Setting the Stage: A Writing Exercise

by Michelle Gagnon

For a change of pace today, I thought we could tackle a writing exercise. One of the things that’s struck me during our critiques lately is that I’m not alone in sometimes neglecting to include enough descriptive prose to set the stage for my stories. In fact it’s such a weakness of mine, I rarely add much detail in first drafts. I get the plot and dialogue in place, then go back during the editing process to flesh everything out. In all honesty, scenery description is my least favorite part of the craft of writing. 

For one, remembering to include all five senses is always a struggle; I have a terrible sense of smell, and have to remind myself that my characters might not. Also, describing anything from a basic room to a crowd scene is rife with pitfalls; there isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t caught themselves typing out a trite cliche about the shape of the moon, or something similar.

So when my book is set somewhere specific, I rely heavily on photographs. The corkboard behind my desk is always layered with photos representing nearly every scene in the manuscript. I find that looking at them triggers sense memories, especially if I’m writing about somewhere I’ve been. I remember how streets in Paris are always wet in the morning, having been freshly washed by maintenance crews just before dawn. Or how the light in Central Park shifts dramatically season by season, or how the air in South America just tastes different (maybe my sense of taste is stronger, to compensate for that lack of smell).

Below I’ve pasted three photos. Pick any one and describe it in a paragraph, or use it as the jumping off point for a scene. Take care to avoid overused metaphors: “The sea was dark as slate,” for example, or, “The sky was as blue as a robin’s egg.” 

Bonne chance!

19 thoughts on “Setting the Stage: A Writing Exercise

  1. As Charlie entered the park from the north end, he was struck by how much it had changed since the last time he’d visited. The long rows of benches that flanked the yellow gravel path were mostly empty now, and what had seemed like an impenetrable arched canopy of green leaves had turned yellow from the cold. The brilliant splashes of autumn color combined with the admission of sunlight rendered the park less imposing–more like a place for people to jog and play than a dark tunnel to the unknown. It’s funny how childhood fears influence the way you see things even thirty years after the fact.

    After this morning’s unpleasantness was finished, and Sean O’Brien was dead, Charlie would never have to walk this path again.

    He shook the thoughts away, dismissed them as distractions, thoughts for the future. He needed to focus his world on the man on a bench just fifty yards away. Sean O’Brien sat alone, dressed in a blue running suit and sporting a red backpack, as if to announce himself as an easy target. Charlie paused. Sean never went anywhere without his body guards.

  2. I still remember that morning in the park. It was a crisp fall day. The sun hid close to the horizon, its light defused by a veil of cirrus crystals. The leaves had turned to amber and lemon. Soon they would form a pungent brown carpet below skeleton trees. I was sitting on a one of the long Army green benches reading the Times when she suddenly appeared beside me.

    “There are no shadows,” she said. The breeze swirled her hair and her smile held an enticing promise.

    “What do you mean?”

    She motioned around us. “All this light casting no shadows. It’s like a free day when you can do whatever you want and no one will notice.”

    “What should we do?”

    She took my hand.

    Through forty years of marriage, she made me laugh every day. Yesterday was the first time she made me cry. Her shadow gone forever.

  3. Ah, Central Park, how I hate it. Whether entering from eighth or fifth, reality’s veiled by pleasant scenery and an absence of what makes Gotham, Gotham. The verdant leaves on seemingly endless rows of twenty-foot trees, turning golden as fall color arrives in October and brings with it sudden chilling gusts of wind that remind everyone winter is on the precipice. The sporty, upper east side cougar in blue spandex with the yoga mat under her arm, coming back from Bikram Something-er-other on 72nd and Amsterdam no doubt, her pompadoured Shih Tzu escorting her home harnessed to one of those stupid elastic leashes. Bet she’s got a late-in-life kid at home, probably uses that leash on it too. The cavity-inducing young lovers sitting on the evergreen park bench, necking and holding hands, swearing naively to be together forever. The deafening rumble of the C train passing underneath them only barely breaks the stillness of their stolen moment. No one ever thinks about the drug deals going down in Alphabet City when they’re in this Garden of Eden. They don’t think about the Russian Mafia executions out in Brighton Beach. For a few minutes out of their day, they escape into this gorgeous, man-made lie.

