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02:16 pm: Wright's Writing Corner: Senses



Senses:              Add three to five senses to every description.

 

When I started writing, I used to swap my pages done that week with two friends. We would read each other’s work and send back comments. My friend’s comments were almost universally the same. I had not included any sense impression except for sight.

”What does it sound like?” They would ask. “What does it smell like?”

 

At first, I added additional sense impressions at their urging. Then, with time, I began to remember to do it myself. Now, the majority of the time, I do remember on my own.

 

Why? You ask. What’s the big deal about sound and smell, and maybe taste or feel?

 

Makes the experience feel more real.

 

Imagine you had someone in a virtual reality suit, and you wanted to convince them into believing your program was the real world—not necessarily to delude them, but to entertain them. No matter how realistic your visuals, if they heard and smelled their living room while seeing your waterfalls and grand vistas, they would never been entirely swept away.

 

But what if you could make them hear the roar of the water and smell the pine resin? That would go much father to convincing them that they were there, in your scenario. What if they could feel the cool breeze? What if they could taste the icy cold water?

 

Because, when it comes right down to it, how do we tell where we are? By the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feel of things. Those are the methods we use to bring in information. So, if those senses were fooled, we would “correctly” draw the conclusion that we were somewhere else.

 

Our real senses are the most convincing, of course, but we have a second pair of senses, too—our imaginary senses. We can imagine seeing the warm brown walls of the Starbucks; hearing the percolating liquid; smelling the roasted coffee; tasting the hot sweet liquid (after we added six types of syrups.) With enough mental pointers, we can get a pretty vivid mental image.

 

Which brings us back to writing: One thing we writers are trying to do is befuddle the reader—to draw them away from their actual life until the life on the page seems almost as vivid as reality. The more we can do this, the more they can be drawn into the story and forget their surroundings…making it more likely that they will keep reading.

 

Adding sense impressions to a description—even a description of just a single sentence or two—goes a long way to help ground the reader and make their experience more immediate. It also helps broaden your readership. Some people, like myself, tend to think visually about images. Other people don’t. They may be more aware of what they hear. Adding these details helps ground readers across the perception range.

 

So, how do you actually do it? You picture your scene in your head and then cast about your imagination/memory for what that place/time might look, sound, smell, taste, or feel like. And you add this in. (Feeling is a good one not to forget. In real life, we are often aware of how hot or cold we are.)

 

Experience has shown me that adding five sense impressions draws the scene out too far. Two is often not quite enough. If I can find a place in a descriptive paragraph or early in a scene to include three sense impressions, the scenario both feels more vivid and is not bogged down by too much description. This is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes, I just use one or two. Sometimes, more than three. But three seems to me to be what makes a scene come alive.

 

The neat thing, as a writer, is that it makes you more aware. I probably would not have noticed that I can feel the weave of my sweater or hear both the regular whir of my heater and the gentle rrrrr of a plane leaving Dulles airport and flying overhead with an occasional mrrr of one of the cats. (No particular smell here today, I’m glad to say.) Even if we are not aware at the time, we can become more aware in retrospect by sitting down and working our imaginations trying to piece out what a particular time and place would sound and smell like.

 

It’s fun. You should try it.




Comments

[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:February 4th, 2010 08:50 pm (UTC)
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Ah, yes, keeping track of the senses. . . it can be hard to remember.

(Though I think you repeated yourself, posting.)
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From:arhyalon
Date:February 4th, 2010 09:23 pm (UTC)
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You are right. I wonder how that happened. I didn't enter it twice. Weird.
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From:damcphail
Date:February 5th, 2010 12:56 pm (UTC)
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Actually, she might be repeating me...I think that was the topic of my guest post quite some time ago...hard to remember :)
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From:arhyalon
Date:February 5th, 2010 06:13 pm (UTC)
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No. No. She meant that I posted the same post twice...physically had it twice on my blog. I removed the second one, though. ;-)
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From:damcphail
Date:February 7th, 2010 12:20 am (UTC)
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Got to love computers!
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From:m_francis
Date:February 5th, 2010 02:36 am (UTC)
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Ancient writing and medieval writing did not do this very much, as their purposes were different. The thing that was novel about the novel - and why it was called novel - was not its length. There have been long stories before. But because it sought to present life realistically, in line with the Scientific Revolution, to describe things objectively through the senses. Hence, the expression "true to life." No mistake that modern science, the novel, and representation in paining all came together as a package deal.
+ + +

Easy enough to conjure the scent of brewing coffee. Not so easy to conjure the scent of tepid qurlaq being filtered on planet Burlap.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 5th, 2010 03:28 am (UTC)
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;-)

How to describe unfamiliar smells and tastes often baffles me.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 5th, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
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There ought to be a scratch-and-sniff book for authors, with the descriptive nouns and adjectives for the smells.

