Thursday, April 26, 2012

Eyes and Ears Are Not Enough

When writing a book, we must remember that our readers are dependent upon on our descriptions in order to bring them fully into the story. We not only need to make them see the story, and hear the story, but to 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's called, 'controlled burns'. These are intentionally set fires to clear the dead brush to reduce the possibility of a fire catching and spreading.

For some reason on this particular day, I slid the window open and inhaled deeply. I 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 in the joyful innocence of adventure, wonder, and the comfort of home. The smell of smoke brought it all back to me in its full glory.

You see what I mean? Senses have everything to do with writing. That's because writing is metaphoric. That's what storytelling is: sharing universal truth through metaphor, delivered from the heart. 

Writing from  your senses doesn't just involve making sure to include at least a few senses like to your narrative. To write well involves much more than the simple description of a sense. To not connect a described sense to a memory or emotion is to miss a very important opportunity as a storyteller. You have the opportunity to enlighten the reader on some aspect of the POV character experiencing the sense (things like their history, the quality and nature of their relationships, their viewpoints, education, prejudices, how and what they've experienced in their life).

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 need to bring it home for the reader.

Adding detail to our writing can sometimes 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 descriptions of senses 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, I need to add more details so the reader can 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 probably cold as the wind blows in his face and he has to walk slower than he wants because there is ice on the ground.

I can 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:

Your 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 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 your 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.

Send me a scene of yours and show me how you've incorporated the five senses (or as many as needed to make the scene work, without overdoing it). I'd love to read them, and they will be useful examples to our fellow readers.