    As I cross this alluring aspersion to meet Chang at the Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle, the visage of that dead Solntsevskaya she and I found dumped up in Harlem last night becomes top of mind. How many times had he walked through here and forgotten the cesspool that is New York before someone bashed his skull in and disemboweled him? Had he ever taken a lover here?

    Something told me that Ruskie had no local ties. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I was sure he was a FOB (fresh off the boat). I’d asked Chang to find out for sure, check with INS and ICE. She’s much more patient with bureaucracy than I am. Comes from being Chinese, she says. Oldest civilization in the world. Yada, yada, yada. Whatever. She’s a smart ass, says I have a very expressive face that makes it even more fun.

    That stupid, little Shih Tzu passed me on the left. The notion of kicking it crossed my mind. And almost as soon as it had, Sporty Cougar rushed over, scooped up her pooch and glared at me.

    Sometimes, I really hated Chang.

  4. It’s low tide and I’m at the mercy of low class.

    Yeah – I’m in a wheelchair, buddy. Can you gawk a bit more blatantly. I guess you figure I can’t see your walrus-like self in your neon yellow trunks.

    My personal don’t-care attendant talked her cretin of a boyfriend into dragging me to the beach.

    “He won’t be any trouble. He can’t move and he can’t talk. We can just park him and, y’know.”
    I could hear their cutesy utterances and the moist sounds of their making out.

    Thankfully I’m spared seeing their groping. They’d rolled my Kohler Sentra 233 right over the sand. Completely contraindicated. I could feel fine beach grit when I rubbed my right thumb against my right finger. The bearings were sure to be screwed. Usually that thumb and finger allow me to drive. My keepers pointed me away and locked the toggle.

    Now all my thumb and finger are good for is feeling and impotent clasping. I can’t even flip the bird at the gawking walrus.

    The haze is interesting. It proves that the air today hangs motionless. The smells of exposed low-tide organics and the salt-water tinge of iodine hang like signposts.

    My head and right hand, the only places where I feel,are clammy, gritty and overly warm. Sweat beads on my forehead, Now it trickles down my face.I can’t wipe it. An itch I cannot scratch.

    A few seagulls swoop, hop and battle for unrecognizable bits. The losers scream.

    I want to do the same.

  5. Fun exercise. Neat mini-tales. Joe M. – outstanding. Your piece had an emotional impact on me..

  6. Wow, everyone- these have absolutely blown me away so far. Lovely writing, each scene is so vibrantly detailed I feel like I’m really there. Nice work.

    I also find it interesting which photos spoke to each of you; so far we’re mostly all about NYC and not so much about Ocean Beach. Anyone care to stage an espionage scene in that little cafe?

  7. Home from work, and sorry, I also picked the park.

    She didn’t need her eyes to know winter was coming. The air felt cool and crisp on her skin, like a fresh linen pillowslip.

    The leaves that cushioned her steps in spring, now crunched and filled her nose with the musky odor of decay.

    Winter was a time of joy and sadness for Marian. Twenty years ago, Joey had proposed on a cool autumn day, kneeling in the damp leaves to ask for her hand. Five years ago, after the car accident, her last sight had been of him laying in the fallen leaves on the roadway.

    She came to the park every year, wearing the red sweater he had loved so much, to sit and let the touch and smell of autumn erase her blindness, at least in her memories.


  8. Due to a busy day job schedule today, this is coming a bit later than I intended, but here it is.


    BJ was exhausted. Twenty four hours earlier he was walking arm in arm on a romantic beach boardwalk on the Mediterranean coast. Ensoleillé was her name, the French word for sunny, and she was indeed radiant. Flawless alabaster skin glowed from beneath her long hair, straight and shimmering like ebony waves of silk. They’d met six months ago sharing a bench in a park in the French city of Bordeaux. An instant bond formed as they watched the sunlight sparkle through yellowing autumn leaves.
    Since that chance encounter nothing in his life had been as it was before. For the first time in his adult life, BJ was considering getting out of the business. Leaving behind the shadowy clandestine operations, and the likelihood of ending his career in a violent death for his country rather than collecting a comfortable pension.

