I took public transit to work today. I hate it because coming to work, I walk through a “rough” neighborhood. The thought “rough neighborhood” hung in my head for a long while and I chewed on it.
This led to a neat writing exercise I would love to share (although I’m sure I’m not the first one to think of this).
Now, this is a neighborhood I’m familiar with (I lived in the area for years, and I’ve been working here even longer) and when I say “rough” I don’t necessarily mean violent (though it has it’s share of street crime). In my head, the phrase “rough” neighborhood meant poor neighborhood and perhaps less safe.
The interesting question that came to be as I got off the metro was this:
Why did I consider this a rough neighborhood?
I wasn’t doubting my assessment. I just wanted to know exactly why my mind made it. What specifically gave me this impression?
Here’s why this is interesting to me, here’s the quote:
Generality is the death of a novel.
Now I got it from K.M . Weiland in the Wordplay podcast (although you can see her post on her site here), I do not know who the originator is beyond Ms Weiland.
I had a general impression of “rough” where I was walking. We do this everyday with everything, we look at something and make a judgement, we get an impression. Sometimes it’s vague, sometimes it’s strong and specific, but every time I guarantee we can all stop a moment and find tons of little things we observe that together give us the general impression.
I wanted to specifically try and spot the minutiae that gave me the general impression that the area I was walking through was a “rough” neighborhood.
Here’s a few things I saw, some were blatantly obvious of course, but the point was to note everything:
- grafiti on the corner store walls
- driveways that had to be looked at closely to realize they had once been paved
- old, plain, utilitarian buildings
- balconies used as extra lounge space (hinting at small apartments with limited rooms) tightly packed with old furniture
- balconies used as extra storage, storing everything from old tires, to boxes, folding chairs and makeshift clothes lines
- lines upon lines of dented, dusty garbage cans and it’s not garbage day
- older, battered cars parked on the street
- adults relaxing in small groups on stoops while many are headed to work or school
- Aging wooden white picket faces with peeling paint.
- Rusted iron gates with peeling paint
- Rusting and torn wired fences
- One building with a brand new fence and new door, standing out in huge contrast to its neighbors
These are just some of the things I noted. None of these are especially hard to see or subtle and a few of these observations on their own don’t really mean anything. In fact, this shouldn’t be “proof” that I am right and this area is “rough”.
These are things I registered when I asked myself why I get the impression that I had.
Now, what does this all mean? What’s the point?
Well, the thing is, we as writers are constantly exhorted to show and not tell.
When I say to someone “I walked through a rough neighborhood today”, most people know what I mean. Most people can form an image in their minds based on their experiences and conversation can continue. For everyday conversation, this is enough.
For a story, it really isn’t.
We have to do less and more than write “I was walking through a rough neighborhood”. We have to do less in that we should maybe avoid directly telling the reader that the area is rough. We should do more by writing all the little details that give the reader the impression that this is a rough neighborhood without demanding he see it as a rough neighborhood. If I do my job well as a writer, I won’t have to demand, the reader will get the impression I wish to convey.
Here is my example:
“I emerged from the metro into the cold morning. The sun glared, outlining the garish grafiti on the store across the street. I dodged around a battered car parked on the street, it’s paint peeling and dotted with rust like it’s neighbors. A group of men lounging on a cement stoop stopped their conversation to watch me pass. I avoided their stares and looked around as I quickened my pace. The driveways I was crossing might have been paved years ago, but were now overrun by weeds, trash and gravel. The smell of rotting food followed me as I passed dented and dusty garbage cans left by the sidewalk all week long.
The balconies were empty, it was too cool, but most were filled with well used furniture. Others were filled with the detritus of modern life, taking up space outside rather than in the small living spaces in the warmth. A brand new white wired fence shines brightly among its rusty cohorts”
Anyway, you get the gist. I just whipped that up, I’m sure others can do better, but I did enjoy writing it.
Try it yourself!
Find some impression in your head about something. About anything, anyplace or anyone. Write the impression down as a statement.
Next, write down all the little things you can spot that you feel give you that impression.
Finally, write a paragraph using those little things as a way to convey the impression you put down in that first statement.
I’m going to try this again on a few other things, just to flex that brain matter.
The point being that if you aren’t aware of the specifics of what gives YOU a general impression of something, how can you as a writer convey them to your reader?