Description Writing Challenge

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Before we could talk too much about description and imagery, we had to have descriptions to pull from. Writing Excuses’ Mary Robinette Kowal had a great prompt, that, while sometimes infuriating, is an absolute must for any writer to try.

The campers were taken to a garden on campus, and had to write a description of our setting for thirty minutes non-stop. Pens moving across the page the entire time. The first five to ten minutes are pretty easy, but after that, you need to dig deep, expand your senses, and really get creative.

It’s a fantastic exercise that feels a little like running. It’s not so bad when you start, then halfway through you hit this moment of “I’ve got nothing left,” but when you push through it, you hit your stride and discover an entirely new layer to describing things.

I would recommend any writers take the time to do this for each setting their manuscript or short features, because it will give you vibrant, less obvious descriptions to pull from throughout your story.

In all seriousness, give it a try.

Using Blocking to Change the Meaning of Dialogue

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Yesterday, my creative writing campers practiced writing a short story entirely in dialogue. Good dialogue should tell you more than the words the character is trying to say. It should give us insight into the character, their situation, their setting, and their relationship to the topic and the person they’re speaking with. The voices should be distinct enough not to require tagging (in a dialogue only story).

Tagging is great, but often writers rely on it to convey how something is being said, or to provide redundant information.

“What did you say?” she asked provides absolutely no additional information compared to… “What…” she whispered, murder gleaming in her eyes, “do you mean?” where we get mood and inflection.

Like all things in writing, variety is king. Sometimes, you just need a , she said, to move the conversation along and clarify who is speaking. But when every line of dialogue ends the same way, you have a problem.

Ideally, every bit of exposition added to the dialogue should convey more information or new insight. Consider the difference between.

“I’m just hungry.”

And

“I’m just hungry,” she sobbed. She couldn’t seem to take her eyes off the pulsing blue vein on the softest part of his neck.

In addition to getting insight into what the character is feeling, suddenly the words take on a new meaning.

So today’s exercise was to take their dialogue only story, and use blocking (how the characters move within their space and what they interact with) to change the meaning of every single line.

I had some amazing results. Want to try? Share your exercise in the comments below.

Stories Told in Dialogue

Dialogue

This week’s creative writing camp is all about economy of language. I’m hoping to teach my students to give every word multiple jobs.

The most overt example of this is dialogue.

Good dialogue should tell the reader more than the words the speaker is saying. You should be able to tell who is talking, what they think of who they’re speaking to, how they feel about what they’re saying, and get a feel for their personality while they’re at it.

For an example, we looked at the story “They’re Made Out of Meat,” by Terri Bisson. Without a single description or tag, the Bisson constructed a rudimentary setting, goal, worldview, and character dynamic. We know the two beings speaking are co-workers, we can tell one out ranks the other, but we also know they’re friendly beyond their work roles because of the way they speak to each other.

Of course once they read a story entirely in dialogue, they had to write one of their own. Every student wrote their own story, and the students had to guess the setting, who was speaking, relationships to one another, and attitudes toward their topic.

Want to give it a try? Post your dialogue story in the comments below.