c.l. polk

How to Brainstorm Scene Location Details from a Panic-stopping Technique


(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:

Four things I hear:

Three things I feel:

Two things I smell:

One thing I taste:

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?