The Activity-Description Technique

This technique forces description into action and provides creative momentum when static description might be sagging or bogging the writer down.

It is possible to describe something statically, photographically, by telling us how it looks as it sits on the shelf: It was a tarnished ball, just smaller than a volley ball and covered with gouges, scuffs and scratches. Perhaps it once had been a rich and shiny blue, bluer than the ocean on a sunny day. Now, even if somebody took the time to dust off the years of grime, the ball would only succeed in mustering up a dullish sort of aged grey.

This might be an acceptable description, but it doesn't get the writer, or the reader anywhere. The ball is still just the ball, and it still sits on the shelf gathering dust in the garage, and if the story is to proceed anywhere, it will have to hitch a ride on some other propulsion device.

If we put the object into action as we create it, it just might take us somewhere a story might be lurking. What we want to do with this technique is to make the physical object the actual vehicle that takes us into the fictive dream. Take the same ball and describe it by getting it to tell us where it's been: Small enough to be grasped in the hands of tiny children, the ball had been bounced a thousand times between a brother and his slightly older sister, again and again and again until the brother got the hang of clasping it between his fat palms. It had been trapped at least a hundred of those times in the clench of the raspberry brambles in back of the garage when the ball had bounded past the boy, and he had to bear his sister's taunting reproofs: 'No, no no! Not that way! You have to watch for it to bounce. You can't close your eyes! Don't you know anything?' The ball had been a rich deep blue once, that Christmas he'd found it, tied with a bow at the base of the tree beside his new sled, and so shiny he'd first thought it must be a marble left by a giant. The brambles had taken away that gloss right away, not to mention the skin of his wrists as he reached to retrieve it.

Now the description has taken us into the episode, and you know what the ball is like -- not to mention the people who tossed it back and forth -- from watching it in action. The goal is to describe an object (or a scene or a person) by allowing it to carry you back into an episode. And if all your sails are set just right to pick up a prevailing breeze, you may find yourself gliding into an entire story. This works best if the object isn't associated with an actual event, so that you don't make reasoned, logical connections to real history (as would happen in the thought progression: 'This is the dress I wore to my junior prom in high school. I remember, that was the night my date slipped and toppled into the punch bowl.' etc.) It's best if you don't really know the story before you begin, if it is not a historical analog but rather an entirely new tale that suggests itself to you whole from contemplating the object itself.

Virginia Woolf mastered the activity-description technique. A detail for her could easily take her soaring into digressions not only to the past, but to the future, as in her description of the dilapidating abandoned house in the middle section of To the Lighthouse:

For now had come that moment, that hesitation when dawn trembles and night pauses, when if a feather alight in the scale it will be weighed down. One feather, and the house, sinking, falling, would have turned and pitched downwards to the depths of darkness. In the ruined room, picnickers would have lit their kettles; lovers sought shelter there, lying on the bare boards; and the shepherd stored his dinner on the bricks, and the tramp slept with his coat round him to ward off the cold. Then the roof would have fallen; briars and hemlocks would have blotted out path, step, and window; would have grown, unequally but lustily over the mount, until some trespasser, losing his way, could have told only by a red-hot poker among the nettles, or a scrap of china in the hemlock, that here once some one had lived; there had been a house.