Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.


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When I try to write a description or a scene with a strong mood, I usually resort to clichés. For example, I wrote a scene of a character leaving after an argument and it had a slammed door and gathering storm clouds. I know these are trite details. How do I get beyond them?

You’re not alone in this. Early drafts are often riddled with evidence of the first image or detail that comes to mind. Often, writers find the right language during revision, when it’s easier to look beyond what comes quickly and easily during the momentum of the first draft. Simply slowing down and taking time can be enough to find that unexpected image or particularly apt language choice.

Still, well-worn choices can be persistent. We encounter them often in colloquial conversation and some forms of storytelling. Getting beyond them requires us to consider how to evoke mood given the character of perspective, setting, or other story elements.

In Ana Menendez’s short story “In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd” Máximo meets friends in the park to play dominoes. Once he determines the men “are in good spirits” he tells a joke he thinks is clever, one he believes he made up. After a chuckle and several compliments, Raúl tells him it’s an old joke. Máximo protests, but Raúl insists. Then, “Máximo looked at Raúl, but didn’t say anything. He pulled the double nine from his row and laid it in the middle of the table, but the thud he intended was lost in the horns and curses of morning traffic on Eighth Street.” In this moment, Menendez puts the focus on the specific action the men are engaged in—playing dominoes—and reveals Máximo’s annoyance, as well as how easily that emotion is overshadowed by the noisy surroundings. Sinking deeply into the sensory detail of the moment and paying close attention to the nature of your character opens up meaningful possibilities beyond the obvious.

Also, remember to tap into the power of connotation. Menendez’s “horns and curses” are much more precise in evoking the agitation of the moment than a lighter description such as “the cacophony of brakes and beeps.” Making careful decisions about word choice can go a long way in helping you give action and description meaning as you reach beyond the expected.