Teachers’ Lounge: Growling at the Camera

One of the most important lessons any writer can learn, whether child or adult, is this:


Writing is largely a matter of framing.  Take your picture frame or camera lens or screen or however you want to imagine it, and zoom in on the subject.  Don’t try to take in everything; observe only a few details, focusbut observe them lovingly.  Don’t list every action, but bring out the actions that contribute to one focused whole.

Say you ask a classroom of kids to describe their best friend.  How likely is it that most of the descriptions will read something like this:

Selena is like a sister to me.  She has brown hair and brown eyes and is very athletic.  She won the hundred meter dash in all-city track last year.  She’s four inches taller than me and sometimes she calls me “Shrimp.”  But she would never hurt my feelings on purpose.  We like a lot of the same things, like dance movies, M&M cookies from the bakery, soccer and Danny Rodgers (he’s in seventh grade).  Our favorite author is J. B. Cheaney.  We’re almost always together and we have a lot of fun.

Okay, I get it; they’re buddies.  But Selena as a person eludes this description, and that’s because it’s often tough for beginning writers to describe someone they know and love.  So try this: ask them to describe  a local TV personality, such as the Channel 8 meteorologist or a talk show host.

  • After observing this person on TV, decide what image of himself he’s trying to get across (or her, of course)–is the person trying to look trustworthy? fun? interested? nuts (like the furniture or used car salesman who wants you to think you can totally take advantage of him)?  Write down one or two details that support your impression.
  • Write one thing the person says.
  • Describe the person’s surroundings in one sentence, including the most prominent feature (such as a car dealership sign or program logo).

Once you have all that, put it together in a one-paragraph description.  Here’s an example:

“In other news, the stock market fell almost 5% today,” says Mark Spencer.  His eyebrows pull together in a serious look and his mouth is a thin straight line.  Just behind his left shoulder is a big lighted sign reading, “Channel Six headline News.”  His dark suit and plain tie stand out against the sign.  His solemn face wants to reassure me that I can trust him.

Want to try that again?  Rewrite your description of the same person, but this time, imagine that he or she is an animal.  What animal do they remind you of?  Once you’ve figured that out, fill in the bullet points above and use appropriate details to create the picture:

“In other news, the bone market fell almost 5% today,” growls Mark Spencer.  His eyelids droop over mournful-looking eyes and his tongue hangs out sadly.  Just behind his hulking brown shoulder is a big lighted sign reading, “Channel Six Canine News.”  His droopy bulldog face wants me to think he’s very serious about the news, but I can hear his tail thumping behind the desk.

Focusing takes some time to develop (photography pun–sorry), but if practiced enough it can become second nature.


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