Exploding the small moments

One of my daughter’s earliest writing lessons was about “exploding the small moments.” And lest you scoff at a grade school writing lesson, it is one of the foundations of strong writing, so best learned early. Using your narrator’s voice, or your character’s POV, describe what the character does, says, thinks, feels, sees, and hears. Rather than simply saying “I went to the beach and walked in the surf,” for instance, how about describing the experience this way:

I raced across the hot, dry sand, until I reached the surfline and planted my feet on the cool, wet sand, ready for the waves to come and get me. The first wave over my feet was shockingly cold. The next a little less. A few more, and the water felt refreshing. I waded across the rough sand until the water splashed up to my knees. Standing still, facing the blinding blue water, feeling the waves pull against my shins as it swept up to the shore,  and then the drag of water against my calves as it withdrew. I didn’t move, but the water pushed the sand around my feet, so they burrowed down like the millions of cochina I could see squiggling out of sight with each wave. As my feet disappeared and the water swept back and forth, I felt off-balance, and yet grounded, rooted in the sand like the old fishing pier.

The wind blew my hair out of its tie and across my eyes, so I closed them and listened to the cry of the seagulls and the repeating rhythm of the waves.  Salt water spray flecked my lips and bit with a tang in the back of my throat. I swept the hair from my face and opened my eyes to see a line of pelicans floating in perfect unison, coasting barely above the water. Beyond them, a cormorant dove straight out of the blue sky into the water, popping up like a bath toy a moment later, bouncing on the waves. I wanted to stand in this moment forever. I wanted to walk out into the water and continue walking under the waves, breathing underwater like a mermaid. Fried shrimp poppers. I really wanted fried shrimp poppers from the pier grill.

One technique for exploding the small moment is to write the scene as if it is happening in slow motion. Literally imagine it like a slo-mo replay in a sports game and see how much more you can notice when everything is moving in stop-action. Add to this description using more senses than just than sight, and the rich sensory image will fill in your reader’s mind with their own memories of similar sensory experiences. Anyone who has stood in the waves at the beach, for instance, will know exactly the feelings of feet sliding into the sand and being off-balance from the flow of the water. Sharing all of these sensory experiences through your character’s POV can draw your reader into the story and the action, as they imagine the *being* in the scene, as or with your POV character.

At one of our annual Roaring Writers retreats, our mentor Faith Hunter assigned us the task of writing a paragraph that included all five senses. Here’s where I started:

Jadence wrinkled her nose at the smell of piss and vomit as she crouched in the dead end of the waste-strewn alley. She forced deep steady breaths to calm her thundering heart and listened for sounds of her pursuers. Her roughened fingers traced over the mortar lines of the old brick wall. Her marble-white eyes brought in no light, but her mind’s eye used the touch to make a picture of the space around her.

Faith advised me to tighten it further, and to focus the five senses on Jadence herself, not her surroundings, although it was fine to use the sensory input to build that too. Here’s my revision:

Jadence dropped on aching knees at the alley’s dead end. Sun-baked piss and vomit soaked into her linens. She pushed down her own bile as the foul odors flooded her nose and throat like slime. She listened for her pursuers, heaving deep steady breaths to slow her thundering heart.  Rough fingers traced the crumbling mortar lines of the old brick wall. Though her marble-white eyes brought in no light, her mind’s eye drew a picture of the space around her. Nowhere to hide.

I need to get back to that story…

Even in an action sequence such as a fight scene, for instance, you might think such detail would slow it down, bog down the action. And you certainly don’t want to stop in the middle for extended navel-gazing. But including brief descriptions of the senses – pain across the knuckles with a punch, or the crunching sound of a nose breaking, or the bitter taste of blood in the mouth, all of these can contribute to the immediate real-ness of a fight scene. And using short, tight sentences, even judicious fragments, can speed up the action further — but that’s another blog post.

Can you take a mundane experience, such as grocery shopping, and explode the small moment, such as admiring the variety of produce, wondering how and where it’s grown, or missing something out of season? Choose your own “small moment” and “explode” it into an exploration of the senses!

“Exploding” an 11/9/14 post from WritersSpark.com

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