How Writing from All Five Senses Can Awaken Your Fiction
Right now, I’m studying the use of all five senses in my writing. When I first heard the advice, I blew it off. “That’s so obvious, duh!” I said...but didn’t do it. Maybe because it never clicked. Maybe because it was explained poorly. Maybe because I wasn’t listening.
So why is it important?
Not because it makes my fiction “more realistic.” After all, it’s stuff we’ve made up; why is being “more realistic” important (especially in a fantasy or in a surreal work)?
It’s important because it’s easier to control your readers’ thoughts and feelings when you use sensory details. Or, if you want to sound less like a mad scientist and more like a literature professor, “to help your readers see the world in a new way.”
Various studies [see articles in the NY Times & OnFiction.ca] have shown that reading about vivid details activates the same parts of your brain that experiencing them does. For example, if you read the word “cinnamon,” the same part of your brain lights up as if you actually smelled it.
And modern fiction tends to be written in either first-person point of view (POV) (I, me, mine) or tight third-person POV (being able to experience the perspective of a single character at a time, switching between characters only between chapters or sections).
Together, this means when you make your readers walk in your characters’ shoes by giving them only that character’s sensory details, your readers’ brains perceive, feel, and possibly even think like your character...for a little while.
How do you do it?
It’s easy to say, “Just include details from all five senses,” but it’s actually more complex than that.
One, in order for this technique to work, most writers will have to include details from all five senses at the beginning of the work, within the first page or two (250–500 words).
Two, in order for this technique to keep working, most writers will have to include more details at least every two pages (500 words). And every time there’s a scene or chapter break.
Three, you can’t just take for granted that your character “sees” something. You have to describe what they see, using concrete description instead of concepts. Your characters don’t see “a tree.” They see speckled white aspen branches waving under the weight of their shimmering, twisting leaves. Be specific. Be concrete.
Four, you can’t see things from your perspective, only your character’s perspective. A cop working overtime processes a crowd scene differently than a student photographer and uses different terms to describe it, too.
Five, no, you aren’t allowed to skip taste just because it’s hard. People don’t expect taste--so it really pops readers into character if you do it well. But you can include kinesthetic (body position and motion) sensory detail, if you like, or even include details of a magical, synesthetic (seeing colors for sounds, etc.), or alien nature--as long as you use them appropriately, consistently, and concretely.
When I first started working diligently on including sensory details (very recently), I noticed that it was really hard to include infodumps and backstory--you have to keep focusing on the here and now for the characters, or you’re going to run out of room for your sensory details. And once you start using the five senses to put yourself into your own world, it’s really hard to break away long enough to write an out-of-character infodump or backstory (you have to start including them as memories or thoughts, packed with sensory details).
What? Fewer infodumps and less backstory? That sounds like another piece of advice that I should take...
So next time you’re reading a particularly good passage, check for concrete sensory detail, and how often the writer uses them. And remember to include the same kinds of details in your own work.
- DeAnna Knippling-
She has her own small press for eBooks and PODs at Wonderland Press, and puts up all kinds of writing advice at her blog-site.
Find out more about DeAnna's latest Book Alien Blue which we featured on Indie Author News in this Article >>> Link to the Alien Blue Book Feature
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