Making Fiction Come Alive! Using the Senses for Maximum Impact
Today’s post once again is by my Writer-in-Residence Alex Limberg. After 10 posts, I’m slowly running out of witty introductions for him. But hey, if you haven’t checked out his free ebook yet, definitely go ahead and do it now. It will equip you with ‘44 test questions’ to examine your story and make it all-around tight and intriguing. This time, Alex shows us how to describe senses, so your reader feels like he is in the middle of your story. Go, Alex!
Do you know 5D-cinemas?
I mean these movie theatres that make your chair bump harshly, whip your ankles, and when somebody on the screen sneezes, it sprinkles your face… Yeah, they are basically legal torture chambers people pay entry for.
Why are they such a fun experience for many?
It’s because these theatres feel more real than your ordinary cinema. And that’s because they talk to more of our senses, not just 2D-seeing and hearing.
Anything that talks to our senses feels a lot more real to us. It is through senses that we experience our entire world. We crave sensory experiences. That’s why it’s so much fun when the snot of that disgusting jailor troll hits us.
Senses are even deeply engrained in our language: We believe it when we see it. We hear it through the grapevine. Something smells fishy to us. We feel for somebody. We might show bad taste.
Ultimately, evoking sensory experiences with your descriptions is one of the most powerful talents you can have as a writer.
If you can do it well, your audience will eagerly suspend any disbelieve and completely succumb to the illusion you have prepared. You will draw your readers deeply into your story and make them feel like they are right beside your characters. They will ultimately truly care about what is going on.
Because it’s not easy to craft your story as a well-rounded illusion, you can find a free download with 44 test questions here; use it to check your story quickly and easily for anything that might be off or missing.
The good news is, describing senses isn’t even that hard to do. Let’s take a look at all five senses, one by one, and see how you can best take advantage of them:
That’s the most obvious one. Can you imagine even the greenest newbie not describing to the reader what he is seeing?
In fact, many writers put too much weight on this sense, at the expense of the others. Don’t overdo the visual description! You don’t have to teach your reader every single detail, it’s much better to leave something up to her imagination.
When you do describe visuals, think of the different qualities of look you could use to make your description vivid. Color is a good example. By using color, you can paint vibrant images in your reader’s mind. What do you think about this description:
“He couldn’t help but notice her extraordinarily sexy make-up.”
Bad. That’s telling, not showing.
“Her bright red lipstick immediately popped out to him.”
Much better. We have now put a colorful image in the mind’s eye of the reader. The image has a color with very specific connotations.
We have also used the word “bright,” which is yet another quality to make your visual descriptions more interesting: Shadows are eerie. Spotlights mean heightened pressure. Dimmed, soft lights can be romantic.
You can add a lot of mood to a scene or to a detail by describing light.
Hearing is used fairly often as well. You will mostly describe a sound when the situation draws special attention to it: A door creaks, your protagonist turns her head.
But don’t forget that a sound can also be used for a strong effect! You can employ it to get on your reader’s nerves, to alarm or to relax him. Think of the soothing babble of a little brook. How comforting, isn’t it? Cut to the shrieking sound of nails scratching over a chalkboard. You might even be close to goosebumps now.
Your reader will hate you when you employ an effect like this. And he should, strong reactions are excellent! In the end, he will love you for putting him through all of that tingling torture.
On top of this, you can use sounds very well for a serious shock effect. How often in your life have you been frightened by a sudden sound? Certainly a lot more often than by any other sense alarming you. Those little acoustic shock effects are deeply engrained in your reader’s unconscious as well.
Imagine the sudden uproar of a roaring chainsaw. And if the guy who is carrying it wears a hockey mask too, there is no doubt anymore what comes next…
Now we are getting into territory that’s neglected way too often. Many writers like to forget smell, because when they are busily visualizing their scenes, it just doesn’t come to them naturally.
But smell can have a huge impact on your reader. To be more precise, the memory of the smell you are describing will have a huge impact on her. Smell is the sense that is most directly connected to the memory part of our brains (through the so-called “olfactory bulb;” great word, isn’t it?).
When you think about it, smell is kind of an animalistic sense – think of dogs eagerly sniffing each other’s behinds. When you describe the smell of shit, you can be sure to get stronger reactions than when you describe the look or the sound of it…
Because it’s such an emotional sense, smell can be very sensuous too. A stimulating perfume in a love scene will catapult your reader right into the middle of the action. They say that lovers can “smell each other.”
In your stories, you don’t get the opportunity to demonstrate how something tastes very often. You couldn’t let your protagonist quickly lick the mask of the guy with the chainsaw, just to report that it tastes… salty? Now that would be moody, but it wouldn’t make any sense…
However, on the rare occasions your character puts something in his mouth or licks something, be sure to describe the taste. Certainly your character (and your reader) will pay attention, because taste is a sense that’s bound to get a very strong reaction.
After all, taking something into your mouth or touching it with your tongue is a very intimate act; it’s a personal thing that goes deep into the private sphere. Think of your character taking a beating and biting the hard and dusty curb or tasting a lovingly prepared dish of pulpy monkey brain. Tastes like that are hard to swallow.
You can also describe an emotion as so dense, your character can “taste” it in his mouth. Intense fear is sometimes described as a “taste of copper.” It’s like the feeling is so strong it finally becomes physical. And what does success “taste like,” can you tell me?
Image by Melissa Gutierrez/Flickr CC
Finally, we have feeling. It’s a very sensual sense as well.
Like with tasting, be sure to describe it whenever you get a chance. When your character touches something, tell your audience what it feels like and draw them in. How pleasant does the soft fur of a kitten feel? And how uncomfortable is the stingy hail of a thunderstorm? You have all the power of making your readers live, love and suffer with your figures.
You can use touch especially well to describe the nature of objects or people: The silky smooth feeling of a light summer dress, grandpa’s grey and raspy beard. Just make sure you have a reason to describe how it feels; somebody touching it should be the trigger that allows you to explain.
So there you have it, the complete five senses. The sixth sense is then best suited to a Bruce Willis flick.
Now go ahead and describe away. A skillful description of sense will make your reader dive into your story head over heels… and it will feel so tickling she will never want to surface from your story again.
Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Check your story for intriguing description, plot, characters, dialogue and any other imaginable quality with his free e-book “44 Key Questions to test your story”. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.
I see, Alex.
It’s Kristen again, and I’m back to ask you: In your descriptions, do you take advantage of the big opportunities senses offer? Which sense do you tend to forget? Do you maybe employ one sense too much? Do you remember a book that totally drew you in with its sensory descriptions? If we could smell with our ears, would our nose only serve to hold our glasses? Have you ever seen a naked person that made you wish you were blind?
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