Add some texture patches. Rough, smooth, gritty, etc.

And a page of colors. Guys only see like three primary colors. I mean, what's teal? It's a duck, not a color.
[User Picture]
From:kokorognosis
Date:February 5th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
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I'm still convinced that chartreuse is a shade of purple, myself. Even though it's not.
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From:damcphail
Date:February 5th, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
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Ah...for this one you would use comparison. In the Halfling's Court, when I was describing how the road gremlin would laugh I combined two discordant sounds...Like ground glass in a blender...

For alien concepts you either filter it through the perception of someone familiar with our world, or in the case of a completely alien or fantasy reality use your adjectives...

"Kran moved down the crowded lane, dodging pickpockets and merchants alike--the difference between the two quite slight enough it was easy to confuse one for the other--as he ducked down a side path, he blundered into a greasy, near invisible cloud that clung to his skin and the passages of his nose. The sharp, biting aroma, subtle, but lingering, called to mind like old sweat mingled with new baking. Caught unaware, Kran breathed too deeply of the stuff. He blinked furiously, trying to clear his vision of the ghosting effect caused by the fumes but everything before him took on a transparent visual echo. Self-preservation sent him stumbling back into the crowded lane, right into what he hoped was the merchant variety of occupant. Ah, qurlaq, apparently, just like Mother used to make. Kran shuddered and hurried away, down a different route to his objective."
[User Picture]
From:kokorognosis
Date:February 5th, 2010 06:56 pm (UTC)
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Ah...for this one you would use comparison. In the Halfling's Court, when I was describing how the road gremlin would laugh I combined two discordant sounds...Like ground glass in a blender...
This is what I do. Most of my POV characters tend to not be in the know, and so I can filter everything bizarre through them, whether it's sight or taste or even technobabble, so instead of mentioning the "sharp scent of qurlaq," they mention smelling something halfway between alcohol and ammonia.
[User Picture]
From:damcphail
Date:February 7th, 2010 12:19 am (UTC)
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Yes, it works, you just have to be creative :)
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From:brni
Date:February 13th, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC)
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And nested in this is the fact that your description needs to be in terms that make sense for your POV character. If your road gremlin was encountered by a roman soldier, you'd need a description that didn't refer to modern kitchen appliances.
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From:damcphail
Date:February 15th, 2010 09:27 pm (UTC)
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Well, yes. That would be a case where I would use adjectives rather than comparison.
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From:damcphail
Date:February 5th, 2010 12:55 pm (UTC)
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Wonderful post, Jagi :)

I heartily agree ;)

D-
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From:arhyalon
Date:February 5th, 2010 06:14 pm (UTC)
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That is because you are the mistress of senses, from whom I learned all. ;-)
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From:damcphail
Date:February 7th, 2010 12:20 am (UTC)
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LOL...thanks :) believe me, it is a mutually benefitial relationship!
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From:cdenmier
Date:February 11th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)

Good Advice

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A simple point...and really, really good. I am definitely guilty of subconsciously thinking that it's good enough if I describe what a scene looks like.

I came back to a small passage that I recently wrote and thought that it stood out compared to the rest of the chapter, but I couldn't put my finger on why. Thinking back to it after reading this, I think I liked the passage because it was a rare scene in which I described more than just the visual stuff.

I'll definitely keep this post in mind as I continue. How can something so simple be so easy to overlook as a writer?!
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 11th, 2010 08:32 pm (UTC)

Re: Good Advice

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That's why I keep a list of Writing Tips. They are really for myself, to remind me when I sit down to write.
[User Picture]
From:houseboatonstyx
Date:February 25th, 2010 06:00 am (UTC)
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Taking this the other way, how to evoke familiar sensations without belaboring sensory words, I once did an exercise without any direct sensory words at all: no colors, no
hot/cold, no rough/smooth, etc.

Instead I mentioned 'sea wind', 'light rain', 'rickety steps', 'weathered wood', 'old sisal rope', etc. People could read
in their own sense memories.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 25th, 2010 02:30 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, those are good! They imply what the senses look for (except that I don't know what sisal means. Have to go look it up.)

Nice use of the endangered adjective there. p;-)
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