I teach a workshop at writers’ conferences that includes a focus on experiential description and a writing exercise for the class. I always see a light go on in a number of writers, and they almost always do well on the writing exercise. I thought I would share that with you today. If you’d like to do an aspect of the exercise in Comments, please do.
Briefly, on Experiential Description
Simply put, it is describing a scene, person, or action through the filter of how a character experiences it. It is narrative description that comes from deep within the perceptions of a character. The result can be description that not only gives you what the character sees or does, it can characterize the players in the scene, particularly the point-of-view character.
This is in contrast to what often serves as description, an objective “snapshot” that a camera might see. An example:
Snapshot: Sheila’s dress was blue.
Experiential description: Sheila’s dress was the same sleazy blue Steve’s mother had worn whenever she went out to get drunk.
Here’s another quick example that I used in my last workshop:
Snapshot: Tony, a tall, handsome man, his hair slicked back, enters a room. In the room are two women:
Judy is Tony’s lover.
Ashley was Tony’s lover, but he jilted her.
If we were in close third person with these women, here’s how Judy’s narrative description might read with experiential description:
Tony strode into the room, looking every inch like an old-time movie star, a real hunk if there ever was one.
Ashely’s experience with Tony would yield a different description, something like this:
The greasy son-of-a-bitch pranced into the room, a real dick if there ever was one.
So here’s the workshop exercise:
Following is the exercise that workshoppers do in class. What would you do?
We’re in a courtroom in Illinois. It’s an old-fashioned one with a high oak desk for the judge’s bench, oak railings that define the jury box and separate the audience. Oak tables serve the prosecutor and the defendant in front of the railing. The judge is a massive Black man who peers over his reading half-glasses at the courtroom. Seated at a small table before the judge’s bench is Amanda, the court stenographer, a slender Asian woman in her mid-forties who wears a gray suit with a mini-skirt.
Earl, the defendant, dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit. He’s twenty-four and comes from the deep South. He hates all people of color. While he did what he’s accused of—beating a 12-year-old boy—he feels that it was justified because the boy sassed him. He has no respect for the law or the people who enforce it.
Richard, the prosecuting attorney. He’s fifty-one and fairly trim, though there’s a little paunch. A widower, he is dating Amanda and likes the way she looks. He doesn’t like the way Earl looks, his hair tousled and a 3-day beard. He’s eager to convict Earl and get the maximum sentence for what he views as a terrible crime.
Write a brief paragraph of experiential description of the snapshot of the scene first from within Earl’s point of view, and then from Richard’s.
Remember that each character’s personality flavors or colors the things he sees, and that should be the experience you give your reader.
Include in your experiential description:
- The judge
- The stenographer
- The oak judge’s bench
- For Earl, include how he sees Richard
- For Richard, include how he sees Earl
This approach works as well for description of action as well. We’ll look at that next Monday.
For what it's worth.
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“Flogging the Quill teaches true lessons about different aspects of writing, but in a way that is at once humorous and informative rather than a dry statement of facts. There are plentiful examples all throughout the book, as well as a place to practice what you've learned. In all, I highly recommend this book for people wanting to begin writing, or those who simply wish to learn how to improve their craft.” Arwen
© 2013 Ray Rhamey