I guess a good place to start would be something every good writer needs in their repertoire: descriptions. Description—be it of a character, a place, a feeling—allows a reader insight into what the writer sees as they put down on paper what they can only see in their minds. I know as a writer, I want to get as much detail down as I can, so hopefully the person reading will see what or who I see the way I do, or as close as I can get without being telepathic.
I remember, in grade school, high school, and college, being assigned many description exercises. Some where only a few words or paragraphs. Others were pages and pages. Creative Writing class is especially consistent in this assignment.
Over the years, I’ve put myself through the paces of description on my own time as well. I put forth a challenge to myself, coupling description with observation to the highest level I can. Without good observation, you can’t really describe something with accuracy. Some instructors have you look at an object and describe it, but you’re not allowed to use certain words, or you’re supposed to describe it in unusual ways (poetry class is guilty of this above most). I took it a step further.
Over the years, I’ve written a lot of stuff. Many of my stories were fanfiction, which is a good way to test your knowledge of someone else’s writing or a movie and the characters/plots within. An equal number were my own works, in which I tested my knowledge of friends, their personalities, quirks, and likes and dislikes.
I still tell the story (which has come up often recently) of a test I did to see just how well I knew my best friend, Ian Douglas. We’ve been friends for almost twenty years now (scary!), but this was back at about year fifteen. I created a character based on what I knew—or thought I remembered—about him, and wrote a story involving that character. Ian Colby was born. The name was, naturally, Ian’s own so it would be blatantly obvious who he was based on, and the last name Colby is that of a popular yellow cheese. The last name came about because at the time we would hang out on weekends in college, eat lots of cheese from his parents’ overstocked fridge, and build Lego sets with his little brother while watching old fantasy movies. Ian and I both love cheese, so it was far too fitting to pass up. I gave Ian Colby a gun that had his college graduation location and date in its name. I made him a lefty—something I had always just known about Ian and hadn’t truly paid attention to until I double-checked by observing him the next time we hung out. His little brother, too, became a character, and over the span of a few years the two have had many adventures.
It’s giggle-worthy delightful to test myself on observational accuracy in description. I recently did another for my National Novel Writing Month entry, Brink. Three of the five main characters are based on current friends. I hadn’t done that in years.
Writing descriptions is a good way to keep your observational skills sharp, whether you’re trying to describe a real object you’re writing about, or one you can only see in your head.
For example, suppose I tell you I can see a strange creature that has tentacles. I notice that it changes color from blue to orange to pink to green. What would you imagine? Now, what if I put further description in, so you can see the same critter I do? This critter looks like a long-tentacled jellyfish, only it floats through the air instead of water. It’s mostly transparent, but opaque enough for you it has color, which is most obvious around its edges. It starts out a vivid blue that seems to glow in the dark, and which fades into an equally bright orange, then fuchsia, then lime, then back to the blue again like the brightness and pattern of fiber optics. This creature doesn’t exist except in my head—but can you see the same thing I do in yours?
Descriptions are fun.