Lesson 1b from an English Teacher

Before I move on to the next couple of 6-traits, I have a little bit more to share about Ideas and Content. I wanted to introduce a few concepts that I myself just learned and shared with my students this year, and that I could go back and use in my writing a little more.

Here are three terms: Snapshot, thoughtshot, and explode-a-moment.

I heard these from a fellow teacher at my school who read it in a book. I was worried about giving proper credit where it’s due, but when I googled each term, I found them all over the internet; from elementary and English teachers using them, as I did, as tools to help their students become better overall writers, to advice to and from writers to improve their stories.

These tools are valid and so basic, but it’s the basics, the foundation of our writing, that is so important.

Let’s start with the first one: Snapshot.

Does hearing that word make you think of a picture? A single snapshot from a vacation or time spent with family and friends? Perhaps you’re dreaming of Instrgram and all the pictures you snap and share. Or, if you’re like me, all the pictures you see from other people using it.

Isn’t a picture worth a thousand words?

We can’t include a picture with every scene that we write, or character we introduce, or important object that’s discovered. (Unless you’re writing a children’s book, but that doesn’t mean you get to exclude these things in your writing!) But we can take the time to describe these things to our readers.

So a snapshot is describing something in great detail. Making it become real for our readers. Drawing them into the world of our writing through the expressive language we use to stylize people, places and objects.

This isn’t to say that every tiny detail needs to be described at length. This brings to mind the complaint many people have about Tolkien’s writing (though there are just as many people, if not more, who think the opposite. I personally have no opinion, because I’ve never read Tolkien. Please don’t take away my geek cred for that!). That he spends much too much on his descriptions and not enough on the action of the story.

Adding extra detail really isn’t about adding paragraphs of description to your prose. It’s simply about remembering to use your senses. You’ll hear this all the time when other writer’s tell you to show not tell.

You can tell your readers that the cookies are baking. Or you can describe the heavenly, chocolaty smell filling the kitchen.

You can tell your readers that the radio played in the background. Or you can describe the soft strains of guitar and piano and the crooning voices that accompanied them, just loud enough to catch hold of and hum along with.

I could keep going, but I think you get the point. Use the five basic senses-sight, smell, sound, taste and touch-to enhance what’s happening in your story. Just a sentence here, a phrase there, and you’ll be surprised at how much your writing will start to come alive.

Ready to move on? Let’s tackle thought shots next. This one is actually pretty easy. It’s simply allowing your readers to get into the character’s head and know what they’re thinking and feeling at any given moment.

Well, it’s easy to explain, but perhaps not so easy to put into practice. This is something I personally struggle with. I feel like adding in random bits of thought will break up the flow of the action. It’s a lesson I’m still learning because I have to actively remind myself to include characters’ thoughts as I write and then go back and add even more in after I’ve finished a chapter.

Those small additions of your characters’ thoughts, however, can help the reader relate a little more intimately with them. We want to know the characters in the story are human and not a robot (unless your main character is a robot, which isn’t unheard of!) and that they have thoughts and feelings about the things that are happening to them, just like we do in real life.

Okay, that’s all I have to say about that. Let’s move on to the last one: Explode-a-moment.

Explode-a-moment is for verbs and actions what snapshot is for nouns and setting. It literally means to slow down and explode the moment of action to increase the intensity and suspension in that scene.

For instance, instead of telling your reader that your main character and her/his love interest finally get a moment to dance together, you could describe it like this:

They swayed back and forth in a lazy circle to the slow rhythm of the music. Her cheek rested against his shoulder and his arms circled her waist gently. She could feel the beating of his heart through his shirt and he slowed his breathing to match hers. Her hair fell softly against his neck and with a smile he breathed in her sweet scent.

Doesn’t that sound much better than “They danced”? (Though not perfect, I agree. I just came up with that off the top of my head.) It’s so much more interesting to read and really brings out just how important this moment is for each character.

Using these three tools together as you write and edit will really help breathe life and vibrancy into your writing, your plot, your characters and your setting.

What other tools do you use to liven up your writing?

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