Most writing tips are good. Some, especially some I learned in elementary school, are awful. Who could honestly believe it's a good idea to banish the word "said" from your writing? But here it is, in an amazingly wrong-headed and all too typical elementary school exercise called "Said Is Dead". The worksheet with 300 ways to replace said is really scary.
I'm sorry Mr. Said Is Dead-
Exclaimed is the Bearded Lady of Writing. Intriguing but unnatural. Weird, actually.
Why? Said is invisible. Attributive phrases aren't the place to make your writing "unique".
So how does any of this relate to pumping up the sensory detail in your writing? Elementary school teachers (I don't mean to pick on you, teachers! I love you! I'm one of you! And you're not all guilty of this, not by a long shot-- but this is where I hear it most often) have another tidbit of writing advice, this time about sensory detail.
UNLUCKY RULE NUMBER 13- Include references to every sense- touch, smell, taste, sound, and sight on EVERY PAGE. It will make your writing come ALIVE!
Yesterday Newport2Newport asked me if I was going to talk about that rule. As a matter of fact the strive for five rule is one of the reasons I started rethinking sensory detail in the first place. So yes, I am going to talk about it.
Here's what I have to say to anyone who advises you to have every one of the five senses represented on every couple pages-
"Drop the chalk and step back from the board before you hurt someone."
Smells, and tastes, and sounds stuffed into every single page can make your manuscript freakish.
Get real. Real people do not notice every sound and smell. That would drive a real person crazy. If you're subjecting your reader to all that sensory overload it will drive them crazy, too. They'll shut out the noise by putting down your book.
As Kelly and I discussed in the comments to yesterday's post "One Thing Leads To Another." (I won't post The Fixx you tube video here. Find it yourself.) This leads us back to what we talked about earlier in the week. Find your own voice. Find your own balance. Sensory detail is powerful. Whether your writing is lush and uses a lot of it, or spare and leaves much to the reader's imagination is your choice and your style. But don't strive for five, just because that's what someone told you to do. Some pages may turn up references to every one of the five senses. Others may allude to only one. Or none. And both are absolutely fine as long as your work is well balanced and consistent. As long as it sounds like you.
Now. Sit down. Grab a madeleine and pour yourself a cup of tea.
Let's switch gears and kick it up a notch. Sensory detail for the impresario. A little hard to decipher at first but easy to apply once you understand.
Up front I confess I'm just barely learning about this myself and I'm not completely sure I can explain it well. But here goes. You can build sensory images, and use them on virtually every page, if you move away from conventional ways of describing the senses. No sniffing the air and picking up the smell of smoke on one page and scent of violets on the next, on and on until your reader aspirates on page 400.
In Dreaming By The Book, Elaine Scarry talks about the sense of touch. Conveying real substance and volume is, according to Scarry, one of the most difficult things in writing. We read a lot about the texture of an object when a character touches it but this is something else. It's giving your characters' surroundings genuine weight.
Scarry uses the example of Proust's writing in Swann's Way. (Bear with me here. I never expected to write about Proust or Swann's Way in a Tollbooth post, but here you have it... and I think it's worth it. So listen up. Nibble a madeleine. Relax.)
Proust uses something called "kinetic occlusion"- basically he describes the play of a (weightless) light from a lantern against a solid wall. This gives the wall real weight and texture. The flickering movement of one against the solid surface of the other creates a visceral sensation of actual substance. It makes the rocks in the wall read as a weighty objects. Heavy. Dense. Not just smooth or rough or cold or mossy. Kinetic occlusion makes the scene three dimensional- literally. If you don't believe me pull out your old copy of Remembrance of Things Past. Save a madeleine for me.
As soon as I read the Swann's Way example I was reminded of one of the most beautiful passages in all literature Something you may be familiar with, too---
I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.
I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. We stood near the door of the ice-chamber.
By the well, servants lit bubbles of gas on fire, clad in frockcoats of asbestos.
Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand.
How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.
M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor To the Nation Vol. 1 The Pox Party (p.3)
Does kinetic occlusion give this scene its substance? I'm not sure. I feel the weight of those boughs, the windy space between the branches. One way or other it's magic. Word choice and rhythm, meaning and metaphor give it beauty and profound resonance. I may not be entirely clear about how kinetic occlusion works, but I know for a fact that this is sensory detail at its most incredible.
In the end, it's writing like this, not the rules of a well meaning teacher demanding we drop "said" and add loads of smells, or even a blogger who shoves fancy new terms down our throats that has the most to teach us about writing. Read and read and read and you will learn to write.