Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Senses of Life

Senses of Life

Too often new writers produce prose that skates the surface of life without giving the reader anything to make the scene feel real. A skill that writers must teach themselves is to write with the senses.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Most of us can do pretty well with vision, because we humans normally depend heavily on sight. 

Imagine a world in which dogs write poetry. Think of all the similes for smell you'd find in a shepherd's sonnet. Dogs depend on their noses much more than we do. In fact, when we want to describe an odor we're pretty much confined to a limited number of descriptors and to comparisons. Taste is similar: how many things taste like chicken?

And it can be overdone. You want to strike a balance between presenting sights, sounds, textures, temperatures, odors and tastes that bring your imaginary world to life - and drowning the reader in a sea of minutiae.

Nothing is much duller than freight-train sentences overladen with modifiers: "The gloomy, shadowy, spooky alley, gleaming with rainfall, stretched into deep black darkness, cluttered with bulky, heavy, stinking trash cans arranged in staggered, crooked, irregular lines where greasy, fat, disease-ridden rats scuttled and chittered."

You gotta be selective. The details should be well-chosen. They should be the spice, not the main course.

When I was trying to liven up my own writing, I set myself a task: at least once on every page I would refer to a sense impression that wasn't visual. However, I wouldn't devote more than three lines to any single impression.

Of course I sometimes broke the rule. Hey, I owned it, I could break it.

But little touches lift the reality of a story:

"He got out of bed and crossed the floor, the old wood cool and rough under his bare feet...."

"He picked up the bait can, the peculiar odor of earthworms strong in his nostrils...."

"She sipped the wine, cool and astringent and faintly sweet...."

"The thunder rolled so close that it reverberated in her bones...."

Eventually you won't have to remind yourself to toss in a detail once a page.

Eventually you will spot just the right section of your story where a telling sensory detail will bring your world and people to life.

It takes practice, but every prose writer can learn to do it.

Hey, it's just common sense(s).

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