Last week, a friend of mine was describing homework from her creative writing class and the difficulties she was having with said assignment. The course was an elective, just something fun and easy to fill in a hole in her schedule, and she had in no way anticipated how time consuming and frustrating crafting even a short piece of fiction could be. As she told it, she had been tasked with writing a 300 word description of a crime scene. There were no limitations beyond the word count and the stipulation that the piece should be as detailed as possible, but having never worked from the parameters of even a loose writing prompt, it all looked a bit daunting to her. In her own words, she didn’t write like that so she had no idea where to even begin.
While she didn’t out and out ask me how I would tackle a prompt like that, I felt that it wouldn’t hurt toss out a few suggestions. For many reasons, not the least of all being that a) art is highly personal, and b) I am by no means a teacher of any kind, I’m almost always reluctant to tell anyone how to express their creative inclinations. However, attempting to be helpful felt like a better route than commiseration, so I offered up the following: imagine the bare bones of a scene, but then think of how exactly you got there. For example, you’re describing the scene of a homicide. Is the individual sitting or lying down? Why and where? Were they asleep? Did they fall over? If so, did they knock anything over? Are there scattered belongings and broken furniture because of a struggle or a desperate flailing of limbs? What happened to get to where things are when your readers enter? Even if the audience isn’t immediately (or ever) made privy to the identity of the victims and perpetrators or the whys and wherefores of the scene, it’s important for the writer to know, to have a picture of how it all came to be in order to form a cohesive description of what is available for consumption.
This method isn’t without its share of difficulties either, but I think there are worse ways to make a go of it when you’re in the initial stages of grasping for a beginning. My other piece of advice, if all else failed? Check out a procedural cop show. When it comes to crime scenes, a cable network rerun will almost never let you down. Even I like to see what Dick Wolf is up to now and again.
Photo Credit: Bill Watterson