Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Five Senses in Your Writing - Part 1

By Donna Sundblad

In my book Pumping Your Muse, I challenge writers with exercises that reach deep into the imagination’s recesses where creative exercises carry the muse on a journey designed to force ideas in resourceful new directions of development. The goal is to pull together bits and pieces or reality and learn to blend them within the fiction-creating process. Adding subtle sensory details works like sensual brush strokes that craft multi-levels of dimension by engaging the reader’s senses.

In real life, details flood our senses on a subconscious level. A hint of smoke presented within the context of your story may warn the character of an electrical fire, or allow them to reminisce about a romantic interlude basking in the firelight, or could even remind them of the invigorating smell of burning of leaves on a crisp fall day.

Good writers furnish this minutia with three-dimensional realism. The trick is to learn to include this information without overpowering the story with overly descriptive passages which bog the story’s pace and sometimes lose the reader. Your goal as a writer is to make the world you portray a real experience. As your reader walks through the pages of your story, engaging the senses allows them to experience the veracity of the world you create.

Moving the Story Along

Sensory information plays an important part in moving your story along. A sound, a scent—such detail provides subtle clues for the reader to follow. Engaging the senses makes a fictional world more real by adding dimension and realism. Stop and take note of your current setting. What do you see, hear, smell, taste and feel? Our brains take in this information subconsciously most times and that’s how you need to present it in your writing. A natural but delicate flow of information.

Pay attention to sounds around you, but not just that—ask yourself what they make you think or feel. Reactions are based on input—sensory input. One goal as a writer is to engage readers so they feel the character’s reaction as if they live in the character’s skin. In my most recent novel, Beyond the Fifth Gate, when my protagonist, Elita, crosses through the portal into a new world to find herself on a narrow ledge overlooking lagoon, a waterfall crashes over head. Crashes is not a gentle sound and raises the tension (no way up). She hears large earth movers...but I don't say she hears...instead large large armored earthmovers rumble as they pile dirt like golden mounds of grain. It's a long way down, and the enemy awaits her there. Subtle details let the reader determine whether or not the character is making the wisest choice.

Here's another example: If your character hides in the woods and hears the crackling of twigs, the reader should feel fear or at least apprehension. A musky scent draws the character’s attention to a wild pig rooting in the moist earth. The character lets out a breath, and the reader relaxes—until gruff snorts and bristling hair on the back of the animal’s neck, and a flash of tusks sends the character rushing blindly through dense foliage. Readers see through the characters eyes when writers provide the right sensory information. It not only makes the story come alive, but it eliminates the need to tell the reader what’s going on or how a character is feeling. Instead, sensory input pulls them into the story to experience it first hand.

In real life, our thoughts wander, but even as they seem to meander from topic to topic, they do follow logic. Writers can create natural segues with the use of sensory details. If your character hears someone laugh and it reminds them of someone they once knew, it provides a natural transition to include backstory without dumping the information in an awkward or obtrusive way. In the same way, if your character smells a hint of electrical smoke it makes sense that they will look for the source. If they come to the laundry room door and it feels hot, many readers will know the character should not open the door—if they do, the reader will brace for the explosion of flame.

In my part two, we'll take a closer look at the five senses in writing.

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