Grab your mugs! Grab your tea and coffeepots guys! It’s time for another round of Meditative Monday!
Last week we talked about treating writing as discovery, but this time around I want to bring our attention inward. Today, I’m going to share a technique that can help give your scenes a description-rich and fuller feel through simple mindfulness and awareness.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, man! 😡 What is this “mindfulness” you’re bringin’ up in here?
Be calm, peeps. I promise you nothing crazy is involved.
I’m sure some of you may have heard of mindfulness circulating around a lot these days on the web or news. It often gets thrown around with the term ‘meditation’ or sometimes with ‘therapy’. However, if you’re new to this, here it is:
Mindfulness is the practice of keeping our minds aware of the present moment. And while we do this, we acknowledge and accept whatever thoughts, sensations, or feelings that happen along the way.
Pretty simple in practice. Usually you just pick a spot and just breathe and chill there. It’s helpful when you’re stressed or tired, but if you’re curious about that I’ll leave that for you to discover.
You probably want to know what the hell this has to do with making your writing easier, right?
If you’ve ever done any kind of guided meditation before, your instructor may have asked you to do something called a body scan. For you laymen/women out there, this is basically the act of paying attention to the different parts of your body one at a time and noting the different sensations you feel when they come up.
What I’m proposing is something very similar, a scene scan, but with a tiny twist and some tweaks to make more sense for writing.
The Scene Scan And How It Can Help
Like most things I do, I did this completely by accident at first. I was writing a chapter where my characters were eating at dinner and wasn’t satisfied with the way the scene was going. It was starting to feel like there were just a bunch of faceless bodies in the room waiting for plot to happen and naturally I was getting really frustrated with the whole thing. Because what’s the whole point of a scene where no one is doing anything?
So I pulled up the tiny document notes do-hicky on Scrivener and I started to jot stuff down like so it looks a little something like this…
If it’s a little too hard to see because of the font, don’t worry. All I listed was some of the sensations that my POV character Kurai would see and experience in the scene.
But for this example, just pay attention to this little block here:
Queen Seon Deok eatin’ quietly. Sul Li eatin’ with her head down like she doesn’t want to be noticed. Bo Jong’s gaze wanderin’ around the room. Min Ah stealin’ glances at Queen Seon Deok. Queen Mama Ma Ya is the only one at the table who looks something close to happy. General Hong Do look all shrunk up next to his wife. (Btw, the POV character doesn’t speak proper English, so that’s why this part and the next bit might look funny.)
This little block of notes I did arbitrarily saved the scene.
It may just look like a string of a bunch of details on the surface, but if you pay attention aka be mindful ( 😀 ), each detail says something important about each character, even though they’re being idle.
Here’s the actual version that got developed with what the mindfulness helped to reveal about the Kim family in this scene.
Though, now that I’m watchin’ em together, the Kims are totally different people when everybody is together. Sul Li eats with her head down like she don’t want to be noticed. [Not confident in herself. Low self-esteem. Trying to hide something. Not comfortable here. Isolating the self.]
Tae Yeon scowl and gnash her teeth harder than a normal person needs to when they eat. [Rough character, possibly aggressive, angry, or stressed about something]
Bo Jong stares off into space a lot with his forehead all wrinkled up. [Worried. So anxious that he’s constantly getting lost in thought.
Min Ah steals glances at Queen Seon Deok every so often. [Instinctively looking to her mother. Queen Seon Deok is of great interest to her.]
Wol Chun is barely touchin’ his food, eatin’ with stiff movements. [Possibly angry. Suppressing feelings. Doesn’t really want to eat.]
General Hong Do look all shrunk up next to his wife like a timid ol’ chinchilla. [Not confident. Typical hen-pecked husband. Because he isn’t timid in any other scene, you can assume that he doesn’t have a great relationship with his wife.]
Queen Seon Deok just eat like nothin’ ain’t botherin’ her, but I notice that she’s sit awfully far away from her husband compared to how close everyone else is sittin’ next to each other. [Honey Badger don’t care. Honey badger don’t give a fuck. Especially not about her husband. But she’s very confident about herself and her place at the table.]
Queen Mama Ma Ya just nibble at her food with a pert little smile on her face: the only person that look somethin’ close to happiness. [The Kims are not a happy family, but hey grandma is happy!]
Now, if I had just went on and did the scene in my normal way, I would probably have missed all of that. And more importantly, the reader would miss all of those crucial details and the subtext wouldn’t even have been on the table.
Because this was what was originally there:
The room goes completely quiet as everybody look at Queen Seon Deok. She takes the first bite, and that seems to be the cue for the whole room to relax and settle into dinner.
Sure we get that Queen Seon Deok is head honcho here, but we completely blow past everyone else and we end up with a much flatter scene.
Because details and subtext come through awareness.
And that’s the biggest benefit of mindfulness: you begin to see and take note of details you ordinarily wouldn’t if you were only preoccupied with rushing from one scene to the next.
It really does pay to look a little closer everybody!
Okay TL;DR, How Do I Do This Scene Scan Thingy?
Step 1: Get Something To Jot Your Notes On.
The notes don’t have to be anything fancy. It’s actually preferred that you don’t make them complicated or elaborate.
Step 2: Note where you are in your WIP.
Refresh yourself on whose head you’re in. What just happened the last time you were writing? Where is your POV character? What’s their current state of mind and body and what made them feel like that? What’s going to happen in the scene right now?
Step 3: Shift Your Attention To The World Around Your POV Character
What sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and sensations is the POV character experiencing right now? Make a little list of details that you can scatter evenly and naturally over the whole of the scene. If there are other characters in the scene what are they doing? Try to visualize their expressions, postures, and what they’re thinking behind the expressions. What do they want in that scene? Why are they there? Even though the POV character will likely not know any of this, it’s still important to know incase people’s wants come into conflict.
Step 4: Shift Your Attention To How Your POV Character Might Perceive The World Around Them
Now that you’ve made your list, does your character have any particular feelings about anything on it? This section is all about connecting that outer world to the character’s inner world to anchor your description to the story and make it do the double-duty that gives a story some meat. In my example, my MC started noticing people’s faces and what they were doing at the dinner table. The MC doesn’t really know the context of everyone’s face, since he’s an outsider to this family, however the act of noticing not only reflects on his character, sheds light on familial relationships, and gives a brief window to each character’s inner world.
This part, I find, shines really well if POV characters are noticing things about other characters’ moods and vice versa. Especially if that other character is trying to suppress their emotions.
Step 5: Write The Scene With Your New Mindful List, But Acknowledge New Things That Come Up
Don’t worry if you don’t find a place for everything. Sometimes we think about stuff that sounds nice as an idea on our paper, but it doesn’t translate well to the page or the story just doesn’t seem to need it. When in doubt, it’s better to leave it out. Also, don’t worry if stuff comes up that you didn’t plan for. It’s natural for a good scene to grow a little bit out of its pot. Always leave room for discovery and never get mad at yourself if things don’t shape up to the ideal you want or if the scene takes a different route that’s well off the path you wanted.
Give the scene a chance to unfold into what it’s supposed to be.
You might get a pleasant surprise.