Friday, November 20, 2009

The Other Senses

Just pick up a book, any book, I don't care which, and flip through a few pages.  For many of them, what you read there is a running commentary of what the characters see and hear.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you, but the truly great writers don't stop there.  You've got five (or more, depending on whether or not your character is in some way psychic) senses to work with, so you, as a writer, should bloody-well use them.  And, as usual, Uncle Scott has an exercise or two to help you along the way.  But first, let's take a look at the five senses (the "standard set").

  • Sight - Easy, right?  This is what the character sees.  But there can be more to it than just what's right in front of them.  This also covers what the character doesn't see, things that are missing from the landscape, things that give off a hideous shadow (but turns out to be a hedgehog...Seriously, have you seen the shadows those little monsters give off?  Brrrr...).  
  • Hearing - The absence of sound can be just as, if not more, disturbing than the sound of breaking glass or screaming.  And again, what you hear makes strange pictures in your head.  How many times have you, a person, heard a "funny" noise that scared the crap out of you because you couldn't identify it?
  • Smell - One of my favorite senses, smell is one of the most often overlooked senses that we have.  If you don't believe me, go into an antique bookstore and just breathe.  Those old musty books give off one of my favorite scents.  Everything has its own particular odor, from poop to blood to steel.  Yes, steel.  Oddly, it smells metallic.  Plus, phantom scents (like the scent of almonds) can be a "tell" of when someone is going to have something traumatic (like a seizure) occur.  
  • Taste - I'm not saying your characters should run about licking everything (though that might be an interesting trait).  But think about the way the spit in your mouth tastes when you're afraid.  Or when you just ran a marathon.  Blood has a coppery taste, and some scents permeate the air so much that you can taste them. 
  • Touch - We take our skin for granted.  How many doorknobs have we turned or buttons have we pushed without really considering the texture under our skin?  What does the air feel like where you are?  Can you tell if someone brushes against your hair?  Yes, you can.  Your skin is the largest single organ in your body (or on your body, if you prefer), and it's very sensitive (in some places more than others).  
So writers can, and should, use all the senses to help paint the picture of what's going on in their novels.  I'm not telling you to get bogged down in the minute details of every moment, but for every moment, something, sensually, is important.  And many times, authors forget that.  Here are a couple of exercises to help you see what I'm talking about. 
  • Open Channel - Go to any random place.  It doesn't matter whether it's in your house, in a field, in a mall, just a place where you can sit.  Bring your notebook with you.  Now have a seat.  Make a grid on your notebook with all five senses listed, and start using yours.  Write down what you see, what you smell, what you taste, etc.  Be exhaustively detailed.  Trust me, I know you'll feel dopy doing this, but it really is a great way to get you to notice things that you wouldn't have otherwise.  See if you can get the scent of the place, the feel of it.  Visit the place several times to see if you can identify when something changes. 
  • The Notebook - Also referred to by its common name, the "I've-suddenly-become-obsessive-compulsive-and-my-family-wants-to-have-me-committed" exercise.  Take that notebook that you always have with you (you're a writer, remember?) and begin recording interesting tastes, scents, sounds, etc. in it.  With each new and interesting sensory treasure, try to describe it to the best of your ability.  Keep them for use later.  
Above all else, remember this:  You, as a writer, are trying to put your reader in the thick of things.  You are trying to emotionally involve your audience.  Take any of your scariest movies and cut the soundtrack off, and you'll get a pretty boring movie (with a few notable exceptions).  Cut the other senses out and you get an incomplete picture.  Also, remember that this doesn't mean that every frickin' scene has to be the grande tour of sensory perception.  Some of what we see and feel and taste and touch and smell is important.  Some isn't.  Leave out the miniscule things that aren't important, leave in the things that are.  Hint:  The coppery smell of blood?  Usually important. 

Until next time, WRITE ON!

No comments:

Post a Comment