November 2nd, 2009

Let's Get Sensual

"Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief." Helen Keller

"Add sensory detail!" may be the most simple, and some would say obvious, command a writing teacher gives a student. But like everything else involving great writing it can be more complicated than that.

This week we'll explore sensory detail beyond the basics. How does the right sensory detail build voice? What effects can you create by describing smell, taste, touch, sound and the old standby what your point of view character sees? Do different readers perceive sensory detail differently? How do you avoid sensory overload?

Today let's start with why include sensory detail.

Janet Burroway, guru writing professor says ""Specific, definite, concrete, particular details--these are the life of fiction....(W)riting is alive because we do in fact live through our sense perceptions..." (From Writing Fiction A Guide To Narrative Craft)

Adding sensory details- the sites and sounds and smells are at the root of that other basic piece of writing advice- SHOW DON'T TELL. Put yourself in the point of view character's shoes. Bring him into the room and let him discover the smell of chalk on a chalkboard or a pan of  beans burned on a stove.

Let him hear a crying baby or a whimpering dog.

But this doesn't mean adding something like "Alfonso heard a mouse scurry under the table." That's still telling. Not horrible. Even okay sometimes. But that's not the best you can do. Try something like this-

"Alfonso dragged the chair from under the table and fell into its seat. A quiet gnawing, tiny claws across the floorboards, maybe, scurried from the dark corner beneath his feet. Alfonso pushed his plate to the middle of the table. He was never sure if he was alone in this kitchen." 

Okay, fine. I just made that example up on the spot. It's sort of silly and not the most elegant... but do you get my drift? Sensory detail shouldn't sit on top a scene like a cherry on a scoop of ice cream. Sensory detail that pulls a reader in is itself embedded into the scene. You are showing what sounds Alfonso heard, inserting those very sounds into your reader's ears, not merely reporting that there were sounds in the room.

Sensory detail is an arrow that shoots through a page, piercing a reader's heart and memory. How do you feel, suspecting there's a mouse under Alfonso's feet? Would you eat a slice of bread or a hunk of cheese from that kitchen? It probably doesn't matter to the plot of this imaginary story whether there are actually mice in the kitchen. It does matter that the kitchen has an unsettling atmosphere.

I constantly read tons of fiction, but lately I've been working my way through a hardcore work of nonfiction, too.


Dreaming By The Book by Elaine Scarry.

Scarry, a Harvard aesthetics professor, explains how reading creates an intense sensory response in the reader. In many ways- measurable with neurological and psychological tools- a reader's response to a story on the page is stronger than his reaction to dreams or imagination. Writers who use powerful description and compelling characterization create vivid worlds the reader believes in. How many times have you cried over a novel, even though the rational part of you knows it's all make believe?

One of the most essential tools of this world-building is concrete sensory detail. When Helen Keller read about the smell of a peach she was carried to another place and time. She fell into the dream of the story. You can do this too, with well written sensory details.

Tomorrow we'll talk about the what of sensory detail... making sure our literary smells and tastes are neither too hot nor too cold, but always just right.

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