Quiet Places, But Not Empty Spaces

Let’s work on those blank  canvases, vague verbiage, and using all of our senses today.

1) Picture in your mind (or go to if you can) some place quiet and outdoorsy, such as a city park. As quickly as possible, jot down what you:

  • Hear (example: birds singing, dogs barking)
  • See (sky, trees, children playing)
  • Smell (flowers, wet grass)
  • Feel (the wind, relaxed, happy)
  • Taste (if you eat anything on your real or imagined trip.)

2) Take each item you jotted down (add mine also if you wish) and, leaving plenty of space, line them up in a single column, one item per line, like this, using my examples:

  • Birds singing
  • Dogs barking
  • Sky
  • Trees
  • Children playing
  • Flowers
  • Wet Grass
  • The wind
  • Relaxed
  • Happy

3) Now you’re going to describe those items with concrete details, listing multiple possibilities if it might prove useful to you to have them all laid out on a cheat sheet. For my examples, you might ask yourself (and answer):

  • What birds are singing? Look up and list all possible words for bird song.
  • How many dogs are barking? What size are they? Is it  little, yappy barks or deep, booming barks? Both? Happy or mad barks?
  • Is the sky cloudy, clear or somewhere in between? What is the position of the sun? Is it dawn, high noon, or near dusk?
  • What species of trees? How many? Check a thesaurus and list off all the possibilities if you’ll be using trees a lot.
  • What games are the children playing? Ages? Racial make up?
  • List some flowers that might be in bloom in your exact setting chosen.
  • How wet is the grass? Is it muddy or slippery? Has it been cut recently?
  • How hard is the wind blowing? How warm or cold is it? List out all synonyms for wind and all related words (crisp, sharp, gentle, soft)

4) If any emotions made it on your list, describe the general posture assumed when someone is feeling that way, common facial expressions, actions, hand movements, and noises associated with that emotion.

5) Choose a character you already know extremely well and place them in the setting you’ve been brainstorming in this exercise. Give them an objective, or goal for being there (it can be as simple as to pray and meditate or play with their kids or pets for this exercise.) Now, keeping in mind your character’s particular quirks and ways of seeing and putting things, and where their focus would be due to their objective, describe the setting through their eyes, as they seek to fulfill their objective. Since we’re focused on setting, try for something that will lend to them paying attention to their surroundings.

Feel free to share your thoughts on this exercise in the comments. You are welcome to share or use this exercise, with attribution and a link back to me.

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To Thy Own Character Be True

Good POV requires good characterization. It’s hard to stay in point of view if you don’t know how your character thinks and perceives the world. So in this exercise we’re going to examine our character’s personality development.

Some of us are intutives and develop characters’ personalities by the seat of our pants and may have difficulty describing how we “discover” who our characters are. The rest will probably need systematic methods to develop their characters. Either way, this exercise will help you see if you have created a human being or a cardboard cut out.

So first, determine your own personality type by taking one or more of the following free Myers-Brigs inventories:

Similarminds.com

Humanmetrics.com

Personalitypathways.com (simplest)

Or you may want to simply read the sixteen types and decide which one closest fits you. Please pay special attention to where you deviate from the cookie cutter. It is these deviations that make you an individual.

Next, do the same thing for the major characters in your work in progress.  Look for places where your character deviates from the mold. Having a personality type that generally fits indicates your character actually has a distinct personality, but the deviations,  and competing values especially,  are what make your character human.  The main character’s need to resolve the internal conflict of such self-contradiction will oftentimes prove integral to your plot, too.  So the important thing is that your character has an internally-consistent personality that changes only as a result of their personal growth and life experiences.

Please do take the step of taking inventories for more than one character in your book. I hope you find each or most of them have different results from each other. If you discover all or most of them have the same personality as you, you may want to branch out more.

If you’d like to practice writing from the perspective of  a different personality, pick the personality type least like you, borrow a scene from an existing WIP, and rewrite it so the POV character’s actions, thoughts,  dialogue, and her ways of describing everything, including people, more closely align with the profile. This will probably be a tough assignment. The more different a personality is from ours, the harder it is to write in their perspective. The exception to this is if you happen to be a personality type that easily sees through others’ eyes, in which case you probably already have a healthy cast of individuals rather than clones of you.

If you prefer, there are other personality type systems you can choose from to do this assignment with, and you can use the system of your preference if you have one. I just prefer the Myers-Briggs/Kiersey systems because they offer  sixteen cookie cutters to choose from rather than a mere four.

Incidentally, you may also want to try this with your supporting cast. While they keep their thoughts to themselves, their behaviors and the things they say should still be indicative of a distinct, individual personality.

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Rethinking the Pacing of Interior Monologue

Part One:

Using your phone, Skype, or another sound recording device, record a normal conversation between yourself and a friend. Play the recording back. Without interrupting any of the speakers, “voice over” a mental running commentary, explaining or qualifying everything you say. Note how much you can get in before the other person starts talking again.

Part Two:

For the next twenty four hours, every time you have a conversation, stop in the middle to mentally explain your true motivations and otherwise qualify and explain yourself. Observe how long your companion sits there quietly, allowing you to narrate your life, before they interrupt. Note any feeling of awkwardness or unnaturalness. This is because you don’t have any motive for thinking  this other than being told to. What circumstances might motivate you to think such things ordinarily?

Also stop talking in the middle of conversations to mentally rehearse the highlights of your week, to mentally revisit something that happened to you in the past, to mentally describe your environment, the appearance of those in it, and to think about any new companion’s life history and/or her strengths, flaws, likes, and dislikes.

