May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
The nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.Roy doesn’t shy from adjectives, but she starts out by grounding us in a specific time and place (May, Ayemenem). She fills the scene with concrete things (crows, mangoes, dustgreen trees, red bananas, jack- fruits, bluebottles), and she uses nouns to give us big ideas (sloth and expectation). William Finnegan relies on verbs in his 1992 New Yorker opus on surfing, "The Sporting Scene: Playing Doc's Games." He fills his entire story with sentences that use active verbs to make inanimate things animate, like this one:
The waves seemed to be turning themselves inside out as they broke, and when they paused they spat out clouds of mist—air that had been trapped inside the truck-size tubes.These passages are taken from the all-new edition of Sin and Syntax, which also contains exercises and writing prompts. Laconic landscapes, and not so laconic ones In Bad Land, a book about the settling—and abandonment—of the Great Plains, Jonathan Raban uses extended metaphor to sketch a scene in Eastern Montana as he drives along in his car:
A warm westerly blew over the prairie, making waves, and when I wound down the window I heard it growl in the dry grass like surf. For gulls, there were killdeer plovers, crying out their name as they wheeled and skidded on the wind. Keel-dee-a! Keel-dee-a!Raban recasts the plains as a seascape, with the wheat making waves, the wind growling like surf, and the killdeer plovers crying out like seagulls. To practice your own scene-writing muscles, try two of my favorite exercises. First, describe a vast and empty landscape—or a deserted street. Can you write about the scene so that it does not seem static or dead? Can you make it bristle with energy, even if human action is long gone? Second, situate yourself in a place that offers a symphony of sound. (A busy street corner? A screeching subway? A quiet courtyard in which each footstep registers?) Tune in to those sounds only. (Ignore the panhandlers, the change of the traffic lights, the people looking at you askance.) Find words that are onomatopoeic in some way, that suggest the sounds themselves. Write sentences whose rhythms evoke the sounds you are hearing. The Raban passage and these writing prompts appear in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, which is now out in paperback. If you've given these prompts a try and like what you wrote, please your quick scene sketch in the comments section below. Places that inspire For an opportunity to find inspiration in a scenic setting, and to be guided through exercises that will develop more of these muscles, join me at the annual Mokule'ia Writers Retreat, which happens each May on O‘ahu's North Shore. With the Waianae Mountains at your back and the blue ocean before you, learn from the masters, write in the shade of ironwoods, wander along the beach, salute the sun in morning yoga, and come to understand the essence of Hawaii through evening programs led by island composers, dancers, and musicians. The theme, nā wahi ho‘oulu, acknowledges that a sacred spot like this will inspire us to explore other places— whether in the heart, in memory, or in the moment.