Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Use Your Senses

If you're writing about a place you've never been or a setting you've never seen at the time of year you're describing, you're really at a disadvantage. You could talk to someone who lives in the area you’re describing, especially if that person is a writer and used to looking at things with a writer's eye. You can do Internet searches for information on the area. You can talk to people in chat rooms. You can look in travel books or even in other fiction books. It can be done, but there's nothing like seeing it for yourself.

That’s because the best way to get it right is to see and feel it yourself - when possible. The puffy clouds lingering among the peaks of the mountains. The white caps of the higher clouds. The light blue that radiates to a darker blue then to an almost purple.

When we describe things in our manuscripts (or our characters do), we tend to focus on what can be seen. This is natural. In a book I read, You: The Owner’s Manual, Drs. Roizen and Oz said, “Roughly 80 percent of what our brains process comes from what we see.” So, of course, we describe what we see (or what our characters see).

But sight is not the only important sense we should keep in mind when writing. We, and characters, not only see, we smell things; we feel pain, stickiness and bumps; we hear sounds, soft, loud, low, high; we taste all kinds of things, good and bad, and some in-between.

And all of these senses can trigger emotions inside. We hear a song and we’re thrown back to our teenage years. We smell bacon cooking and smile as we’re transported to our childhood. A certain unidentifiable flavor causes us to spend an hour or even days trying to remember when we once tasted it before, or it makes us gag and spit it out.

Yes, the majority of description in a book is based on sight. It’s what our brains process most. But don’t ignore the other senses, even if it means you have to go back on some round of editing and add them in.
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30 comments:

  1. This is a tricky area for me! Thanks for the reminder. I usually have to go back in and add the other senses during edits.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  2. Good point and I agree. While it CAN be overdone if it's too obviously "thrown in" all over the place, subtle uses of all the sensory inputs make a book's world come more alive. Good lesson today, Helen.

    Marvin D Wilson

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  3. I have to really concentrate on the other senses as well. However, most of what I've written about I have seen firsthand.
    And you have a bloggy award waiting for you!

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  4. Yes, I agree - the senses are so important because of how much they relate to memory. They can be used as transitions to flashbacks as well - something that can be awkward if not related to a trigger.

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  5. This is such an important reminder. As was reading, I thought of the smell of Shalimar. When I walk by women wearing that scent, I am immediately transported to my mother. The scent of roses delivers me to my grandmother's bedroom. Great post Helen.

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  6. I have that book you referenced. You've reminded me I need to finish it!

    For me, it's the smell of tea--Constant Comment--that brings vivid memories of spending cool times with my sister and her friends in their dorm room at New York University.

    Very good advice here!

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  7. So true, Liza. Roses remind me of my mother.

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  8. Interesting to think of the senses as a writing tool. This is a solid piece of advice that should become routine in an early revision round, to engage all those senses in an effective way.

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  9. It is a good idea to make looking at the senses as a round of editing, Joanne. I agree. You have to concentrate to stay focused though, or you get distracted by your words or other areas that you see and want to edit.

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  10. I love writing that excites my sense of smell. I think it needs to be subtle to work. I've watched a video of a blind man negotiating obstacles with ease. All your senses will create vision. Can writing do the same without visual descriptions? Too tricky for this little duck.

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  11. Interesting post. Reading a book that does describe some of these things you mentioned (a song or smell of a certain food) will sometimes trigger a memory in the reader. That helps draw the reader into the book more.

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  12. I don't use the other senses enough, especially in my first draft. Thanks for the reminder of the importance of adding the others during the editing process.

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  13. Thanks, Helen. I needed this reminder, too, as I head into second draft.

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  14. Interesting to read that "80 percent of what our brains process comes from what we see". Impressions that we receive through the eyes are apparently much stronger than what we hear or read; like seeing violence in TV vs. reading about it in the paper, or sex movies vs. literature (e.g Henry Miller).

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  15. Unless you don't have the sense of sight, you depend on sight significantly every day. As a writer, though, we enrich our words by using the other senses.

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  16. I try each character to experience the scene in their own way. One is an artist, so he's very aware of colour, but along with another character, he's very fond of food; both of them are smelling things.

    Sight is wonderful, but I try to pay particular attention to the other senses; the fragility of a glass bowl or the solidness of a horse's flank.

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  17. The use of senses in writing is so important. My writing mentor always stressed SHOW me, don't tell me.

    For me, it's a bit harder because I write fantasy fiction that deals with things, either in this world or another, that we don't usually see (read: never). I have to go with similar situations and make them conform to what research I've done. Hard when writing about mythical creatures, but that's where imagination comes in!]

    Jen

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  18. My story is set in space - but I'd like the opportunity to visit.

    However, I did need to know a bit about fighter jets, and that I got to experience up close.

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  19. Great post, Helen. The five sense can be used to engage readers and bring them into the story. I use food and drink a lot. Smell, taste, sight, feel (texture of food or heat of coffee) and even hearing (sizzling fajitas for example) can all be used.

    Can you smell the fresh baked bread in the morning when a character passes by a bakery? Or the smell of freshly ground coffee or bacon in the kitchen? I can see, smell, and taste an excellent glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

    Stephen Tremp

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  20. This is hard for me. I had to go back in and add sensory images after my manuscript was done. It doesn't come naturally.
    Karen

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  21. Oh man, I'm reading a book right now, that is "almost" good, the author is leading with his nose "too much", offering up scent like nobody's business, and most of his references aren't even believable. The protagonist is a man that can identify every female he comes across perfume by name and he's a blue collar worker with no perfume background--I think not!

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  22. I often remind myself to include all the senses. In my current series, the hero has better tuned senses than the average person so I use that but I often forget about the other characters.

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  23. Great advice that can't be repeated too often, especially for writers just learning the craft.

    I discovered early on that I have a terrible time describing places that I have not seen or visited, so I do lot of location scouting when planning a new book. In doing that, I discovered that I can pick up on all the sights, sounds, and smells of a place.

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  24. Great advice :)

    I've used the sense of smell a few times in my latest ms. A lot of the action takes place in alleys - not the nicest place for smells, but fun description!

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  26. That comment by Elizabeth Bradley above, on perfume, made me think about a funny story:

    Many years ago I was in a fine restaurant in Germany with, among others, a cool French friend of mine. After a while, he called for the butler and asked to get a new waitress at our table, because her perfume was so strong that it destroyed the bouquet of his wine. What the Hell! I got a good laugh. That's the French way, they got senses >:)))

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  27. Good dispatch and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Gratefulness you as your information.

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  28. Good reminder and something that I struggle to remember. It makes our characters more three dimensional when they're smelling and tasting.

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  29. Good advice, Helen. I usually have exactly the opposite problem. I start by giving the emotional reaction/sensation/scent of the environment then work out the physical aspects of it. Either way more always seems to get added to the ms on the second pass.

    ~Kimberly

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  30. Good post Helen. I would add that women and men differ in how their brains process sensory information with women being more responsive than men to input in the other senses. So a female POV character might do more smelling, tasting, hearing and feeling than a male POV character.

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