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Creative Writing

Class 13
Taught by
Fazil Munir BA JD Esq
Today’s Lesson
• Descriptive Writing AKA Show Not Tell
• (Excellent to work on description in the
revision phase)
Imagination- from IMAGE
• Create images in the minds of our reader.
– Writing is a special form of art.
– Most art involves the five senses naturally
• Singers, painters, actors, dancers, etc.
• TRANSCEND the words
• Our goal: create strong feelings and emotions in
our readers. Transport them into your world.
• Webster's New World Dictionary definition for
the verb describe: 2. to picture in words
Importance of Details and Specificity
• In The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr.,
writes:
• If those who have studied the art of writing
are in accord on any one point, it is on this:
the surest way to arouse and hold the
attention of the reader is by being specific,
definite and concrete. The greatest writers . . .
are effective largely because they deal in
particulars and report the details that matter.
Show not tell means…
• Vivid writing contains concrete, significant details.
– Concrete- there is an image (something you can see, feel,
etc). Appeals to the 5 senses
• The window was green
• Abstraction- an idea that is NOT experienced by the senses.
– Detail: there is something focused and specific
• (Not a generalization)
• The window was emerald-green
– Significant: the image suggests an abstraction/idea or a
judgment. Shows us the meaning of the details
– The windowsill was shedding flakes of fungus-green paint
• conveys the idea that the paint is old and suggests the judgment
that the color is ugly. The second version can also be seen more
vividly.
• It was a claustrophobic room full of sweaty
hungry, students. The air was heavy with
fingernail-biting dread.

• Significance: Indicate nervousness, worry


• Too general to say Small or that the room is
hot.
Concrete
• Using the 5 senses; Just as we experience the world
through ALL our senses, we must use ALL our senses to
bring the reader into our imaginary world.
• Amy Tan's "Rules of the Game" that utilizes all five senses:
• We lived on Waverly Place, in a warm, clean, two-bedroom
flat that sat above a small Chinese bakery, specializing in
steamed pastries and dim sum. In the early morning, when
the alley was still quiet, I could smell fragrant red beans as
they were cooked down to a pasty sweetness. By daybreak,
our flat was heavy with the odor of fried sesame balls and
sweet curried chicken crescents. From my bed, I would
listen as my father got ready for work, then locked the door
behind him, one-two-three clicks.
Show emotion…
• Susanna was angry because Max didn't
understand her.
– Too abstract, too theoretical; we experience emotions
palpably; make the emotion come alive; make them
feel it
– Find something physical to relate that emotion to.
• Her chest tightened and hollowed; she couldn’t
breathe. Her jaw tightened.
• For example:
• The second Max said the words, Susanna felt her
skin flush hot. Rage closed her throat.
Specificity
• Vague: Sally had beautiful blonde hair.
• “Sally’s hair gleamed and tumbled, like
copper turnings from a spinning lathe.”
• What is a benefit of specificity?
• It makes the story more real, as every good
liar knows.
• Details are more convincing than
generalization.
Significant details
• The details should have some meaning or significance
reveal character, characterizing the setting,
• The lawn is green; there are four trees; there is a white
picket fence about three feet high and a flagstone walk
leading up to the white door.
• We want to have our intellects and emotions also
directed toward the meaning of the details.
• in his novel Deliverance, James Dickey describes an
underwater log covered with chicken feathers as “a
vague choked whiteness … with all the feather-hairs
weaving and wavering in a perfect physical
representation of nausea,”
Significant details

• As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross


carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a
.45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded.
He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the
lives of his men."-
– from "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien

