Saturday, 7 July 2012

Use your common sense(s)

See it, hear it, touch it, taste it, smell it. We all know what the five senses are. But do we always include them all in our writing? 

I don’t – at least not in the first draft. I’m so focussed on getting the story written, bringing out character and unfolding the plot, that I tend to forget about everything other than what the characters see and what they are saying. I don’t even mention other things they can hear except the speech. 

But when editing, I make a point of trying to use all the senses. In each short story, I think all the senses should be used. In a novel, I’ll try to get most of them into every scene. It’s not always possible and not worth forcing it – in a scene where a teacher is dealing with unruly pupils it’s tough to get ‘taste’ into the scene, for example,  but think for a moment and you’ll certainly find a way to get ‘smell’ in there.  

Take another scene – a heart-to-heart chat between a couple walking along a cliff top path in early summer – my first draft would be all about their conversation. But in the edit, I’d have them notice the vanilla scent of the gorse, taste the salt in the air, feel the breeze on their cheeks, hear the rhythmic crash and suck of the surf on the shingle on the beach below. I’d add some colour – startling blue sky, vibrant yellow gorse; and maybe, if I was feeling vicious or wanted some contrast, I’d give one of them a sharp little stone in their shoe.  

If you want your reader to really BE there, in your scene, when they’re reading it, you need to employ all their senses when describing the scene. But as I said in an earlier post, try make those descriptive details work in more than one way, and add more to the story than just colour. In the scene above, if the heart-to-heart is a break-up discussion, the beauty of the scene could be set in contrast with the ache in your character’s heart. How can something so terrible happen on such a gorgeous day? Or the scene can compliment their emotions. This is the calm before the storm, the last lovely, carefree day, and the contrast comes later. Or, something about the scene can remind your character of something from their past – they say that the sense of smell is most closely linked to memory, so use that to cue a flashback… 

I remember one short story by Della Galton in which a beautiful garden was described in all its detail. The twist was that the main character was an elderly blind woman living in a nursing home, and the non-existent view from her window was being described to her by her well-meaning daughter. The old woman knew (from her other senses) there was no garden, only a concrete yard, but didn’t let on to her daughter that she knew. So senses can provide you with a twist. Another friend used the condition of anosmia (lack of sense of smell) to provide the twist to a prize-winning story.  

So, use the senses to add colour, cue flashbacks, provide a twist. Make your reader experience your scene, not just read it. Involve all the senses. This is where the written word has an advantage over TV and film – until they invent scratch’n’sniff TV, at least!






11 comments:

Vikki (www.the-view-outside.com) said...

Some great advice, thank you :)

Xx

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Great post, thank you - I also just want to get the story written then have to think of these kind of things (hopefully)!

Dolores Doolittle said...

Thanks Womag - really useful bring-it-alive stuff

Anonymous said...

As always thanks for taking time to share your ideas with us, Womag - much appreciated. Good wishes KH

BaggieAggie said...

Great post. :)

I really must get back into short-story writing. If I can remember how, that is!

Rosie. x

womagwriter said...

Yes, Rosie - you really must! I tried to find your story online to link to but couldn't. But as you can see, I've never forgotten it.

Bridget Whelan said...

Excellent post. I think most of us think (and dream) in pictures. Our visual creativity is quite finally honed which is why I guess we so often describe something by the way it looks but if you can bring in any other sense it adds a layer of reality, a depth that brings the story alive.
Also just popped by to say that I've often recommended your blog to creative writing students in Brighton and London - not only very, very useful, it is also proof positive that writers are kind, generous souls...we share.So a big thank

womagwriter said...

Thanks Bridget. I love hearing that the blog is useful to people.

Maggie May said...

Thanks once again for some very useful advice. Good to realise that you don't have to get stuck with all this stuff in the first draft. Get the story down, and then embelish.

parlance said...

I agree with Maggie May's comment that it's helpful to think that we may not get those sensual details down in the first draft, but can get them into play when we come back to the story. I also thought it was most helpful to be reminded that all these details have to serve the purpose of the scene. Thanks for this post.

the writing pad said...

Brilliant post - loved the examples, too. A sense of place really is all about the senses, isn't it?