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Defusing bombs: Lawrence Hill on descriptive drama

"It’s hard to write a description of somebody doing something and have it clear as well as engaging and interesting." - Lawrence Hill

First it was mastering convincing details, and then it was layering dialogue. Now, for his third and final writing prompt, this year's Massey lecturer Lawrence Hill helps us take the leap from technical description to character psychology.

Lawrence Hill says : "Make it clear and easy to follow, but also make it dramatically interesting, and show us something about the person's character by the way he or she carries out the actions."
Writing Prompt #3
Write a description of somebody who is all alone, doing something that requires your technical knowledge. Some possibilities could be: making a waffle, tying a shoelace, building an engine, operating a sewing machine, baking a cake, or waxing a set of cross-country skis. It doesn't matter what action you choose, but the process should take several steps. No dialogue. No background information. No flashbacks. Stay entirely in the scene—one time, one place, one moment, one character—and walk us through the action. Make it clear and easy to follow, but also make it dramatically interesting, and show us something about the person's character by the way he or she carries out the actions.


Once you’re done, we invite you to send the results of your exercises to us. We will publish some of our favourites on the Canada Writes site and enter the names of all participants into a draw for a signed copy of The Book of Negroes (CBC contest rules can be found here). You have until 10 AM on August 28th to get it in to us.

Send your text in the body of an email to canadawrites@cbc.ca

Lawrence Hill on descriptive drama 

What happens when a writer takes a reader through a technical process?
The intended effect is to bring the reader into a  seductive fictional bubble, and to locate the reader deep in the bowels of the story. It’s hard to write a description of somebody doing something and have it be clear, engaging and exciting. In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje describes a character who is a sapper (a bomb defuser). His name is Singh in the novel, and his job is to defuse bombs at the tail end of World War II. Ondaatje gives detailed portraits of Singh defusing bombs. He will die if he messes up, so Ondaatje is able to make it  dramatically interesting. If you pull that off in your own writing, you're well on your way.

Do you have a tip for people using this prompt?
I call it “1, 2, 3, Leap!” You give a detail of somebody doing something, then you give a second detail about the person doing something, and then you give a third  snippet. And then the fourth thing you do—the leap—is to go straight into their thinking process. After three little activities, each with its own sharp sentence, the reader is ready for you to slide into that person’s psychology. So you share some interesting thoughts that the three actions triggered.  It’s a convincing way to make the transition from a narrative that is emotionally unengaged (but based on factual description) to an intimate narrative that hints at the character's soul. 



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