Exploring the Senses – Finale: Using sensory information in your writing

image from asiadesignwithpurpose.com

image from asiadesignwithpurpose.com

Through this series on exploring the senses we (you and I) have explored all the major senses and more. We’ve experimented with how sensual stimuli trigger memories that can inspire writing and played with different ways to add sensory detail to our writing. Now, I want to talk about when and how to use this lush sensory information we’ve discovered.

While writing your first draft, feel free to write all of the sensory details for everyone and everything. During the rewrite however, it’s important to ask yourself: Did I add this detail because it tells the reader something important about the character, because it is an important element of the story, or just because I thought it was cool? If the honest answer is the last one, take it out. Even if you came up with the greatest way to describe the color of the sky or the smell of water, if the sensory detail is not important to telling the story, take it out. Don’t let this statement turn you away from sensory detail in any way. Most sensory details add depth to your characters and dimensionality to your settings. I solely wish to remind you to be aware of your readers. When you bring sights, sounds and smells to a reader’s attention, s/he will expect them to have importance and be let down if they don’t.

Unexpected sights: The little bunny and its surroundings looked normal at first, but upon closer examination the bunny was really a swirl of white dots, as if I could see its cells magnified in space.

Unexpected sights: The little bunny and its surroundings looked normal at first, but upon closer examination the bunny was really a swirl of white dots, as if I could see its cells magnified in space.

Creative mismatching of sensory detail is a quick cue to readers that they aren’t in Kansas anymore. A pink sky over yellow water that smells of asparagus is an instant cue that the reader is not on the earth s/he is familiar with.

Exercise: Create as many sensory mismatches as you can in 5 minutes. Use your favorite ones to imagine a place where this sensory information exists (i.e. another dimension, another planet, the center of the earth, an undiscovered land at the bottom of the ocean, under the melting ice caps, inside a future space station, etc.). Write a scene about a person experiencing this place for the first time using the sensory details you’ve created.

Inspiration from exercise: After staring at the bunny circles until it made me dizzy, I looked down, but down was no longer an option. I was separating into colorful cells, worlds within worlds orbiting each other. How did I still have my consciousness?

Inspiration from exercise: After staring at the bunny circles until it made me dizzy, I looked down, but down was no longer an option. I no longer had form. My cells now danced, worlds within worlds orbiting each other. How did I still recognize my consciousness?

I’ve enjoyed exploring the senses with you. Don’t forget to stop and smell the bad smells as well as the roses, and describe them in all their malodorous glory.

Over the next few months I’ll be working on the first rewrite of my current novel. As I work, I look forward to sharing my discoveries: what works, what doesn’t work, trials, tribulations and epiphanies. Please share your tips, tricks, suggestions, or questions along the way.

Advertisements

Exploring the Senses – Touch

Touching Ostrich Feathers in a Brown Paper Bag

Touching Ostrich Feathers in a Brown Paper Bag (make sure you can’t see what you’re touching to do the exercise we did)

Touch is a sense most of us take for granted – until we’re lying on satin sheets, or picking glass and gravel out of a knee – but  touch is sensed through the skin which is the largest organ of our human bodies. The sense of touch is based on detection of mechanical energy, or pressure against the skin. Touch, like taste, can include sensing temperature and pain; these receptors also exist in the skin and can be perceived simultaneously. In our writing, texture can bring dimension to an object and a scene. I hope through this exercise you will find that touch, like the other senses, can also bring up memories and vivid images. Let your characters touch the textures that fascinate you. How do they feel? How do they react?

Exercise – Each member of writing group brought a mystery object in a paper bag. We each reached into each bag, exploring with only our fingers and wrote down everything that came to mind.

My responses:

  1. Wet. A large alien eyeball. Birds dropping pits on the deck. A warm summer day enjoying the ability to pick my lunch from the garden. Sticky hands and face from popsicles. Running after the ice cream man. Red white and blue rocket pops. Item: peeled plum.
  2. I was never good at ice skating. My weak ankles would wobble from side to side. I enjoyed floor hockey. The side texture (of the object) made me think of tines. I remember playing air hockey at the skating rink. I really liked the feel of the cool air coming up from the table. Item: a hockey puck.
  3. Soft edges on a crusty spine. I remember going to the peacock farm with my mom when I was little, so she could pick up some long colorful plumes for her huge ceramic vase in the living room. It reminds me of the hundreds of metal loops I clamped feathers into after carefully bending each feather with pliers for the huge shoulder harnesses to be worn at the Mardi Gras balls. Item: ostrich feather.

Unlike taste, touch was again quick to conjure vivid images and memories. I found it easy to identify what was in the bags without looking and had stories to tell triggered by the objects. My response to the peeled plum could read as a little poem to summer present and past (Maybe minus the alien eyeball. Guess it depends if I meet any aliens and get to touch their eyeballs this summer).

I look forward to reading your experiences with this exercise. Remember, your skin is your largest sensory organ with areas of different levels of sensitivity. Our hands and fingers may be the most sensitive and dexterous, but rolling around in the grass, or going for a swim could be a great place to start exploring your sense of touch.

Exploring the senses – Hearing

Auditory stimuli have the ability to trigger physical reactions. The calming sound of rolling waves, or the alarming jolt caused by a popped balloon can influence how we act and feel. Sounds, especially music, can also trigger memories.

Exercise: To explore hearing, each member of writing group brought a song to listen to. As we listened, we jotted down all of the thoughts that came to mind for the duration of the length of the song. I found that each song triggered personal memories and vivid imagery.

As with all of the sensory writing exercises I’ll describe, the results are twofold:

1. Sound triggers memories and writing ideas.

2. The exercise brings attention to how one’s fictional characters may react to sounds and music based on their histories and circumstances (perceptions).

Describing sounds, how they are perceived and their physical and emotional effects on the characters will add realism and depth to your writing.

Examples of my responses:

St. James Infirmary by Alan Toussaint

Railroad tracks

Otis playing piano in N.O. w/Kathleen on stand-up

I expect to hear Tom Waits start singing at any moment

The piano in that horrible apartment which I almost never played

La Belle Dame Sans Regrets by Sting

Ballroom classes at that weird dance studio in Metairie where I first met Bridget

The black and white checkerboard floor and the floor to ceiling mirrors in the middle of an empty club

Helping teach ballroom at Ruby Fruit Jungle

Drinking a tiny strong coffee at a café in Paris

The drawing Spencer did of his cousin Marie

The program from a Sting concert I thumbtacked to my wall over my desk

Like a Virgin by Madonna

Going to the record store with my gift certificate for winning the talent show and Mom making the clerk play every song on the Air Supply album, then saying it was too suggestive and making me get M.J.’s Thriller instead.

Buying Madonna’s tape from a friend at church because Mom wouldn’t let me get it

I hope this exercise triggers all sorts of ideas for you. I’d love to hear some of them. Also, if you have other sensory exercises you have found useful, please send them along. I love trying new things.