(This blog post was originally a thread on twitter, rewritten to be a decent blog post.)
The first scene I need to write today takes place in a new setting location. For new setting locations I write up descriptions that I can use not just as backdrop but as elements to bring the reality of the setting forward using a technique i learned to stop panic attacks.
No, really. so I write, for example, “women’s washroom in an office building,” and then I can describe the mundane things about it but the real vividness comes from the 5 4 3 2 1 exercise.
I originally learned this as a way to quietly cope with anxiety and panic attacks. It opened doors for me, as it was an exercise I could do even when I was out in public. No one notices you taking deep, slow breaths or your active observations of your location, so it’s a subtle, but effective tool.
To do it, I take a deep breath and slowly let it out while concentrating on one of the five senses – but as a writing exercise, I’m probably imagining the location in my head, or using an image reference to help me detail the scene location. So my example is “women’s washroom in an office building.” Because my setting is sort of historical, I’m visualizing something that could be typical of a women’s washroom from the early 20th century:
Five things I see:
- frosted windows letting in pale natural light
- black and white hexagon ceramic tiles with gray grout
- white pedestal sinks with two faucets, one dripping
- pale golden wood paneled stall doors
- arsenic green painted walls
Four things I hear:
- the muffled echo of high heeled shoes on tile
- the soft plink of a dripping faucet
- the knocks and thumps of a steam radiator
- the rattle of wind on the windowpanes
Three things I feel:
- the chilly air by the windows on one side; the warm air from the radiators on the other,
- the slippery feel of soap on my hands,
- the rough texture of the hemp-woven toweling to dry them,
- the worn velvet upholstery on the sofa in the rest area in the room
Two things I smell:
- rose-scented hand-soap
- the astringent smell of disinfectant cleaners trying to cover up stale cigarette smoke
One thing I taste:
- the clean neutrality of cold water from the right-hand faucet
If I were actually in the bathroom with a panic attack, actively listing those things I sensed in that washroom would help to slow down the panic symptoms, but as a writing exercise, I now have a bunch of setting appropriate sensory details all planned out in advance
If I take a few minutes to write them all down, I have a handy cheat sheet I can use to integrate these details into the scene I’m writing. Neat, huh?
It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like
- a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
- how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
- how to build a story when all you have is a character
I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!
Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!