[— Karen Myers —]
Among a great many pedantic bits of advice for beginning fiction writers is the importance of fully describing a character’s environment and perceptions as a way of embedding the reader in that experience.
Yeah, well…. Boy, is that easy to do clumsily, using a shopping list approach to note the blue curtains, the ticking clock, the grit underfoot, the taste of dinner, and the smell of the smoking fireplace. That’s all very well, I suppose, but I doubt that, even for an omniscient narrator, everything in that list was of any relevance to the actual story at hand. And for a character’s POV? Well, do you take note, with each step you make, of the minute changes in your five(-ish) senses?
Of course not.
Despite my scorn for the mechanical approach, however, it is nonetheless true that the senses are underused in some ways in fiction, but for other reasons than the advice above.
Let me start by pointing out that you don’t stand still and send your senses out to explore for you. While you can decide to reach a hand out to touch something, or open your eyes, or tentatively use your tongue, more commonly all of the senses rather independently send you information before you think to ask for it. A blinding light flashes, a loud noise alarms, a taste of spoilage revolts, a sharp object stings, or an unexpected smell warns. [And even though I’m just talking about the canonical five, there are other somatically embedded senses that come into play: startle-reactions, balance/vertigo, somatic distress, changes in gravity, and so forth.]
I think of the standard senses as active participants in a scene, like miniature players. The character may have entered a room for a purpose, but a sensation interferes with that purpose by diverting it to something of more immediate consequence. Naturally, you wouldn’t bury every scene with five mini-players for the senses (which is why the beginner advice is such overkill). Used sparingly, however, they provide an active participation from something outside of the character himself — something that thrusts itself into his attention by way of his senses.
So what can you do with a focused approach on a sense?
As an example… In my current series-in-progress, the magic system has 3 components — Sensoria, Mentalia, and Arcana. The first two descend thru the female line, and the third appears from exposure in the environment. The handful of magical guilds in the capital city are each separately defined as a group of people who share, via inheritance, the first two sets of components, and acquire the third (by living in the guild hall). Outside of town, more rustically, other wizard clans exist, with different skills.
So. My primary character is the last heir to a wizard guild in the city, but he is related thru his father and doesn’t therefore have their skills (which effectively die out, no female-line heir being identifiable). His mother is from one of the rustic clans (Galivistams), and one of his inherited sensoria is the SNIFF. This skill is exotic and somewhat humorous to his town friends. They tease him about the “Galivistam SNIFF”. Girlfriends in bed wonder what they smell like to him. He can tell the difference between sub-species of animals by smell. Jokes are made about how well he can track someone, with his nose so far from the ground. It’s a running gag.
The skill is both voluntary and involuntary (a smell hits you, or you can seek it out). When he’s surprised, not only do his eyes widen in the alert, but the SNIFF kicks in (and people hear the inhale). The nostalgic reminder triggered by a scent is stronger and more pervasive for him. The sense of his environment is different from others. It can help warn him of an ambush. His relatives smell like “his family” as a class, and his wider acquaintanceship makes a class of its own. He finds exotic smells intoxicating (without the effects of alcohol). It helps him in his business of identifying arcana sources (by smell).
As you might imagine, this sparks all sorts of scenarios and opportunities for storylines and reactions and character nuance. I’m having a lot of fun with it, but it’s important to use it with a light hand — too easy for it to degenerate into some sort of formula.
What sort of effective use of senses have you made in your own writing?
Try to hit three senses per scene though character s differ in what they notice. Temperature is the commonest nonvisual and nonaudible
Good reminder about temperature.
In a story set on Titan, which has perpetual high winds and is practically made of ice (water and methane), I had the sound of the heating pipes in the station walls– as affected by the wind pressure outside– as a recurrent soundtrack, and I opened the story with the MCs making repairs on them.
There was a whiff of gas in the air, but no rushing or roaring noises so nothing major was leaking.
Any sounds he made had been lost in the general background noise of settling wreckage, and a gradually diminishing hiss of escaping refrigerant.
“What’s that smell?” she asked, then followed her nose to the source and read the sign. “Popcorn. Mmm, it smells really good.”