– well-prepared for travel and for an emergency. The detail


about him carrying "the responsibility for the lives of his
men" gives readers the impression that the responsibility
weighs him down and is always with him, and it is just as
tangible as the physical items he carries.
Avoid irrelevant description
• Cut off from character and action; like a
museum glass;
• “A warm breeze blew through the open
window,” that breeze blows strictly for itself
and affects nothing. If I write, “The breeze
through the open window warmed Maggie’s
skin and made her think of summers on
Martha’s Vineyard,”
• Not just floating there for no reason;
Telling
• Debbie was a very stubborn and completely
independent person, and was always doing things her
way despite her parents' efforts to get her to conform.
Her father was an executive in a dress manufacturing
company, and was able to afford his family all the
luxuries and comforts of life. But Debbie was
completely indifferent to her family's wealth.
– Stubborn, independent, completely indifferent, luxuries;
these are all abstractions; they don’t identify her as a
unique character; her individuality
– And also judgmental (telling us what to think); let the
reader judge for himself.
Showing
• Debbie would wear a tank top to a tea party if
she pleased, with fluorescent earrings and ankle-
strap sandals. "Oh, sweetheart," her mother
would stand in the doorway wringing her hands.
"It's not nice. " "Not who?" Debbie would say,
and add a fringed belt. Her father was Artistic
Director of the Boston branch of Cardin, and had
a high respect for what he called "elegant
textures," which ranged from hand-woven tweed
to gold filigree, and which he willingly offered his
daughter. Debbie preferred her laminated wrist
bangles.
Telling
• Debbie was a very stubborn and completely
independent person, and was always doing
things her way despite her parents' efforts to get
her to conform. Her father was an executive in a
dress manufacturing company, and was able to
afford his family all the luxuries and comforts of
life. But Debbie was completely indifferent to her
family's wealth.
– Stubborn, independent, completely indifferent,
luxuries; these are all abstractions; they don’t identify
her as a character
– And also judgemental
Showing Version 2
• One day Debbie brought home a copy of Ulysses. Her
mother called it "filth" and threw it across the porch.
Debbie picked up her bookmark, which she replaced.
"No, it's not," she said. "You're not so old I can't take a
strap to you!" her father reminded her. He was
controlling stockholder of Readywear Conglomerates,
and was proud of treating his family, not only on his
salary, but also on his expense account. The summer
before he had justified their company on a trip to
Belgium, where they toured the American Cemetery
and the torture chambers of Ghent Castle. Entirely
ungrateful, Debbie had spent the rest of the trip curled
up in the hotel with a shabby copy of some poet.
Exercise (maybe not)
• Jim was a very confident and completely
fearless person and was always doing things
her way despite her friends efforts to get him
to be more careful. His girlfriend was the
president of a large organization and wanted
him to work with her. But Jim didn’t care was
completelyindifferentto her family’s affluence.
Journal Exercise
• A man whose wife just left him;
• “The house felt weird. I was desperately lonely and
neither the television nor the animals were really
company. I thought if I did something normal and
routine it would help, but I just felt trapped. When I
tried to be cheerful it got worse”
• Re-write the above scene, using the five senses and
vivid description; should be much, much longer than
this one.
• Convey the emotions of loneliness, weirdness and
being trapped through concrete, significant and
specific detail.
What senses?
• Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist.
• The dog, sighing, roused himself and dropped off the bed to pad
downstairs behind him. The floorboards were cool underfoot, the
kitchen linoleum cooler still; there was a glow from the refrigerator
as Macon poured himself a glass of milk. He went to the living room
and turned on the TV. Generally some black-and-white movie was
running—men in suits and felt hats, women with padded shoulders.
He didn’t try to follow the plot. He took small, steady sips of milk,
feeling the calcium traveling to his bones. Hadn’t he read that
calcium cures insomnia? He absently stroked the cat, who had
somehow crept into his lap. It was much too hot to have a cat in his
lap, especially this one—a loose-strung, gray tweed female who
seemed made of some unusually dense substance. And the dog,
most often, would be lying on top of his feet. “It’s just you and me,
old buddies,” Macon would tell them. The cat made a comma of
sweat across his bare thighs.
• The strangeness
– Light of the refrigerator and TV;
• the loneliness
– the sigh, the sips, and the absent stroking of the cat.
• The sense of entrapment
– the cat on his thighs and the dog on his feet.
• The emotion of the paragraph begins with a sigh
and ends in sweat.
• “men in suits and felt hats, women with padded
shoulders.”
To make the unfamiliar familiar
• A reason for description
• Ever been on a Battlefield?
• Nelson Algren- the Man with the Golden Arm…
• It hit all right. It hit the heart like a runaway
locomotive, it hit like a falling wall. Frankie’s
whole body lifted with that smashing surge, the
