I remember the first writing exercise we did when I joined the writing community that is now the What’s Your Story – WRITE NOW Club. Samantha, who ran it back then, held up a picture of the lived-in face of actor, Donald Sutherland. Our mission was to describe him.
I can’t recall what I wrote, but it would have included something about the confident expression, direct gaze, ice blue eyes, white hair, wrinkled skin, and an overall air of unapproachability. Not a friendly looking guy in that photo. But when others described him, of course, their observations or even their opinion of his friendliness might have been different.
Book Review Part I: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Around the same time I met Sam, I also joined a bookclub. I guess its been about eight years for both (wow!). This month’s book club selection is Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and I’m loving it. The main character is a mystery. She’s really weird and we get hints that she’s suffered trauma which has left her unwilling to get close to people. We see things through the way she sees people and how she interacts with them—it is often hilarious and at other times heart-breaking. For instance, while discussing wedding gifts, consider how the author has Eleanor describes this British celebrity:
“Whoever had chosen the engagement gift had selected wineglasses and matching carafe. Such accoutrements are unnecessary when you drink vodka—I simply use my favourite mug. I purchased it in a charity shop some years ago, and it has a photograph of a moon-faced man on one side. He is wearing a brown leather blouson. Along the top, in strange yellow font, it says Top Gear. I don’t profess to understand this mug. It holds the perfect amount of vodka, however, thereby obviating the need for frequent refills.”
In her description of a very well-known celebrity, we see she does not consume media and TV in the way the rest of the country does. In Britain at the time the book is set, almost everyone would know then-host Jeremy Clarkson, and they’d have a different reaction to his face based more on his personality. If they bought the mug, it would be for very different reasons.
Later we learn more about Eleanor’s traumatic history from her description of the facial reactions of a new-to-the case social worker who visits her and goes over her file during the meeting:
“She continued to read, and then I saw her face change and she glanced at me, her expression a mixture of horror, alarm and pity. She must have got to the section about Mummy.”
From her description of the face of the social worker, we get some idea that Eleanor’s weirdness came from an abusive childhood. We learn so much from facial descriptions. This works well to pass along background mood, state of mind of the narrator, as well as age, class, occupation even. You can imagine what the social worker is like as she is unable to hide her reaction, yet these descriptions tell us so much more about Eleanor. Eleanor says this about the poor, unprepared social worker:
“I watched her eyes run over my scars. Her mouth slightly open, and it became clear that the suit and bob were an inadequate disguise for this particular slack-jawed yokel.”
I’ve only read 60 pages of this 390 page novel and I am totally into it. I’m invested and I know I’ll finish it over the weekend. I can’t wait to devour more of Eleanor’s story and I’m enjoying the way Gail Honeyman is using observation and reactions to drip bits of what made the character who she is while also having us realize how odd Eleanor would see to others. And because we see how others react to her and how she moves around in the world, I already feel so protective of her and want to know how she will find comfort and hopefully happiness by the end of the novel.
Building Engagement with Your Readers
You want this kind of reaction to your writing too, don’t you? So use the same kind of techniques in your own stories, whether you are writing memoir or fiction. When we see how others look through the eyes of the main character, or we see how the main character looks through the eyes of the other characters around them, it is so much stronger than just giving the reader the information. For example, had Honeyman simply written “Eleanor drank vodka by the mugful and couldn’t stand television” or “Eleanor had brown hair and scars up and down her face” sure we’d know that, but we wouldn’t have the understanding we’ve gained, would we? We get an affinity for Eleanor because of our visceral reactions to her based on Honeywell’s descriptions.
So think of how you see your mother’s face when you last saw her and your mother’s face when you were a child. These would be different not just because differences in your mother’s age, but also because of her place in your life at these two times.
Consider those photos that are popular each year: four-years screaming in terror as they are placed on Santa Claus’s knee. How do you think a child views Santa Claus? What about the appearance of the old fella would terrify a child from that child’s perspective?
Here’s are a few interesting people and faces:
Consider how you might describe each from different points of view. If you have a work in progress, how would your main characters see each of these people? What would be the first things they’d notice of each? How would they interact with them if they were dropped into a scene in your story? How would the description reveal more about your characters or the person they are looking at?
FOR SKILL-BUILDING & FUN
Describe how a scared child may see these people in the photograph. Consider the perspective of:
- a teenager who is skipping school
- a just-divorced father feeling lonely
- a happily married woman
- you on the worst day of your life
- a tourist
- a fugitive
- an on-duty narcotics officer or a detective
- a politician whose views you dislike
What did you come up with? It could be the basis of a new story or it may give you enough new insight on how to improve existing stories.
Lemme Know How It Went!
If this blog and/or writing exercise inspires you and you’d like to know more about bring more creativity into your life, reach out — I’m Akosua and you can email me here: firstname.lastname@example.org. I can help you get your story out of your head and into your reader’s hands and hearts.