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17.5 Surprising Yourself: Constraint-Based Scene Description

This exercise asks you to write a scene, following specific instructions, about a place of your choice. There is no such thing as a step-by-step guide to descriptive writing; instead, the detailed instructions that follow are challenges that will force you to think differently while you’re writing. The constraints of the directions may help you to discover new aspects of this topic since you are following the sentence-level prompts even as you develop your content.

Bring your place to mind. Focus on “seeing” or “feeling” your place. For a title, choose an emotion or a color that represents this place to you. For a first line starter, choose one of the following and complete the sentence:

  • You stand there…
  • When I’m here, I know that…
  • Every time…
  • I [see/smell/hear/feel/taste]…
  • We had been…
  • I think sometimes…

After your first sentence, create your scene, writing the sentences according to the following directions:

  • Sentence 2: Write a sentence with a color in it.
  • Sentence 3: Write a sentence with a part of the body in it.
  • Sentence 4: Write a sentence with a simile (a comparison using like or as)
  • Sentence 5: Write a sentence of over twenty-five words.
  • Sentence 6: Write a sentence of under eight words.
  • Sentence 7: Write a sentence with a piece of clothing in it.
  • Sentence 8: Write a sentence with a wish in it.
  • Sentence 9: Write a sentence with an animal in it.
  • Sentence 10: Write a sentence in which three or more words alliterate; that is, they begin with the same initial consonant: “She has been left, lately, with less and less time to think….”
  • Sentence 11: Write a sentence with two commas.
  • Sentence 12: Write a sentence with a smell and a color in it.
  • Sentence 13: Write a sentence without using the letter “e.”
  • Sentence 14: Write a sentence with a simile.
  • Sentence 15: Write a sentence that could carry an exclamation point (but don’t use the exclamation point).
  • Sentence 16: Write a sentence to end this portrait that uses the word or words you chose for a title.

Read over your scene and mark words/phrases that surprised you, especially those rich with possibilities (themes, ironies, etc.) that you could develop.

On the right side of the page, for each word/passage you marked, interpret the symbols, name the themes that your description and detail suggest, note any significant meaning you see in your description.

On a separate sheet of paper, rewrite the scene you have created as a more thorough and cohesive piece in whatever genre you desire. You may add sentences and transitional words/phrases to help the piece flow.


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Expression and Inquiry by Christopher Manning; Sally Pierce; and Melissa Lucken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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