Monday, April 4, 2011

Monday's Writing Tip: Engage the Senses

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Robert Duvall as Colonel Bill Kilgore from Apocalypse Now

Reading isn't a sensory experience, so it's up to the writer to make it one! Remember show don't tell? This means going beyond the visual and taking full advantage of all the senses, including hearing, smell, touch and taste.

Todd Stone, in his Novelist's Boot Camp, says that how you go beyond sight can make a difference as well.

"As you use description to build that emotional connection between your reader and your story, consider carefully which sense you want to use. Some senses are more--more personal, closer, more private--than others. Using the more intimate senses can make your description more emotionally powerful." Stone goes on to explain the degree of intimacy in each sense:

Sight. The most passive of the senses. Our eyes are always open and we don't need to do anything to see an object, so there's very little involvement. And what we see remains outside the body.

Sound. More intimate than sight. Sound causes a physical change in the body--the vibration of the eardrum. It takes more effort to block out sound than sight, and sounds are also more easily remembered, especially when repeated in rhythmic fashion. Ever wonder why we remember nursery rhymes and cartoon jingles into adulthood? Sound is still rather passive. The stimulation can come from a distance.

Touch. As far as intimacy, touch falls in the center of the spectrum. Touch is easily remembered, and touch memory is stored in a different part of the brain than sight or sound. Touch can be active or passive. Characters can touch or be touched. Whatever stimulates touch must be close. And touch can be used as an intimate character marker--leathery skin, rough hands, scarred face. Touch, however, remains outside the body. So, although it's more intimate than sight or sound, it's less intimate than smell and taste.

Smell. The human brain's neural connections tie certain smells to certain primeval instincts and emotions, making it an intimate sense. Smells can produce strong, emotional reactions even when very faint. I have a friend who grew up in an alcoholic home.  To this day he hates the smell of beer because of what it reminds him of. Does the smell of oatmeal cookies remind you of your grandma's house? For a more powerful, intimate effect on the reader, use the sense of smell in your descriptions.

Taste. The most intimate of the senses. The taste buds, mouth and gums provide fast track access to the body and parts of the brain. Sensations that originate in the mouth can cause very powerful, very emotional reactions almost instantly. To activate taste, a stimulant must enter through open lips, voluntarily or involuntarily. Taste can also reflect emotion, such as the sweetness of a lover's kiss, or the coppery taste of a character's own blood. So taste is the most intimate of all.

In closing, transform your scenes from mediocre to magnificent by engaging the senses! Are you already doing this? Thanks for visiting!


Old Kitty said...

I love that Apocalypse Now quote!! I wish I could capture such a thing succinctly too! My worst writerly crime was (not so much now as I'm trying to be very disciplined about it!) is to overload my descriptions with adjective overkill when I tried too hard to capture a scene with these senses!

Great post - this is definitely very important to remember!! Take care

Myne said...

I have to confess to not feeling that quote, because I have no idea what napalm is. That is one thing with descriptions, using words, similes or metaphors that readers might not engage with or understand. Something to bear in mind as we use this really great tip in our writing.

The Poet said...

I'm sometimes like Kitty..."overloading with adjective overkill". Great tip. Thanks.

Intangible Hearts said...

Thank you Maria. This is great. I should do this more-
I'm revising my first novel and I need to put more meat on some of my characters. You wrote a great post.

Maria McKenzie said...

@Old Kitty: I've done that! Todd Stone says less is more;).

@Myne: That's a great point! Simple is better so everyone can understand. BTW, I don't know what napalm is or what it smells like either:).

@Andy: You're welcome! Adjective overload is easy to do:).

@Desert Rocks: Thank you! After I took Todd Stone's workshop I started utilizing the senses more in what I wrote. That really adds richness!

Unknown said...

Hmmm... I'm not sure what napalm smells like... but I have a strong sense of what I imagine it to smell like... and I could see the line working very well in the context of the that novel.

I sometimes don't use all 5 senses... It just depends.

Maria McKenzie said...

I'm with you! I can imagine what napalm smells like:).