’m doing.”
Bek needed him to be right. She needed his words to be full of some substance other than his ego. Kid needed to be on her feet before they could run.
She wished she could trust his promised safety too, but Theo would have to draw another grease pen tally on his hand tomorrow evening.
Theo stood and stretched his arms up into the air. He let them swing back down to his sides. “I’m turning in,” he said. He moved toward the end of the tent away from Kid. “You’ll want to try and get some sleep.”
He looked up at the reds emerging on the horizon. “It’s rough, at first, sleeping during the day.”
Bek nodded, only partially listening. She’d turned her attention away over to the larger campfire and the coal-dark female Horn lying with her two front feet crossed in front of her on the mossy earth.
Arzi’s yellow eyes had been trained in the direction of the Mediator’s tent for a few minutes now, the Horn having eaten her fill and lost interest in the meat of her kind.
“You’ll get used to it,” Theo said. He smiled and ducked into the tent.
Arzi’s lips pulled back off her razor teeth into a grin.
“We’ll see,” Bek said.
Fun! (SAY WHAT?) Near the end, things got a little out of order, but, eh, when you’re getting into amorphous things like theme, conflict, and character desires, it’s hard to keep them neatly separated into specific sentences.
Starting by writing down my short answers was a fun exercise all on its own. It helped me see what parts of the scene could be used to tuck in bits of description. (Sneaky!)
I ended up revising the original planned structure of the scene to accommodate the prompt numbers, but I ended up liking the change.
This scene happened to have senses involved, particularly taste and smell, that won’t be as prevalent in most other scenes (partially why I picked it for the exercise), but the good thing about having 21 Prompts is that there are options to choose from.
What about my rebellious disregard for the rules? Were you exhausted by the level of detail or did the prompt inspire a minimalist to include just enough?
GLOWING bonus note from my mother: “I wasn’t totally bored.”
Woo! I rock.
Did we apply our tenets?
- Do prompts, even if they are scary or seem lame – Yup! Prompts accomplished. All 21.
- Get our descriptive prose to convey three things: Character, Conflict, and Setting – This one was a little different. I had to use the character and conflict I already had to interweave the setting. It’s a rough draft, but there are spots that do all three.
- Practice mindful practice – Check. Write up done!
Next time we’ll do an exercise about moving through different aspects of a setting with various types of description. We’ll start out in a larger picture and move closer in looking at the places, people and things that affect how we go about setting a setting. It’ll be like on of those cool zooming shots where we start in outer space. Maybe.