very heart seemed to lift up-up-up—then rolled
over and he slipped into a long warm bath
• Research
Breathe life into the familiar
• Now and then you need to make the familiar
fresh, to rouse the jaded reader who sits with
arms smugly folded, thinking, “Been there;
done that.”
• See old things in a new way
• (talked about that in setting)
Specificity
• Barbara Kingsolver, in The Poisonwood Bible:
• All God's creatures have names, whether they slither
across our path or show up for sale at our front stoop:
bushbuck, mongoose, tarantula, cobra, the red-and-
black monkey called ngonndo, geckos scurrying up the
walls. Nile perch and nkyende and electric eel dragged
from the river. Akala, nkento, a-ana: man, woman, and
child. And everything that grows: frangipani, jacaranda,
mangwansi beans, sugarcane, breadfruit, bird of
paradise.
– Ever been there? Makes you feel like you are there! Like
it’s a real place; v. “It was in a forest in Africa.”
Using Detailed Language.
• Choose words that exactly match- it might be
helpful to use a dictionary or a thesaurus.
• ocher, cornflower, or even something like
"pale pink shading to white." Name fabrics,
tastes, musical instruments.
Try to show not tell.
• I was quite poor, and I was not used to seeing
such a profusion of food, so that although I
was very afraid there might be someone in the
room and that I might be caught stealing, I
couldn't resist taking the risk
What senses ca
• It was a narrow room, with a rather high ceiling, and crowded from floor
to ceiling with goodies. There were rows and rows of hams and sausages
of all shapes and colors—white, yellow, red and black; fat and lean and
round and long—rows of canned preserves, cocoa and tea, bright
translucent glass bottles of honey, marmalade and jam. . . . I stood
enchanted, straining my ears and breathing in the delightful atmosphere
and the mixed fragrance of chocolate and smoked fish and earthy truffles.
... I spoke into the silence, saying: "Good day" in quite a loud voice; I can
still remember how my strained, unnatural tones died away in the
stillness. No one answered. And my mouth literally began to water like a
spring. One quick, noiseless step and I was beside one of the laden tables.
I made one rapturous grab into the nearest glass urn, filled as it chanced
with chocolate creams, slipped a fistful into my coat pocket, then reached
the door, and in the next second was safely round the corner. THOMAS
MANN, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man
• Pick a character and imagine he or she has gone
spelunking (cave exploring) with a group of
friends. Unfortunately, your character has
become separated from the group and now he or
she is groping through a pitch-dark passage
(without a flashlight), searching for either a way
out or the missing companions. Write a passage
bringing this scene to life through sensory
description. Since vision is limited, you'll have to
rely on hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Let the
reader physically experience this place through
these senses
Don’t depend too much on adjectives;
use strong nouns and verbs as well
• Too easy to just depend on adjectives.
• Melanie Rae Thon's "Nobody's Daughters":
• Past noon, Adele still fogged. I knew everything from
the sound of her voice, too low, knew she must be on
night shift again: nursing home or bar, bringing
bedpans or beers—it didn't matter which. I saw the
stumps of cigarettes in the ashtray beside her bed. I
saw her red hair matted flat, creases on her cheek, the
way she'd slept. I smelled her, smelled the smoke in
her clothes, the smoke on her breath.
– The nouns and verbs paint a picture
– V. She had wrinkly cheeks…
No need
• He had intense grey eyes.
• At first glance, his eyes looked like anyone else's eyes.
But if you looked close, there was something different
about them. Too much white in the iris, for one thing,
and the pupils seemed to move around in the sockets
without his knowing it or being able to stop it. Creepy.
As I stared at his face, I saw the left pupil turn in
toward his nose while the other made an effort to keep
in one place. But it was only an effort, for that eye was
on the roam without his knowing it or wanting it to be.
Avoid linking verbs (verbs that don’t
express action).
• Sentences using linking verbs are usually passive (put some action
in the sentence!) or too general/judgmental:
– Her hair was beautiful. He was very happy. The room seemed
expensively furnished. They became morose.
• Avoiding linking verbs forces you to use vivid language
– "she was shocked," How????
– "She clenched the arm of the chair so hard that her knuckles
whitened."
• “To be” is the most common linking verbs and the most overused,
– Linking verb: Her hair looked bouncy v.
– Vivid verbs: bounce, tumble, cascade, or swing; we'll see better.
– Linking verbs: He was happy v.
– Vivid Verbs: laugh, leap, cry, or hug a tree; we'll experience his joy
Active Voice Makes our writing more
vivid
• She spilled the milk.
• The milk was spilled by her.
• The passive voice is more indirect than the active
• Unless you are emphasizing that the character
was helpless, powerless etc.
– If a prison guard is kicking the hero, then “I was
slammed into the wall” “I was struck blindingly from
behind and forced to the floor”
– Only use passive for effects like this one. Or if the
actor is not important.
Don’t overuse adverbs; use strong
verbs instead
• Adverb
– He walked lightly
• Strong Verbs
– She glided
– She floated

