Thursday, February 9, 2017

Writing: Descriptions and Details [The Three Room Challenge]

There's an interesting little fact about the human mind that I'd like to call your attention to.

Our brains really like to take partial information and fill in the holes for us.

For example, as I am writing this right now my mother is rambling to me about this Star Wars thing she wants to go see and I am only half paying attention and managing to carry on a complete conversation with her only hearing key words and a few context phrases.

I know that she's talking about some kind of exhibit with costumes and props from the Star Wars movies and that it's not far from here because she said we could make it a day trip. I didn't hear where it was, I didn't hear whose costumes or what props, but I have a very vivid image of what she's describing to me because our brains are capable of filtering a lot of information and straining out the irrelevant from the relevant.

I'm sure you've heard before the idea that when someone is reading your work you want them to forget they're reading, right? Don't call attention to the words you're using, let the story speak for itself. I'm a little bit less sure about this one, but you've probably also heard that there are some words that are basically invisible to readers. Words like "said" and as you can see above, "the".

That is because our brains are wired to filter them out. They are not relevant. They are connective words and the important ones are around them. This applies to descriptions and details, too. Let me give it a try.

Cyril's sitting room was immaculate to the point of eeriness. The claw footed divan and matching arm chair were covered in a layer of plastic to protect them from dust and stains. The polished wood floor hosted an imported rug. There was a glass cabinet against the wall containing elegantly displayed china and crystal. The fireplace sat empty and polished, with a clean iron poker and other tools hanging beside it. All in all, it looked more like a staged example of a home than a place where someone actually lived.
 Without getting into the implications such a room makes about the man that lives there, I'm willing to bet you have an idea in your head of what the layout of the room is like. Where the furniture is facing, where the rug is compared to the divan and the chair, which wall the cabinet is shoved up against, where the fireplace is. But I didn't tell you any of that.

I'm also willing to bet that a few people who read this will picture the cabinet against a different wall than I did. The fireplace, too. And that's okay. You want your reader to get a complete picture of what you're describing to them, but you don't have to spell out the whole picture for that to happen.

Think about the room again for me. What color are the walls? Did something come to mind? I never told you that either. Or what color the furniture was. But I'm willing to bet you have an idea in your head anyway, and it's probably based on a similar room you've either been in yourself or seen on TV.

What I'm suggesting is, as a writing exercise, take this Three Rooms challenge that I am making up on the spot right now as I type this.

One room will be a living room. One room will be a kitchen. One room will be a classroom. The details of these are entirely up to you. Who does the living room belong to? What socioeconomic class? What typically takes place there? Does it belong to a happy home? Is the kitchen in a private residence? A restaurant? The communal kitchen of a dorm room? What do the tools look like? What kind of dishes? Is the classroom one in a public school? A private tutoring room? A big lecture hall?

In one of these rooms, a murder will take place. In another, a character will do something resourceful and save somebody's life. In the last, someone will discover an object, hidden there for years, that puts several details of their life to date into context.

The idea is to write descriptions for three different rooms and choose your details carefully. Your goals: For your reader to get a clear idea in their heads of what the rooms look like and for what happens in them to be realistic and built up to, but not completely obvious.

Consider what details you want to include in your description. Consider what's important. Make sure to include those details, but also details that clue your reader in to what sort of living room, kitchen or classroom you are describing. You are not allowed to flat out say you are in a rich man's home. You are not allowed to flat out say the kitchen is in a restaurant or the classroom is in a boarding school. You must describe these things with context clues.

And trust your reader's brain to fill in the blanks.

What I Learned Today: Black bath bombs smell like sandalwood.

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

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