I attended a workshop given by Donald Maass some time back, where he talked about the different sensory factors you need in a scene to give it depth and ensure it comes to life. For example, don’t just describe the light coming into a room, he said. Describe the quality of the light.
A few weeks ago I was walking along the river-path with my grandson. He’d fallen asleep in his stroller, so I sat down on a bench, pulled out my notebook and decided to apply Donald Maass’ advice to the scene around me. If I was describing this in a book, what particular elements could I find to make my scene unique.
Here’s a selection
A businessman, dressed in smart suit, and man-bun, chatting on his phone.
A very pregnant woman jogging – very slowly.
The soft slap of running shoes of the serious joggers on the river-path versus the staccato clack of ‘smart’ shoes belonging to business men and women out for a noon stroll.
The gentle ‘ping’ of a bike’s bell as it overtook walkers.
Hearing snatches of music from people’s ipods as they jogged by.
A man in an adapted wheelchair zipping along the path.
The warm colours of the autumnal day.
Snatches of conversations: A girl breaking up with her boyfriend. “Move your shit out my place before I get back.” A young man meeting a friend. “These are the last two days here. I’m done with this city!” An older man saying to his friend, “Problem is, you get to my age and I think I can still play.”
A man on the phone, trying to solve a problem for his father.
A young girl munching on a burger as she walked and chatted on her phone.
The heavy breathing of runners as they talked to each other in half-sentences.
Three retired couples walking together, the women in front talking about families, the men talking about baseball.
Serious cyclists, head down, weaving their way through the walkers.
Fun cyclists, in ‘sit-up-and-beg’ bikes, meandering along the path.
A guy pressing down one nostril and snorting into the grass. Yuck!
An elderly couple strolling along hand in hand.
A plane soaring into the air in the distance.
Kids from a daycare, walking along in crocodile fashion, singing, ‘If you’re happy and you know it…”
Dogs prancing along, tails wagging.
Young women jogging, their ponytails swinging from side to side.
A cacophony of different languages.
The siren from a firetruck in the distance, honking as it went through an intersection.
A running group… they’d been walking for a bit, resting hands on waists. “Okay guys, lets try this again and pick up the pace.”
Leaves falling onto the pathway.
A squirrel with a black body and red tail darting between the trees.
A crow cawing, high in a branch.
The breeze rustling the leaves in the trees.
The above took me about ten minutes. Try this in a cafe, in a bookstore, in the bank, at the movies, in church, on the bus, on a plane… anywhere. Really notice what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what you’re smelling. Take notes, and when you want to add a unique detail to a scene set in one of those places, you’ll have it at your fingertips.