Halloween is a holiday that is matched in my mind only by secularized-Christmas. To celebrate, in a nerdy kind of way, I’ve stolen some writing exercises from Josip Novakovich’s The Fiction Writer’s Workshop and added some Halloween spirit to them. I’ll post my results on October 31, and I invite everyone else to participate. You can either post your exercise in the comments section, or link it to your own blog. The exercises are below, and the italics are my own notes.
The following excerpts are from Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich.
Exercise One (Page 40)
Two Pages: Describe with care the most ordinary items you can think of. Look at them as though they were strange and unusual. Conversely, describe extraordinary things—meteors, rockets, and so on—in familiar language as just another stone or a piece of rolled sheet metal.
Objective: To learn how to control your distance from the objects you describe. If you are too close, you may not see the shape; if you are too far away, you may not see the details. Get into the habit of shifting the focus away from what would be your automatic focus, and you will see items in a fresh way. Practice the art of creating surprising details. Skip something obviously important and use something apparently unimportant.
Check: Do the ordinary objects sound fascinating? Do the extraordinary objects sound ordinary but interesting? If not, go back, and in the first half of the exercise give us the details that amaze, and in the second, details that make us take a good look. Everything you observe with interest should sound interesting.
Halloween Bonus: Try to make your ordinary object sound sinister, menacing, terrifying or uncanny in some way. For your extraordinary object, pick a typical Halloween item (ghost, zombie, gravestone, haunted house, severed limb(s), and make it sound familiar yet interesting.
Exercise Two (Page 42)
From Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights:
“One may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessing slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. […] The narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.”
The narrator completes the image of the house’s exterior with this description:
“A quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door, above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffins, and shameless little boys, I detected the date “1500.””
Then she gives us the interior:
“Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns, and a couple of horse-pistols, and, by way of ornament, three gaudily painted canisters disposed along its ledge. The floor was smooth, with stone: the chairs, high backed, primitive structures, painted green: one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade. In an arch, under the dresser, reposed a huge, liver-colored bitch pointer surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies; and other dogs haunted other recesses.”
One Page: Describe a setting for a horror story. You might pattern it after Emily Bronte’s example from above. Use the same lack of narrative distance as she does—let your narrator show us an ominous atmosphere through choice details, and let her tell us about it also, through slanted verbs and adjectives, just as Bronte does. The balance should be in favor of the details.
Objective: To practice using setting for a strong mood, using all your means, showing and telling.
Check: Did you evoke the mood? Although it’s all right if some of your imagery turns out to be stock horror stuff (howling winds), make sure that at least some of your images are original, new things that you haven’t seen before. (For example, Bronte uses this fresh, memorable image: “range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.”)
See you on October 31st!