5-STAR Fantasy / Sci-Fi

Sunday, April 29, 2012

How to Write from all Five Senses to Awake Your Fiction

Great advice and tips from Indie Author DeAnna Knippling: How to write using all five senses is awakening your fiction and making your fiction more realistic.

How Writing from All Five Senses Can Awaken Your Fiction

There’s a lot of good advice I didn’t take because I didn’t understand it at the time. Granted, taking advice before I’m ready for it isn’t smart--like taking the training wheels off my bike before I have a sense of balance. But now I have those training wheels off (although I haven’t stopped training), and I need to re-look at a lot of that advice.

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- 

DeAnna Knippling on Indie Author News
DeAnna Knippling is a freelance writer/editor from Colorado Springs, formerly a technical editor for the Missile Defense Agency.

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.

Links to the Author

Connect with DeAnna Knippling on Twitter: @dknippling


Jen Blood said...

Fascinating post, DeAnna! The human brain is so complex, and it's always interesting to hear what kind of effect reading has on it. Love the concrete steps you've listed here to help provide writers with the tools to give their readers a more evocative reading experience. Well done!

Unknown said...

Awesome post, De!

What really stood out to me was not having enough space for infodumps and backstory; these are things I'm always trying to work on.

I also like using different sensory descriptions for each character. This could get really fun!

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. Thanks for posting it. I agree that writing all five senses fills out a characters world and draws the reader into it.
Best wishes, Stephen Livingston.

Susan Macatee said...

This is great advice that I had to learn, not only from writing craft books and workshops, but from my wonderful critique group and editor. Took a while before it became second nature as I write each new story.

Khaalidah said...

I love #5. Don't skip taste.
I think we taste far more than we think. Our sense of taste and smell are connected and (yuck) we can sometimes taste what we are smelling. I know that I can! Bringing smell into a scene can do wonders for the experience the reader has. This is an insightful post and a great reminder to bring our entire selves on board when writing so that we can engage the entire reader.

DeAnna said...

Thank you! I loved that article.

I always struggled in the past with this, because I'm so analytical. So the concrete steps have been a real help for me, personally.

Good luck with your writing!

DeAnna said...


The more I learn about infodumps and those psst! aside backstory bits, the more I realize it's cheating the reader of what they care about: characters in a world, doing stuff in real time.

DeAnna said...

Thanks! I laughed out loud when I saw how well it was working, myself :)

DeAnna said...

Ugh. I still have to take a pass through and check every time to make sure I'm still doing it all. It's good to know that it becomes natural at some point :)

DeAnna said...

But taste is so haaaarrrrrrd... I've spent the last month or so going, "What am I tasting? What am I tasting now?" Sometimes I just have to wuss out with a particularly strong smell and mention that it's so strong the character can taste it!

Serafima Bogomolova said...

I read your post and thought of my recent blog entry, which I would like to share... Books as Candies ;) - sensory experience... I love sensual and sensory experiences and love reading and writing about them ;-) I wonder how your books taste? ;-) Imagine a store filled with Books that can be tasted? Imagine readers walking in and choose the flavour they crave? ;-)

"If books were like candies, what type and flavour my book would be? What sensory experience my readers would have biting into its plot, crunching on its characters, and savouring its words? As I thought of this, chocolate liquor, produced from the seeds of a tropical cacao tree growing somewhere in Mexico, came into my mind. Rich in its notes, seductively dark in its appearance, and somewhat bitter in its raw taste…

Unlike diluted easy to consume sweet chocolate mass, this unsweetened substance offers a rarified sensory experience in a form of a truffle with a twist.

As you plunge your teeth into its seemingly firm yet yielding flesh, its dark cover starts to crumble melting into a tantalizing bitter sensation in your mouth. Undressed, stripped of its layer, a small, blood red ball of cherry reveals itself. In anticipation, you roll it in your mouth luxuriating its smooth caramelized texture. Then, unable to resist any longer you crush it in your mouth releasing the spirit that injects your sensory buds with infectious opium latex. Catapulted into psychedelic state you pause there for a fraction of eternity just to be spiraled downwards as quickly as you came up."

herocious said...

I like this post a lot. Thanks DeAnna! Getting all senses involved spices up your prose. And by making the imagery come to life with this in mind you keep from 'telling' and do more 'showing'.

Patricia PacJac Carroll said...

Thanks for sharing. It makes so much sense. Pun intended. What a wonderful way to make our writing sparkle and crackle, getting into the minds of the readers to make the story come alive.

Anonymous said...

Loved the blog DeAnna. You raise some great points that I'll have to look out for as I write my third novel. I'm also currently working through a four part bog about writing yourself into a corner. You may want to take a look at this as it seems to be approaching your subject from the opposite extreme. If you're interested, here's the link to my blog. http://lwwedgwood.authorsxpress.com/?p=22

Keep up the great work.

Picklesworth McGruffity Sr. said...

If there is nothing to taste, then there is nothing to taste. Try this, I reverently suggest: smell something you can eat. Close your eyes, breathe in and out, blow your nose, take a breath, and smell whatever it is, again. Write down your thoughts about it, but go beyond, "It smells like an apple." Now, taste it.

Close your eyes, feel it in your mouth, don't compare it to anything else, but stop- write down what it tells your senses. Try this once, then DO it again and again. Do it with things you have done it with, before. Open your brain up... taste IS very different than smell.

My littlest finger is connected to my "ring" finger, and they are inextricably linked... but they are, by no means, the same finger. I would no more confuse one with the other (or ignore/supersede one for the other), than I would do so with smell and taste.

Sheila Skillingstead said...

I like that your post is specific. Do it in the first 250 to five hundred words and continue every 2-3 pages. I have trouble doing it even once in a book and have been called on it by my editor. Working back to include the material is getting easier. I also liked your bit about what sense might be more important of different on your alien world. Alternate Reality that I'm currently working on uses scent a lot. Thanks for the post.

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