If it were me, I’d eliminate the last whiff of repeated word and sensory list with something like:
That struck me more as someone who has never smelled popcorn before, and is wondering what could cause that smell. Thus, the “It smells really good” instead of just “Yum”.
Good point. It depends on storyline and reader effect desired.
The first two sentences are in the first scene of the story.
The popcorn bit takes place several days later in chapter 18, and is indeed her first encounter with popcorn — which makes a notable impression.
A character with panic attacks having taught himself to focus on sensations to identify if he’s in trouble, and help pull himself out of it if he is.
If he can’t focus on HEARING people? He starts to lose it.
There are related somatic-based things we sometimes overlook, such as seeking human contact in emergencies — for example, the self-comfort of hugging oneself and rocking after shock, if that’s the best that’s available.
Warm, fluffy blankets! It’s like a hug, but without the worry about if you can trust the other person.
Yeah, I never though wringing one’s hands was real until I was in a situation where I was wringing my hands.
I tend to concentrate mostly on sight, hearing and motion. Very little on the other senses. Which I probably should work on. I do have a character in my fanfic who has sensory issues, which are not really a problem, but just something that’s part of who he is, and that he has to manage sometimes.
“Figs and tea with mine,” Caesar spoke up, head still resting on the table of the cafe. Out under the canopy, with a light breeze blowing, the spices from the cooking were diluted enough to be pleasant rather than overwhelming. It also blocked enough of the sun that it wasn’t too bright. And the other people there were speaking quietly enough to be reassuring rather than intrusive. Enough of everything but not too much of anything. He felt the tension of the day slipping away.
Otherwise, I describe the sensations, like Seraphim, when a character is stressed or having a panic attack. Usually I concentrate on breathing and heart rate.
But you although you may not know what my character’s clothes look like, you almost always know whether they’re standing, or sitting, or how they’re sitting, or if they’re leaning against a chair, or tapping a hand, or … You get it.
Yes, I do a lot of somatic? and motion-based stuff. You may not know what my character’s clothes look like, but you will always know how he’s moving, sitting, standing, moving his arms, hands, etc.
From FMA WIP:
Havoc came over to Breda’s table. Instead of sitting in the chair in front of it, he turned it and stood with his right knee on the chair and his right hand on the chair back, tapping it.
“What’s the problem, Hav?” asked Breda. “Out of cigarettes?”
Jean grinned then. “Nope,” he said, getting his pack out of a pocket and shaking one out.
“Just got back from the hospital. No smoking there,” and he lit the cigarette, took a drag, then turned the chair the right direction and sat down.
“Oh, no,” said Jean, surprised. “Everyone’s good. The guys gonna be okay, the ladies… fine.”
Heymans noticed the pause when Hav had mentioned the women. “Fine? Not good? What are you not telling me, Hav? You’re nervous as hell.”
He put his hands on Manny’s table. “You know how Cart Lady keeps ending up in the hospital? Something about how the other women treat her in the single women’s tent. She gets stressed out, then she starts to get crampy, and we have to put her in the hospital until she calms down. We’re moving her back again today, but one of these times, she could go into labor too early.”
Maryh, I don’t know why your replies were misfiled. I freed them, once I confirmed that they weren’t duplications. WPDE and so on.
I figured. Happens sometimes. Thanks!
From the fanfic thing:
She could see almost nothing, just forms in the shadows. No moonlight fell into the dark. No stars were
in the sky. Even her myon, she could only feel as it swirled around her.
Her heart pounded, but she cautiously advanced, unsure where to go, unwilling to do nothing. A cold
shock flowed across her without warning. The world spun, ground coming up to meet her. The scent of
old leaves mingled with dry dust.
The figure turned its back on her, as though she were the least important thing in its world. Perhaps it
was right. The outline, indistinct save for the great odachi it brandished. Roukanken, her Roukanken, in
its hand. The blade shown faintly in the darkness.
As the world dimmed, it spoke in a strangely soft voice. “You will never be strong enough.”
Youmu woke with her hand on her little utility knife’s hilt. She did not scream.
Ooh. I really like the last sentence after all that description. “She did not scream.” Makes it more intense than if she had.
I had so much fun with her cold opens. And they could be anything from extremely serious to equally ridiculous.