    The image of retiring with Ensoleillé, settling down to a small farmhouse somewhere in southern France and having a bunch of kids appealed to him. His two previous missions ended in gunfire and bodies, forcing his attention to the fact of his own fragile mortality. Ensoleillé was not quite thirty and had plenty time left to start a family, he on the other hand had passed forty a couple years earlier. His age was becoming harder to disguise as attested by the gradual whitening of his sideburns and crows feet wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. If he was going to have something like a normal life, it needed to be sooner rather than later. He didn’t want to attend his children’s graduations looking more like their grandfather than their father.

    As these thoughts swirled in his mind the call came. His country needed him for another job. Mother Goose, after ten years reporting to her he still had no idea what her real name was, relayed the message in her usual curt manner, wasting not even a single syllable on unneeded words or a breath on an extra comma.

    “Five PM tomorrow, Copenhagen. The café on Toverngade. A man and a woman. The man will be wearing a blue sport coat with a coat of arms showing a dragon. The woman will be in a green dress and have a broach with the same emblem. They’ll have a package on the table. An agency vehicle will be waiting two blocks south by the tobacco shop. Once you’ve passed the package to your contact in Prague you’ll be free to return to your sexy little sunshine.”

    “How do you know about Ensoleillé?” BJ said, not trying to hide the irritation at the invasion of his private life.

    “Don’t worry. She’s been vetted,” Mother Goose said, “we’ll let you keep her for now.”

    “Jeez,” he let out a disgusted sigh, “not a shred of privacy in this business.”

    “If it’s any comfort, we don’t have any bedroom or toilet cams on you.”

    “Gee, thanks boss.”

    “Get to work, you have one day. This is very sensitive information, lives are depending on it.”


  9. continued…

    And now, in a numb state of exhaustion that no amount of coffee or 5-hour energy drink could erase he walked into the Café Classique, a small coffee and snacks place with a spacious courtyard surrounded by trees and a dozen two-top tables. Several of the tables were occupied by individuals with laptops and tall cups of steamy coffee beverages. One young man looked up from his computer and gave a polite nod of greeting then returned his attention to the LCD screen.

    He noticed the couple at the same time they noticed him, the package was on the table between them as Margaret had said. At the same moment they made eye contact internal alarms started jangling the ends of his nerves and he felt the hair on the back of his neck bristle. Something about their expressions caught his attention, their eyes, tension at the corners of their mouths. He slowed his pace a minute fraction and processed as much information as he could take in. He slid his hand into his jacket pocket, wrapping his fingers around the textured handle of his 9mm Walther PPK. As he drew to within three steps of the couple he saw what had set his senses off. Fear flittered behind both of their eyes. The woman’s mouth started to open, words forming somewhere near the top of her throat, beginning to roll over her tongue but they were captured and abruptly stopped before they reached her lips.

    Suddenly, she jerked in a full body spasm, he eyes squeezing so tight it looked like they would pop. A half second later BJ saw the pink mist erupt behind her then a second bullet punched a hole in her forehead. BJ and the woman’s partner both started to dive for cover, screams erupting from other customers around the café. Before the man cleared his chair the back of his head burst open, a spray of blood and brain matter splattered the table behind him, soiling its young female occupant with gore. The woman shrieked in terror.


  10. continued…

    BJ spun, pistol drawn from his pocket as he searched desperately for a target, for the source of the shooting. The young man who’d greeted him upon entering charged across the small space, suppressed Browning Hi-Power in his outstretched hand. A flash burst from the end of the weapon, the only sound a metallic chink as the slide ejected a round and reloaded. The round shattered the edge of a chair seat near BJ’s head. He jutted his own pistol forward and squeezed off three rapid shots. His weapon was not silenced, the resultant explosions ripping the evening air. Two of the three 9mm rounds found their target in the center of the man’s chest stopping his heart. He shuddered, eyes rolling up, dead before he hit the ground.

    More silenced shots snapped from across the dining room. BJ rolled and flattened himself into a prone position, pistol aimed toward the gunfire. A flash of movement caught his eye and BJ fired twice, center mass. A man with a gun let out an agonized cry of pain and grabbed at his belly. BJ popped another round in his direction. A red dot appeared in the middle of his forehead, his head snapped back as if hit with a sledge hammer and the cries abruptly ceased.

