Seeing as how it’s been a while since I’ve posted a writing exercise for those of you caught in a love-hate relationship with your muse, I thought I’d re-post a slightly revised version of one of my favorite writing assignments from my previous blog.
When I have a scene that just isn’t working for me, I refer back to an assignment I had to do in film class as an undergrad. In order to illustrate how a successful scene is more than just the action on screen, we had to watch several clips from such iconic films as Psycho, Jaws, and Friday the 13th, and then watch them again without the sound. And let me tell you, the infamous shower scene in Psycho isn’t nearly as chilling without the music and sound effects.
The same thing can be said about a written scene. The action itself might be flawlessly written, but if there’s nothing else to give it texture, it’s going to fall flat. Obviously, I can’t add a musical score to manipulate my readers’ responses, but I can describe the sound of the floorboards creaking behind the protagonist, the sudden chill that causes the hair on the back of her neck to rise, the heaviness in the air when she realizes she’s not alone, the bitter taste in her mouth as she tries to swallow her panic, the shadowy movement she sees out of the corner of her eye, the thundering of her pulse in her own ears…
Just like creating suspense on film, it’s all about incorporating the senses and capturing what your character sees, hears, smells, tastes. When this is done well, your readers are no longer just casual observers. Suddenly, they can relate to what your character is experiencing. Odds are good they’ve never crept through the dark, dank halls of a deserted insane asylum with something evil lurking deep within the shadows, but I guarantee they’ve been afraid and know how it feels. Remind them of that as they’re reading, and their hearts will start pounding just as hard and fast as your protagonist’s.
Now, all that being said, here’s the actual assignment:
1) Pick a particularly suspenseful scene from one of your favorite novels – just make sure it’s a book you own and not the library’s copy!
2) Underline, highlight, and scribble in the margins, marking all the words and phrases that elicit strong responses. (If you don’t want to mark up a book, jot down everything on a separate piece of paper. Your call.) Essentially, the point is to dissect the scene and get a good look at its guts.
3) When you’re satisfied that you’ve identified everything that got your blood pumping, read the scene again omitting everything you’ve marked. I guarantee you’ll feel the difference.
4) Now, take what you’ve learned and apply it to your own work. 🙂