Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Night Was Sultry

NOTE: Just a little writing exercise for my BYU-Idaho students.

Don’t feel like you’re being picked on, those of you to whom I’m saying to be more specific in your writing. That’s advice I give to the vast majority of my students, and to myself, as I write.

What do I mean by specific?

Talk of marigolds and dandelions, not flowers.

Talk of dachshunds or boxers, not dogs.

If you love to play the piano, show us what it’s like playing your favorite piece – and name it, even provide a YouTube link to it – so we can understand your joy as you explain.

Tell us a story. Help us remember what you’re writing.

Like this. Venus Flytrap, a DJ from the 70s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, uses specific examples to explain the structure of an atom to a wayward student.

Pretend you’re describing a scene for a radio audience. We don’t see the poor turkeys WKRP newsman Les Nessman sees, but we don’t have to. We have his vivid description to fill us in on enough detail to allow our imaginations to take over. And we don’t forget easily what he saw, either.

Listen to comedians tell stories. Listen to how they share specific details that transport you right into the stories they’re telling. Listen, to example, to Bill Cosby talk about his father, upset about the lack of gasoline in his car.

Here’s a writing exercise I love that encourages specificity. Find a clip of a favorite movie scene on YouTube. Write out all the dialogue. Then, using specific details from the clip, fill in between the dialogue as if you were writing the scene as part of a novel. Here’s an example, A SCENE FROM “Throw Momma from the Train,” one of my favorite films.:

The night was.

Larry Donner typed the words slowly. Slowly enough, he hoped, that when the S was struck, the next word would come to him. A slight breeze from the open window riffled the paper in the typewriter. But no word came. He turned his ear to the breeze, hoping the air would blow a word out of his skull.

The night was.

The night was.


He tore the paper from the typewriter, crumpled it, threw it towards the wastebasket. He went to the window, to the unhelpful breeze.


Was the night cloudy?

No. Then he’d have to describe the moon. He couldn’t describe the night right now. How could he describe the moon?

Back to the typewriter. He folded his arms, rested them on the machine, cradled his head. He drummed his fingers, sniffing at the mixed scent of greasy metal and black ink seeping up from the typewriter’s innards.

The night was.

He lurched, groped for a piece of paper.

The night was.

The night was.

The night was nothing.

Now paper in.

The night was.


Paper out.

Paper in.

The night was.

Paper ripped out, the typewriter sounding angry at giving it up yet again.

The night was.

The night was tea.

Tea might help.

With a mug of English Breakfast, back at the typewriter.

“The night . . . was . . .” he said, dipping the teabag.

The night was.

The night was . . . not tea.

A few drams of spirits in with the tea.

The breeze brought thunder. The night was . . . thunder? Larry scowled, looking out the window.

No. He couldn’t describe the night or the moon. He was not going to describe thunder.

“The night . . . was . . .”

Spilled. A few drops of vodka-infused tea. On the desk. If he left it there, it would evaporate, leaving a stain only visible in the right light. And his room was filled with the right light. He would see it. No. It could not be. The night was nothing if not clean.

He came back with a sponge, erasing the drops. Cleanliness is next to godliness, he thought to himself, as he sponged the bottom of the mug, the typewriter where he might have dribbled a bit of tea. Or spittle from a sigh.

“The night . . . “

Tape. Clear tape. Sometimes he taped bits of paper together, bits of paper with words written on them, paragraphs, ideas, taping them together into a novel.

The night was.

He pulled a bit of tape off the spool, snapped it in his hands.

The night was.

The night was.

There were no words to tape together.

He stuck an end of the tape to his nose, the other end to his forehead.

“Oooh,” he said.

More tape. The night was tape. The night was TAPE!

“The phantom of the novel . . . is coming to haunt the pages of Larry Donner!”

Lon Chaney at the desk. He’d know what the night was. He, or the Phantom, would know. The Phantom played his sinister music. The Phantom stared at the paper in the typewriter, frantically.

The night was.

The night was . . .

“Geez, what the hell am I doing?” He pulled the tape from his face.

Now, watch the clip again, then read this bit after you’ve watched.

Challenge yourself: What details did I miss? What in the clip and in the writing shows Larry Donner’s frustration with his writers’ block, without using the terms “frustration” or “writer’s block”?

I’m not allowed to offer bonus points in this class. But I challenge you to find a clip of your own and try this exercise. See how it helps your writing become more vivid. The folks in Hollywood do it. You can to, if you just try.

Always look at the details.

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