Monday, August 29, 2011

Challenge: Describe The Senses

Description. Some writers love it, some hate it. Some overuse it, some don’t have enough. Most often, though, I think the right amount exists, but it’s light on a very important element: the senses.

The most common sense used in stories is sight. It’s often reinforced through filtering words like I saw, I watched, I noticed, etc. But there are four other senses: smell, taste, touch, hearing.

In the real world, we use these senses without even thinking about it. The most common is sight, of course. Then hearing. I don’t know about you, but I love my sense for tasting. Good food is high on my list when going out for some fun. And who doesn’t like the feel of soft fabrics sliding through their fingers? Or the smell of cookies baking, or flowers in spring? Each sense is as important as the next, and we need to consciously include them all in our stories.

The best way to convey information through senses is directly. I.E., without any kind of filter. Telling us that “James felt cold” doesn’t give us a sense of how cold he is. Is it a slight shiver? Are his teeth chattering? Are his fingers turning numb? These details paint a more vivid picture in the reader’s mind. The stronger the senses come across, the more the reader can put himself in the character’s shoes.

This, incidentally, is a large part of how you transport the reader into the story. The key to this is how the character experiences the sense. If you use filtering words like I saw, I heard, I smelled, etc, then you’re keeping the reader from accessing a huge dimension of your story. So, instead of filtering the senses, try to give the reader full access to them by showing them how the senses unfold.

When we walk outside, we are aware of lots of things. We don’t often pay attention to it all, but we’re aware on some level. If someone asked us about a detail later on, we’d probably be able to remember it if we tried, even though we initially shrugged it off. The same needs to be true for our characters. The details that will become important later on need to be noticed and recorded in the moment. When the dots are connected later on, the reader will understand.

Challenge:
Take a simple action like stepping out of a car, getting in the shower, walking outside, etc, and write it using all five senses. Feel free to go nuts and make it a full page long. Just keep the action restricted to that one simple thing.

Feel free to share your work here in the comments, or keep it to yourself. Your choice.

7 comments:

Bethany Mattingly said...

Great challenge. :) I'm definitely going to give it a try.

Tabitha said...

Excellent!! Feel free to share it here if you like. We'd love to see it. :)

Diane Carlisle said...

Fun exercise! Here's mine:

I stepped onto the wooden deck when we arrived at The Marina. Some of the planks were two to three inches apart and the wobbly platform didn't help my fear of heights. Water sloshed beneath the boards and I pushed aside the fact that I was too large to slip between them.

I immediately outstretched my arms in the manner of a tightrope entertainer to keep my balance while sea gulls squawked as if heckling me. The salt in the air from the ocean spray stuck to my skin like a thin film of Saran wrap and I could smell the fishy slime at the base of the support beams in the water. All I wanted was to reach solid ground at the end of the dock.

khashway said...

Great post. I love trying to really capture the senses. I hate using "I felt" and avoid it at all costs. Detail, specific verbs, sensory language--so much better.

Dawn Malone said...

Great post! I forget who I heard speak at a conference about using sensory details, saying you really need to use 2-3 different senses to make a scene really come alive.

Bethany Grace said...

Thanks! I needed that bit of advice today!

Catherine Stine said...

I use scent and color a lot. Oh, and how the weather feels on skin.