My plan was to stop there. Wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving and then be done.
I started thinking about the first time my husband (then my fiancé) had Thanksgiving dinner at my family’s home. I remember his surprise at all the different dishes we served, his disgust at one of them*, and his confusion when he caught me and my cousin flipping the cookies upside down**. Your family traditions are a gold mine. Mine those memories to practice writing description and editing down that description to a few key details.
Family traditions are typically rich in description opportunities: What do you eat? What activities do you do? Who joins you? Where do you meet?
Food is one of the easiest things to practice describing because it’s accessible (we eat literally every day***) and it hits all the five senses: The sight of a perfectly baked pumpkin pie; the scent of cinnamon and cloves and ginger; the sound of a knife slicing thru the crisp crust and hitting the pie plate underneath; the taste of that first bite; and the smooth texture of the custard contrasting with the flakey crust.
When you’re writing a story, you probably don’t want to include all five senses in every description opportunity. Your story can easily become tedious to read! Instead, you want to pick and choose key details that help propel your story.
Show us something about your character: she hates ginger so that’s the detail you share, along with her reaction to it. Why doesn’t Mom ever remember I HATE ginger?
Show an awkward silence (instead of tell) by describing the sound of the knife hitting the pie plate. It’s a small sound and easily missed when the room is full of chatter. If it’s the only detail you share, your readers focus on it and understand all that you don’t say.
That brings me to another thing: show vs tell. It’s arguably one of the cardinal rules (if any writing rules really exist!) of fiction writing, but a lot of writers don’t know what it means. What is the difference between showing and telling and when are you doing one or the other?
Description helps show (rather than tell) a scene. Consider:
This certainly isn’t the greatest writing (shitty first draft, baby!) but it should be enough to show the difference between showing and telling. The obvious: showing is generally longer than telling. And the less obvious: I never once wrote “Steve was worried” in the second sample. I didn’t write that the cigarette ash might fall into the food. By describing the scene, by showing it, you as the reader infer that Steve is worried and what he’s worried about. (And if that didn’t come across in this first draft, I’d revise!)
So if you find yourself with some quiet time this Thanksgiving, or any celebratory event, duck away and write about it. Start with the food and try to capture all five senses. Move on to the activities. Describe people’s actions to show their emotions****. Lastly, think about picking and choosing those details to use them in a scene. How can you show this mood? How can you show increasing tension? What can we learn about this character?
And then get back out there with the family and have some pie!
* Hard-cooked eggs, boxed croutons, canned cheddar cheese soup. I can’t even find it on the internets… My mother never cooked anything without a recipe, so it had to have come from somewhere.
*** Um… *I* do. I suppose you may be fasting on occasion.
**** This also gives you the benefit of studying people so that when you write your fictional people, you have natural actions at your fingertips.