Monday, October 11, 2010

Stimulating the Senses

One of the best ways to keep readers coming back for more of your stories is to stimulate their senses.

We are daily bombarded with stimuli that affect our senses. These are what help us interact in tactile ways with the environment around us. We move throughout our day, touching, tasting, smelling, seeing and hearing all sorts of things.

When we sit down to read a book, we want to experience those same sensations but with the mundane removed and a dash of excitement sprinkled in.

The sense of sight is probably the easiest to incorporate in fiction, because we are constantly conveying what our characters see. Touching is probably also not too hard to remember to bring in. But revealing what our characters are tasting, smelling and hearing can be overlooked - especially if you, as the author, have never personally experienced what your character is experiencing.

As with anything, you have to be careful that you don't overdo it, but it is important to dust your writing with these sensory stimuli.

Let's take a scenario and examine it to see how incorporating the senses can enhance description.

John and Mary are police officers. They've just received a call that the missing child they've been searching for might be in the basement of a house on 2nd Street. We are in Mary's POV. Our scene might go something like this....


Before:

   John killed the siren as they pulled around the corner onto 2nd street and came to a stop in front of the house. 
   A surge of adrenaline threatened to close off Mary's throat and she concentrated on breathing slowly, methodically, as she leapt from the car and dashed around it to follow through the gate and up the path. 
   She scanned the small yard. Knee-high grass poked out from between corpulent bags of trash and brown beer bottles. The rusty corpse of what had once been a ford pick-up rested on cinder blocks in the corner, the sagging fence leaning against it.
   Around the corner and there should be a set of steps leading down to the basement, the caller had said.
   John took the stairs three at a time yelling, "Police! Open up!" just before his feet connected with the door and the lock gave way. 
   John's light stabbed into a dark corner illuminating a tottering stack of cardboard boxes intermixed with garbage bags and an old desk that appeared to be missing a leg. She clicked on her own light and shone it into the opposite corner. 
   There, wide-eyed, hands tied behind her back and duct-tape over her mouth lay AnnaMarie. She was breathing wildly, but alive. Definitely alive. 
   "Oh thank-you, God!" Mary exclaimed.


Now, let's look at the same scene and try to insert some sound, smell and touch  and taste into it.



   John killed the squawk of the siren as they pealed around the corner onto 2nd street and screeched to a stop in front of the house. 
   A surge of adrenaline threatened to close off Mary's throat and she concentrated on breathing slowly, methodically, as she leapt from the car and dashed around it to follow through the groaning gate and up the path.
   The butt of her Beretta firm and familiar against the palm of her hand, she scanned the small yard. Knee-high grass poked out from between corpulent bags of trash and brown beer bottles. The rusty corpse of what had once been a ford pick-up rested on cinder blocks in the corner, the sagging fence leaning against it.
   Around the corner and there should be a set of steps leading down to the basement, the caller had said.
   John took the stairs three at a time yelling, "Police! Open up!" just before his feet crashed against the door and the lock gave way with a splintered groan.
   Musky air draped over her arms, damp and sticky, and the stench of human waste triggered her gag reflex. John's light stabbed into a dark corner illuminating a tottering stack of cardboard boxes intermixed with garbage bags and an old desk that appeared to be missing a leg. She clicked on her own light and shone it into the opposite corner.
   There, wide-eyed, hands tied behind her back and duct-tape over her mouth, lay AnnaMarie. She was breathing wildly, but alive. Definitely alive. The girl whimpered and flinched away from the bright light and Mary quickly averted the beam.
   "Oh thank-you, God!" she exclaimed.


Okay, so in order to keep this post short I've sort of rushed this scene and left out some things that I might ordinarily put in, like a little dialog. And in reality there would need to be more characters, because John and Mary wouldn't go into a situation like this without lots of back-up. But I think you can get the gist of what I'm trying to say from this. Notice I didn't insert too much extra information. Nor did I add any taste into this scene. But you could talk about the taste of adrenaline, or she could chew her lip as she's scanning the yard and taste blood, etc.


You tell me what you think. Does the addition of sensory input into the second version liven it up? Make it more interesting? How have you incorporated the senses into your current project. Give us examples.
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9 comments:

  1. I think adding sensory details makes the story seem more real. We connect with things through senses - we connect to music through hearing. We connect with food through taste. If we can use those senses through our stories, then I'm sure it will give the readers will be connected with our story as well.

    I wrote a post a few months ago on how sensory details can help liven up a story if you'd like to check it out: http://christiswrite.blogspot.com/2010/03/painting-your-setting.html

    Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    Tessa
    www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

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  2. Agreed. :) Thanks for the link, Tessa.

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  3. the second edit gave me more to vision, i could vision the gun in the cops hand, i can imagine how bad the smell of human waste.

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  4. Adding sensory cues can really enhance the scene and bring the reader more deeply into the story.

    Terrific post, Lynnette.

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  5. Good reminders, Lynnette! Fiction really *is* the details. We could tell most stories in a few paragraphs if we left off the garnishes. But it's those garnishes that make the whole thing come to life.

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  6. I enjoyed this post and generally try to include all five senses in most scenes. I've found it takes me deeper into the characters. I write suspense mystery, so the key is keeping the movement high while anchoring the reader with those critical details.

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  7. I think everyone knows how I feel about sensory description, LOL. Great post--thanks!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  8. Toby, I think you hit on a good key there - it takes you deeper into the characters. When the author understands their characters deeply, they can't help but portray them with even more vividness on the page, so that really helps the story in the long run.

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