• Pick a person you know. Fictionalize the name, which will also give
you license to alter other characteristics, if you so desire. Now
describe this person as vividly as you can. Here's the catch: you
cannot use a single adjective or adverb. This will force you to use
strong nouns and verbs and employ some of the other techniques
you've picked up in this chapter. Though challenging, you will
probably end up with a very well-drawn picture of this person
Similes and Metaphors
• Both compare two things that are usually unlike; they
use imagery.
• Simile: comparing two essentially unlike things, the
comparison is explicit, usually through using 'like' or
'as' . . .“
– his teeth rattled like dice in a box;
– my head is light as a balloon
• A metaphor is similar but doesn’t tell you there is a
comparison
– my electric muscles shocked the crowd;
– her hair is seaweed and she is the sea.
• Common ones
What is the benefit of similes and
metaphors?
• Powerful ways of describing
– Because they reach into your reader's subconscious,
You're pulling up visual images, remembered
experiences, bits of their own dreams, and showing
them anew.
• two similes from Mary Gaitskill's "A Romantic
Weekend":
– She felt like an object unraveling in every direction.
– His gaze penetrated her so thoroughly, it was as
though he had thrust his hand into her chest and
begun feeling her ribs one by one.
• In Miss Lonelyhearts, his novel about an
advice columnist, Nathanael West, having
originally written “and on most days I received
more than thirty letters, all of them alike, as
though stamped from the dough of suffering
with a heart-shaped cookie knife,”
You must create your own!
• They have been used so many times that they
don’t really have an effect on listeners anymore.
• Too familiar; they neither surprise us nor
illuminate anything new.
• But in fiction, your task is to use similes and
metaphors that are fresh, surprising
• In Calvin Baker's novel Naming the New World, a
man sees the rising sun as a beautiful almond
with honey edges.
– Now, you would never say on a street corner, Wow,
look at that…
Metaphors
• Shakespeare the world is a stage
– the pretense of the actors, the briefness of the play,
the parts that men and women must inevitably play
from babyhood to old age.
• Peter Hoeg, in Smilla’s Sense of Snow, speaks of
rain that “slap me in the face with a wet towel.”
– Not a gentle rain; They hit hard, they sting, and they
seem to hurt on purpose.
• “He was so angry that I thought he was going to
hit me,”
– “His face was a fist.”
Don’t overdo it
• We don’t want the reader to be suffocated in
a thick forest of description.
• Always ask yourself: Does the description
interrupt the flow of the story?
• Emphasize those details which are significant
to the story, character development, setting,
etc.- the telling details.
– (the details which it is important for the reader to
remember).
• Sometimes the emotions of the character can influence the descriptions
• The bloody barn!
• For example, Mary Gordon's novel Men and Angels is told partly from the point of view of a young, disturbed live-
in baby-sitter named Laura, who becomes infatuated with her employer's best friend. Here's what she thinks of
him:
• She knew Adrian really liked her. He said she was a good listener. He was
• 124 WRITING FICTION
• the handsomest man she had ever seen, with his thick gray curly hair, his open shirts, his shoulders. But really she
wanted to be in the room with him without Anne there. If she went on and listened to Adrian, looked into his eyes
when he told her things, praised whatever he said, someday he would like her more than he liked Anne.
• Is Adrian really handsome? Maybe, maybe not. But he is to this character. Will Adrian someday like her? Perhaps
not, but Laura thinks so. This third-person narrator is giving us Laura's perceptions, not objective fact. In Frederic
Tuten's Tallien: A Romance, a first-person narrator reflects on his father, the charismatic union organizer:
• Nobleman that he was, riding down the fields of wrath, his terrible swift sword cutting a swath of fat pinky-ringed
capitalists, defunct leases and eviction notices still clutched in their pudgy fists, Rex, the radical prince of the
Confederacy, under whose ceasefess guard none would suffer except his periodically abandoned family, unpaid
bills rolling up like waves against the door, his decade-old son staring up at the light bulbs, waiting for them, like
stars blinking off into cold cinders, to go dead for failure of payment . . .
• This man's memories of his father are certainly tinged with rage, and the depiction may or may not be objectively
true.
Avoid mixed metaphors
• You can't have Joanne metaphorically
swimming against a tide in one sentence and
climbing a tall mountain a few lines later, or,
worse, in the same sentence.
• If you want your mother to be a fish, fine, but
don't turn her into an elephant three chapters
later.
Appealing to senses
• It is best to think about consequences before
doing something
– Look before you jump.
• It’s important to reassure your offspring of your
affection.
– Have you hugged your child today?
• Not everything that appears to be valuable is
actually valuable
– Not everything that shines is gold,
• Not as preachy
Active verbs
• Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, in which the
heroine describes the zoology building where her
father worked when she was a child.
• The cellar smells strongly of mouse droppings, a
smell which wafts upward through the whole
building, getting fainter as you go up, mingling
with the smell of green Dustbane used to clean
the floors, and with the other smells, the floor
polish and furniture wax and formaldehyde and
snakes

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