    Cops would be here any minute. BJ grabbed the package and sprinted out the back exit of the courtyard cafe, slapping a fresh seven round magazine into the pistol. He kept running until he reached the tobacco shop and the waiting driver.

    An hour later and two cities to the west he climbed out of the agency car, the driver calmly pulled away leaving him in front of the train station without saying a word.

    He passed through security, the pistol had been discarded along the highway a few kilometers outside of Copenhagen, and boarded the express train to Prague. He glanced out the window toward the lowering summer sun, watching its warm rays light the last of the evening sky and thinking of his own personal bit of sunshine waiting just a few hours away. He was going to get out of this game.

    He prayed that nothing more would go wrong before he got home, and that morning would find him wrapped in the arms of his beloved Ensoliellé.


    the end…

    hope you like it

  11. Terrific job, everyone- Basil, as usual you’ve outdone yourself (and I’m thrilled that someone used the cafe, it would’ve been my first choice!)
    Really lovely and varied assortment of compositions. It’s so remarkable to see how the same photo can mean so many different things depending on the viewer.
    We’ll have to do this again sometime…

  12. Freshly ground coffee rose on the quiet, morning breeze. The music of Mozart and quiet conversation hummed on the air. Marta closed her burning eyes and innhaled the heartening aroma mingled with the damp musk of earth and vines after an early morning rain. Fingers gripping the railing, she felt tempted to step away. But, no. Today would not change. William would never be back. Tomorrow held nothing except more torture that she still lived while he did not. She climbed the railing. Inhaling her last earthly breath, she jumped.

  13. (Know this is a late response, to an old post, but I’m new here, so here goes…)

    If she’d wanted to be covered in grit surrounded by people she had no interest in talking to, Jules would have stayed at work.

    “Hotter than a waterbed left in the desert, but much more fun to romp around on…” the Groupon getaway ad had teased. White fonted promises of hot-bodied, hard bodies looking for love had transformed the ringless ring finger of her left hand into a speed clicker.

    30 seconds (to read the blurb)

    + 15 seconds (to confirm that her smartphone was indeed not smart enough to fill in her social calendar by itself)

    + 10 seconds (of self-talk that contained words like “don’t be a wuss” and “your lips aren’t going to kiss themselves”)

    + 4 seconds (to case the perimeter of her cubicle to make sure no one was looking)

    + a 1 second quick-click

    = 1 minute to purchase a vacation that she hated every minute of.

    The buses that led “oooh… ahhhh” tours into the nearby hazy mountains were all in the shop for maintenance.

    “All of them?” Jules had asked the concierge behind the lucite desk lined with brochures of places Jules could not go.

    “Yep, all of ’em. Sorry.”

    The concierge lifted what looked like a day-glo green business card off her neat mini-tower of cardboard rectangles.

    “How ’bout a 15 percent off coupon for beach belly dancing lessons? Great way to meet other…”

    Losers, this place was for losers. Jules spun on her flip-flopped heel and turned her sunburned back on the perky concierge’s sales pitch. She ripped the coupon thrice and tossed it into a potted palm. With what was left of her dignity sagging out of her dingy once-white bikini bottoms, Jules headed out onto the beach to join the throngs of other resort guests who had nowhere else to go.

    She was surrounded by single men – an 80 year-old widower mourning the third anniversary of his wife’s passing under the cheeriness of a rainbow-striped umbrella; a 45 year-old man in yellow swim trunks who smelled like feet baked in cocoa butter; a young blue-eyed, blond named Marco who had real potential of being a knock-out once he aged out of diapers and into a grown up. But Jules didn’t have twenty plus years to wait for Marco. Her vacation stay was only 4-days and 3-nights long.

    There were singles. There were families. There were lovers, both gay and straight. There was a posse of guys just looking to get drunk and a posse of girls just looking for a free drink.

    But none of them, Jules decided, was someone looking for someone like her.

    In the distance Jules could hear the clinking finger-cymbals of those who had redeemed their 15 percent off coupons. The only benefit of the beach being slathered in sunbathers was that they completely obscured her view of the belly dancing proteges.

    Maybe she’d take a yoga class. She needed to be flexible enough to rub aloe vera all over her sunburned back by herself.

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