If you do this in conversations with multiple companions who ignore you and carry the conversation on without you, or during a lecture,  note how much you miss. Also note how long it takes you to figure out what you missed or what is being discussed now.

Try this in several different types of “scenes” such as laid back, business-oriented, or emotionally charged.

Should your companions find your behavior odd, simply explain this exercise to them and why you are doing it. Please take a break from the exercise at your place of employment if it could lead to unacceptable repercussions, such as loss of business or employment.

This exercise will improve your overall POV skills by helping you improve the flow and pacing of your scenes, as relates to dialogue, and help you identify where you are unnaturally stopping the scene.

Specific questions to ask when you discover you’ve stopped the scene and the reader will be lost without the information conveyed:

1) What would motivate your character to stop to think about this?

2) How much detail could they go into without the long silence provoking a response from the other character(s) present?

3) Are you 100% sure your reader must know this right this minute?

4) What scene could you develop that would illustrate this naturally, without interrupting this scene?

5) What motive could you give the character to mention this in dialogue?

6) Can you chop this into smaller pieces and weave it into the scene in more manageable chunks?

How is this related to POV? It tangents off POV in that the heart of  modern POV techniques is offering your reader real life, minus the boring parts.

Suggested ways to do this in a group setting:

1) Bring in a pre-recorded conversation for part one. Ask for one or more volunteers to add in the voice over.

2) Do only part two or start with it. Ask for a volunteer to interview. Start up a getting-to-know-you-better conversation with them. Stop periodically to interior monologue. Once they’ve had enough, explain what you were doing and switch places with your volunteer.

3) Assign part two as homework. At the next meeting, discuss the results of the experiment. If you keep a contact list, you can also assign it ahead of time.

If you do use this in a writers’ group or classroom, please inform the participants you found this exercise on POVbootcamp.com.

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Still Life of an Adrenaline Rush

Okay, adrenaline junkies, here’s one for you. Head to your favorite spot for an adrenaline rush, such as a roller coaster, laser tag, or whatever you can afford on your budget, and take a notepad and pen with you. While doing your activity of choice, pay special attention to the physical sensation of the experience. If it’s not too distracting, you can start formulating the words to capture the sensation of flying, or if it’s more the laser tag variety,  the heart-pounding thrill of a simulated life-or-death struggle.

Immediately after the activity ends, find a relatively quiet place, as nearby as possible, and record your experience. Use third person,  past tense–but don’t tell us what you just did. Relive it on paper. Describe the feeling, the sensation, the pounding of your heart, any thoughts you can still recall.

Don’t worry about good form, so you can write as quickly as possible. The fresher you are off the experience, the better you’ll recall it, and the better you recall it, the easier time you’ll have finding the words to recreate the experience for your readers.

When you get home, retype this assignment into a desktop document, and save it as a template for when you put a character into a similar situation. After all, this is something you love to do, right? You’re very likely to find an excuse at some point to write about it. Just remember–you can only use this exact sequence of events once! But having it written down will help you recall what it feels like with more accuracy, and you can always tweak it to fit the needs of your plot in future projects.

Write action, but chicken in real life?  Swallow your fear, and find the nearest approximate to the adrenaline rush you subject your characters to. If it involves guns, laser tag (Magic Mountain and her competitors have this for fairly cheap) and paint ball are good choices.

If you have an excellent memory, and can recall a previous adrenaline rush well enough to recreate it for us, you can attempt this based on that experience as well, but the fresher you can afford to get, the better. Writers groups wanting to try this together, but can’t afford such a group outing, can likewise ask the group to recall a recent adrenaline rush and do their best to describe what it felt like. Please tell them you found it on povbootcamp.com if you do use this in your group.

This exercise is designed to help  you find the words that will give your readers your POV character’s adrenaline rush, rather than merely reporting what happened. In addition to POV, it will also aid with showing versus telling, and improve your skills at writing action sequences.

I’d also love to know if you found this exercise helpful! Short scenes (500 words max) may also be shared in the comments. Remember, anything posted in a public place is considered to be published, so protect your rights and don’t post it if you planned to publish it as a stand-alone piece.

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Portrait of a Writer in a Waiting Room

The next time you’re expecting to be left sitting in a waiting room for a while, or standing in line a long time, take a notepad and pen or pencil with you. In the first five minutes, take notes on everything you take in through your senses–what you see, hear, smell, taste, feel. Include also what you’re thinking as you do this and any physical discomfort.

If you have time left still, go ahead and turn what you just wrote into a scene. Yes, I mean a scene about you writing all that stuff down, with everything going on in the background. If you have time to keep going and also write what’s going on as you’re writing the actual story, remember to include the exact quote from the moment you thought about how silly you feel.

If someone is waiting with you, show them what you wrote. Ask them what they remember happening during that time. Especially since they weren’t actively paying attention as you were, it will probably be rather different. The more time that passes, by the way, the greater the discrepancy will be.

Do make your best effort to have someone with you who will be cooperative. If possible, take another writer along, and do this together. This works best if you have someone you can trade papers with and see how differently another person viewed the same circumstances as you. But if you can’t arrange to meet up with someone from your local writer’s group to do this, you can get a similar effect simply by letting a non-writer friend or loved one read your exercise and asking them what they experienced, saw, felt, etc.

Note, if you’re having trouble with description, this will also help with that.

Writers’ groups that meet offline can do this at their regular meeting if desired, but it works best if something is happening besides people taking notes in an otherwise empty, soundless room, so consider taking a field trip to a place with lots of distractions if you meet in a usually-ideal location. Please also tell the group where you got this exercise from.

You may retype your scene in the comments below if you’d like to share it.

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