Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Monday, August 6, 2012

Tip O'Day #373 - Sensory Writing

Guest blogger Dee Ann Waite says, “Eyes and ears are not enough.”

As writers, we must remember our readers are dependent upon our descriptions to bring them fully into the story. We need to make them not only see and hear the story, but also feel it, smell it and taste it. In my experience, smell and taste are two of the most neglected senses in writing. Pick a scene from one of your stories and review it for the five senses. Can you see where you could have added one or two to enhance the scene?

A while ago, as I was driving along a winding country road on my way to the west coast of Florida, I began to see Smoke Area signs. In Florida, when the season is exceptionally dry, they have what are called controlled burns – intentionally set fires to clear the dead brush. I slid the window open and inhaled deeply, prepared to experience the exquisite taste of home. As I breathed in the aroma of burning vegetation, memories of outdoor campfires and old wood-burning stoves flooded in from my youth. A smile creased my lips as I relished the joyful innocence of adventure, wonder, and the comfort of home. The smell of smoke brought it back in its full glory.

You see, senses have everything to do with writing because writing is metaphoric, sharing universal truths through metaphors delivered from the heart.

Writing from your senses doesn't mean including a few senses in your narrative. It involves much more than the simple description of a sense. Not connecting a described sense to a memory or emotion is to miss a very important opportunity as a storyteller. You have the opportunity to enlighten readers on some aspect of your characters’ experiencing the sense (such as their histories, the quality and nature of their relationships, their viewpoints, education, prejudices, how and what they've experienced in their lives). Here are some examples of what I mean:

#1: Judy walked into the Closed Closet Pub and caught the tantalizing aroma of garlic and peppers amid the din of jubilant laughter, cackles and desultory conversation. The amber light enhanced the rich tones of nautical oak. She saw some friends drinking in the corner and sauntered toward them, smiling.
#2: Judy hesitated at the Closed Closet Pub door, inhaling the exquisite aroma of garlic and peppers amid the din of jubilant laughter, cackles and desultory conversation. For a moment she was back on the boat, reliving the party that changed her life. She'd stopped eating peppers after that. She caught sight of her friends drinking in the corner, beneath the amber light. She sauntered toward them, a huge smile pasted on her face.

The first example describes; the second example emotes. The first one describes the place but it doesn't provide us with any information about Judy, except that she likes the aroma of garlic and peppers. We don't know why. In the second example, her senses are used to hint at intrigue linked to memories that, in turn, are linked to the associated sense--in this case the smell of garlic and peppers. This is the power of writing with your senses. You bring it home for the reader.

Adding detail to our writing can be a difficult process. We don't want to overwhelm our readers, but we want them to be able to visualize the details of our stories. Adding sensory descriptions will help them do this. Watch as I add sensory details to one of the scenes in this realistic fiction story:

Charles rushed out the door as he headed to his first day of college. He slung his book bag over his shoulder and quickly made his way to the school auditorium.

Although this is a great scene, more details can help readers visualize and understand what Charles is feeling. I might add the following to the scene:

The chill of the wind froze him to the bone as his feet crunched on the ice under his feet.

This tells me a lot about the scene. The reader knows it's winter and Charles is cold. The wind blows in his face and he has to walk slower than he wants because there is ice on the ground. I could also include what he smells and tastes, but sometimes it isn't necessary to include all the senses. We have to be careful not to be overly descriptive.

I've been advising you on how to incorporate the five senses into your writing to bring the characters to life and help your readers to become part of the story. Now I'd like to mention that omitting one of the senses here and there can also add tension, fear, etc. to the story. Consider this scene:

You’re a small child lying in your bed, all alone. Desperately waiting for your eyes to become accustomed to the dark, you hear it - a soft, scratching noise - and it's coming from under the bed. It lasts only a moment before it stops. You wonder if you're hearing things, and you're so desperate for the darkness to lighten that you forget to blink. The blackness seems to swirl around you, cloaking you in a thick, black fog, through which no light can penetrate. The sound begins again, only this time the scratching becomes louder, seems closer, and last a little longer this time. You hold your breath so the darkness doesn't know you’re there. Without your sense of sight, you figure by not breathing you will be able to hear the sound more clearly, and identify its location...

The description above relies on the complete absence of the sense of sight. This is where fear comes in and can play a major role - in this case, blind fear. To compensate for the loss of sight, hearing becomes more acute. You, as the writer, can introduce other horror-inducing thoughts and impressions.

You are at an advantage as a fiction writer. You get to create a real life environment, and enhance that environment any way you wish, to any degree you wish, by the use of sensory writing. Real life can be far more interesting than fiction.

Dee Ann Waite is author of the thriller The Consequential Element. You can learn more about her at her website or blog. She tweets as deeannwaite1

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