No ideas, but in things*: A Writing Exercise

William Carlos Williams plums

In college I had to take an intro class on lit crit.  I was taking it to fulfill a requirement, but it ended up being a favorite of mine because the professor was  completely engaging. He had a theater background, which came through in the nature of his lectures. He would kind of lean into students and lock eyes with them (or, uh, me…ahem).

Anyway, one day we were talking about Dr. Faustus. The scene in question was taking place in a library and he asked us “If you were playing Dr. Faustus in this scene, how would you show that you considering these different types of scholarship?” It was clear that what you would do was pick up books from the shelf, perhaps leaf through them, and then cast them aside.

The idea of this, trying to find a way to say something that is focused on things and not ideas, is an essential skill for writing fiction. It allows you to create an experience without pschoanalysis and exposition, so that the experience is more immediate and real. You are staging the scene that your character is in so that your reader can put himself in that situation, and feel the things the protagonist feels. As I’ve said in an earlier post, you don’t want to explicitly let your audience know everything (in fact, some things you don’t even have to hint at). Giving your readers a means to piece together parts of the story on their own will engage them more.

Now I come to the writing exercise. Choose a particular situation, piece of information, or emotion that you have been struggling to capture. Now write a scene in which you have that information in mind but you don’t explicitly state it. Instead, just build the scene around an object—a ticket stub from a performance, a sweater, a piece of jewelry, a coffee cup…. Is your main character a twelve year old who lives by himself? Rather than letting your audience know all the hows and wherefores of the missing parents, just show him with this particular (perhaps significant) object. Have him study it and describe it. Wait on the reflection just now—that will tend toward explication. Just focus on the thing.

Let me know about your experience with this exercise in the comments.

*This is not a thing, unfortunately, but an idea.

One Comment

  1. Posted March 2, 2012 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    Great exercise. Can’t wait to try it!

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