Writing tips from Micaela and Florrie: The Art Of Good Description

I started at the shrill sound a few feet in front of me. What was it? And then I heard the unwelcoming hiss and the low threatening growl that seemed to say “don’t you come a step closer or I’ll tear your skin”. I froze. The scent was the other thing I noticed; rather like the smell of dead mice in the walls. I wanted to vomit. I imagined myself as a much smaller creature, a cat just like this one. I imagined it sinking its teeth and claws deep into my flesh… oh the throbbing!!! Worse than accidentally cutting one’s finger with a kitchen knife, almost as though the cat was tearing out my very soul. What would be the point of that? I wouldn’t exist without a soul. Then I realised, I’d barely exist if I didn’t have any human contact either. I wondered if that’s how this cat felt? Cut off from a meaningful life because avoiding contact with other living creatures is like taking away the purpose of existence. I heard it again, a loud, wretched shreik. And I felt alone.

“Really, Micaela, that is a seriously dark beginning to your post”, you say. Well, yes. Sorry about that, except I’m not really sorry because I’ve included it for a reason. That was a description I wrote after a friend of mine challenged me to describe a feral cat. But here’s the catch… I wasn’t allowed to describe with colour, phrases such as “the sight of blood”, or any descriptive language that a person with working eyes might use when encountering a feral cat.

“Why? Surely that’s not a complicated task for someone who has always been blind and has no visual memories at all…”

Not so long ago I may have agreed with you there, dear reader. But recently, the above mentioned anonymous friend (let’s call her Florrie) sent me a rather frustrated message about the fictional blind characters who always feature in modern every-day books, or who only appear in sci-fi and fantacy novels to share an inspirational quote or two and that’s it. And why can’t there be a blind protagonist who messes around with time travel, or discovers she has magical powers or uses the legal system to defeat the bad guys… anything but seeing the future and being inspirational for no reason.

Anyway, that’s a topic for another blog post, but it got us thinking: how would we write from the perspective of a blind character? We have both always been blind, but we are so used to reading books that describe the blue sky, the black ashes from a fire etc, that whilst we don’t actually know what these things look like we have just subconciously included visual descriptions in our writing. And there is nothing wrong with that. Of course we are allowed to use those descriptions if we want to. But we were suddenly having to re-think all of that because if we were fictional, our character wouldn’t have cause to think of colours and other visual details. It wouldn’t occur to them because they can’t imagine something they’ve never seen.

So Florrie and I set ourselves a challenge. And it had nothing to do with all those weird situations where sighted people use physical objects, feelings and experiences that blind people supposedly associate with various colours etc:

https://youtu.be/ScHVy7K6IO4

But we would assign each other an object, or place (Florrie then started to get mean and give me people as well), that we had to describe from our perspective.

Blindness aside, this exercise made me realise that I’ve been finding writing such a struggle because I just don’t play around with adjectives, metaphors and analogies enough. Florrie told me to describe an abandoned office building and I not only focused on the musty smell, but the stringy sticky spider web and the sheer loneliness of the place. I think, had we not set ourselves this challenge, I would have spent more time describing the blood and physical appearance of the feral cat, rather than the sounds and smells and the impact they had on my character’s internal thoughts and emotions. I challenged Florrie to describe the circus, which I suspected would be tricky given without good audio description circuses are generally just like an overwhelming amount of noise. But Florrie focused on the feeling of a backpack pressing into the shoulder and spine as the character tried to walk down stairs with the crowd of audience members, the crunch as she sat on a pile of popcorn that was dropped on her seat, and the place, she wrote, “smelt of chaos.” Brilliant!

This has been so helpful to both of us. Florrie messaged me excitedly yesterday because she had finally been able to write about a blind protagonist that she has been struggling with for a while. And I am just having fun finding new and creative ways to describe… everything! I am super excited to get working on my one person show again this week now that I’ve had this obvious but helpful revelation!

My challenge for you is to use this as a writing exercise and let your imagination run wild. I don’t necessarily mean imagine things from the perspective of a blind person, either. This applies to literally anyone and everyone! The only rule I suggest you start off with is try to describe without colour, that’s how Florrie and I began, and see what happens. There are so many other things to notice in the world around us if we are willing to think outside that colourful box! So if like me you struggle to come up with interesting adjectives, or you just want some brain stimulation and a fun writing game, have a play!

Florrie has kindly allowed me to end this post with her description of the circus. Enjoy the old popcorn (yuck), and see ya’all next time!

Circus description:

The place smelled of chaos; the sweat of hundreds of people crammed into a space designed for half as many, the reek of animals and the sweet stench of rotten food. Heat pressed down on her, heavier than the backpack slamming into her shoulders and spine with enough force to make her curse internally every time she walked down stairs. Music blared from an unseen speaker, abrupt as thunder from a clear sky and she nearly fell backwards into her seat; old popcorn crunched beneath her backside as she dragged herself into a more dignified position. The scrape of claws on wood, the crunch of heavy boots over straw. A primal roar, both beautiful and terrible in its sheer power. It screamed its dominance to the tent and the world beyond; it was strong, it was powerful and it WOULD NOT be tamed. The music picked up speed and the crowd drew in a collective breath as the booted feet on the stage took a step towards the lion. The creature roared again, a feral challenge to the world, the tent, this foolish human who thought itself worthy to tame it. Such a proud creature, how could it remain confident and beautiful when it lost this same battle every night? How did it not lose faith? She leaned forward in her seat, fingers clenching on the rail in front of her. In the rational part of her mind she knew this was staged, knew the performer would win, had to win. But another part of her, as proud and primal as the lion itself, thrilled with anticipation, feeding off the excitement of a thousand other people caught in the same moment. The presence of danger in a place of safety, the chaos within the order, seemed to thrill them all.

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