They certainly can be. (I stuck one in “Dragonfire and Time” and had some fun segueing though.)
Aaand copying it over munged the formatting. I caught it had dropped the paragraph spacing, but completely missed it was adding carriage returns from the page wrapping in the word doc.
It all comes down to “embodied”. The characters need to be embodied for reasons, so the reader can be (subliminally) made to feel the same things.
About two years ago, on a chapter-by-chapter critiquing website, I looked at a newly posted first chapter. My first reaction was “Oh, no! There’s _nothing_ I can do to help here,” with an awful feeling in the pit of my gut. But something made me look again, and read a little further.
And I found a paragraph, the sort of paragraph that writing books and teachers get down on their knees and clasp their hands and beg you to write. Smell, sound, sight, activity, more sound and smell, all bringing the scene to life in a few sentences. This was not accident. This came from a real sense of _story_.
I read on with a strange feeling in my chest. Buried under the untrained composition I saw an interesting character and hints of a fascinating character dilemma. I took a deep breath and started on a detailed, point-by-point critique, afraid that I would completely overwhelm a very promising writer.
She didn’t buckle. She soaked up everything I could show her, and her strong sense of story got stronger as her composition improved.
The book was published last fall.
One powerful description paragraph saved a book and maybe launched a career.
(No, I’ve not given any secrets away. The author has already told the story from her side.)
I cut my teeth on Heinlein and Dostoevsky, both of whom kept description to (I realized later in life) an extreme minimum, to the point where certain passages read like stage drama, dialogue only.
Then I studied screenwriting, where description is (ideally) restricted only to what is absolutely necessary, and even then kept vague, to give the people working the production the widest possible latitude. For example, Mickey Rourke’s character in Body Heat is introduced in the script with his name and the following description: “rock and roll arsonist”. That’s it. Puts an image in your head, but leaves the costume department all sorts of freedom when it comes to specifics. (And yes, there are ample exceptions to the rule. But the rule is a good one, because you can’t know at the writing stage what problems will appear in preproduction.)
So when I try writing prose, my instincts are toward super-streamlining, and fleshing descriptions out enough to fit readers’ expectations takes conscious effort. One of my teachers (by example only, alas) is Poul Anderson, who serves as a good example because he tried to use at least two senses for description in every scene.
The big thing about writing description is that while you can’t duplicate film, it can’t duplicate some effects in writing either.
One big one is point of view. At most the camera can focus on an object, it can’t give the selective notice that a character would give. One character sees a hybrid tea in pink next to this statue, and another sees a Chinoiserie statue from the early 19th century with this rose bush.
The other is loading your language. It matters a lot whether one woman’s dress is blood/fire/ruby/rose red, and another’s snow/salt/bone/lily white. (And those are different colors? No guarantee that the reader will mentally see the right shade even if you pick something the exact shade.)
Different media, different ways of achieving effects. In film, more than camera work is needed for a lot of things. Editing and sound design can communicate a lot about what a character is seeing/feeling, in ways you just can’t do in prose.
I will grant that I strongly did not care for the film of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, in large part because you lose the point of view (and most of the character of) Big Chief. They had to, replicating the book’s POV would have unbalanced the film for no great story reason. But I resent it, even so.
But even there, the film and the screenplay are different beasts. So we’ve now got three different modes of description/storytelling. 🙂
I tend to lean on hearing as my sense of choice, maybe because I’ve been shortsighted for most of my life, and tend to write at times of year when I’m too congested to smell much. Here’s a recent snippet.
Helena returned the little cushion to Lady Egerton and took up her own bit of mending again. A moment later, she heard Mrs. Belton’s shrill voice, followed by Sir William’s deeper tones. They were here! Her heart pounded so loudly that she thought Pug, if not his mistress, might hear. But the dog lay stretched out on Lady Egerton’s lap, and took no notice of Helena, or the human voices beyond this room
When you tell a story to kids around a campfire, you lean forward and wrap your arms around yourself, and tremble to illustrate the lines “and so he shivered all the night long…”. And what does your audience do? They shiver right along with you.
Monkey see [read], monkey do. It’s a channel of communication.