Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sensible writing, using your senses

Capturing the five senses

Nymphenburg Palace - Photograph by Gryffindor - Loadscreen by Mistress
Writing is an adventure; sometimes enjoyable, sometimes torturous. In my writing, I've been working hard to add the five senses to everything I do. I believe it will make it a more immersive experience.
The five senses are: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. (we're leaving out spiritual and non-physical senses out of this one)

The difficulty becomes how to add them to the story. (a fantasy novel in my case) How does the writer describe these things while making it all flow smoothly with the rest of the scene.

I found in my early writing that I was completely leaving out smell, sounds and taste. The only thing I was doing well was the sights, but even that left something to be desired. I'm getting better at it, but it's difficult. I've decided to share some of my observations so far.

I call adding the senses "coloring". The story is the black and white outline of the pages. Everything else is coloring the story to make it pretty. Most people don't like bland or plain stories.

I generally add details in two different ways. Sometimes I write a paragraph or two about the surroundings. Sometimes I add the details in the middle of dialogue. 

Photo by Tracy Carroll

Examples of how to add the senses

These are the first two paragraphs of my first book. I set the scene with them. In it I tried to describe all five senses in order to immerse the reader:

Tathan was a tall man of twenty nine years with short, curly black hair framing a face tanned by travel.  His hand was on the hilt of a thin, slightly curved sword sheathed at his waist and his intense grey eyes studied the peaceful valley where he had been raised.  Throughout his journeys, he always remembered the sights and scents of this valley.  Tathan closed his eyes and felt the breeze caress his cheek as it had in his childhood.  It brought the sounds of bees finding the first blossoms of the year.  Other insects buzzed through the valley hoping the birds would be too busy singing their songs to feast upon them.
The sun had risen just an hour ago.  Tathan knew it would take a full day and night’s travel to make it to the eastern side of the valley where he used to live, so he adjusted his travel pack on his shoulders and continued on.  There was no path or road; his parent’s house being the only dwelling in the valley.  Snowcapped mountains surrounded wild grasses which were dotted with groves of trees and crossed by small streams. The sky was deep blue with wisps of clouds that would likely become afternoon thunderstorms.  It was early spring and flowers were beginning to bloom, mingling their scents with that of fresh grass.If you look through those, you can see an instance of each. The first time I wrote it, I left out everything but sights. I had to go back and re-work it five different times. Now as to whether or not it's good, we'll leave that to the reader, but it does include all of the elements.

Here is an excerpt where I've described some of the senses while adding dialogue and advancing the story:

“Hello there travelers!” a tall, heavyset woman said with a great smile.  She stood at the bar, cleaning mugs.  Her hair was strawberry blonde and she had a ruddy complexion.  “I’ve not seen you in town.  Come have a seat and tell me of yourselves.”  Her voice was loud and cheerful as she waved them over to the bar with a thick hand.  “It’s a pleasure to see you.  Dinner’s just about ready if you’re hungry.”
“That would be wonderful,” Liselle responded.  She smiled and sat down on one of the bar stools.  “The food smells delicious.”  Indeed, mouthwatering aromas were emanating from beyond swinging doors at the far right of the bar.
“It is superb.  My sister, Renna is the best cook you’ll find in this town,” she stated confidently.  “I’m Hulda by the way.  The White Tree Inn is my pride and joy, though we don’t get many customers at the moment.”

It's pretty common to describe a person's appearance and voice when introducing. I manage to throw in smell and taste with "mouthwatering aromas" too. I could have added that the adventurers had aching muscles which would have covered the sense of touch. (you don't actually have to touch something to experience that sense. It could also be the sense of "feel")

Here is a sample from my most recent writing, "Dralin", where I'm starting to add a lot of mood into the descriptions as well:

The bench was damp from the snow that melted as soon as it landed on anything, not being quite cold enough for the flakes to stick.  Sheela’s dress was already wet and dirty anyway, so sitting on the bench didn’t bother her.  It felt good to get off of her feet for a short time and she rubbed the cold ache out of them.  Many of the people traveling by wore shoes and Sheela thought perhaps she might own a pair someday.
Sounds of the city surrounded her as she watched the people passing in a mad rush to finish their tasks before nightfall.  Wagon drivers yelled above the clopping of their horse’s hooves, which clattered sharply over the humming drone of thousands of voices talking incessantly about whatever matters might be important to them at the time.
Endless buildings obscured a ruddy sunset that lit the bottoms of patchy clouds on the western horizon.  Rays of light burst through the smog and snow to cast a dirty orange radiance over everything.  Exotic scents came from many of the wagons that had traveled from such places as Mayncal, Brindlyn, and the Iynath Empire.  They mixed in with the odors of livestock, unwashed bodies, cooking food and smells Sheela couldn’t begin to identify.
The assault on her senses was overwhelming, making her dizzy and lightheaded.  Taking a deep breath didn’t help because it brought something new each time.  The odors were so heavy that she could taste them on her tongue, both pleasant and unpleasant. 

In Conclusion

Creating the image for the reader is one of the areas where the craftsmanship of the author truly comes into play.  If it's well done, then the reader feels immersed into the story.  If it's poorly done, the reader begins to think that housework might be a preferable alternative and we don't want that.

It's not always easy to add the senses and doing it well is even more difficult. It's been a learning process for me with each new book written.  I recommend doing it whenever possible though. It will provide a much grander experience for your reader. :)

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