Monday, December 3, 2007

Using The Senses in Fiction

Although I said I’d would cover characterization next, I realized that emotion and the senses have a commonality, and it makes more "sense" to talk about senses now. (Words are interesting, aren’t they?) As authors, we want to bring our work to life, and we do so with compelling characters, which means three-dimensional individuals who come to life through their actions and emotion, but it also means using other techniques to heighten the reality of our stories.

What is more real than our senses? We reaction and interact with life using the well-known five senses—sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, but in my opinion, we do have other senses, too, and those would be motion and intuition. The senses are used to heighten emotion and to draw our readers into the story through experiencing what is familiar to them, and one of those is using our sense organs, those physical parts of us that stimulate responses and memories.

It is through our senses that we experience, perceive, and comprehend everything that surrounds us. Senses are a stimulus. Helen Keller lived without hearing or sight, but she learned to communicate by using her other senses. Can you image having no senses at all? The thought is uncomprehensible since we would have no way to experience life. Senses, then, are vital to arousing readers’ feelings and interest, and a way for them to experience your story. An interesting point about the senses is they are often shown by using poetic devices which I discussed in the last blog. So let’s take a look at these senses.

Sight and sound are the two most common senses used in fiction, and they are the two senses we seem to take for granted, but we don’t want to do that in our writing. Descriptions of settings, characters and nature are common in all forms of literature. From the day he joined the medical field, his world was drab—black and white textbooks, a white doctor’s coat and traditional black bag. Now, Kate colored his world with a pink flush on her cheeks, sunlit blond hair that feel to her shoulders, and green flecks in her eyes. Here a contrast is made between a drab and colorful world by referring to colors.

The hills rolled on endlessly until the vanished as a purple haze touching the clouds. Readers want to see the room, the landscape, the appearance of main characters, but without going into details that delay the action. A brief sentence can capture the moment as well as add mood or emotion. When you use the sense, make it purposeful so that it helps to create mood, arouse emotion and/or move the story forward.

Creating sight images, you want to texture and tint the surroundings, and you do this by selecting words that capture the essence of the scene, again by adding a mood or tone to the scene. Using adjectives can help create a vivid image. The brooding landscape, the cheery room, the ornate decor, the dusty table—each of these adjectives and nouns help you to view the surroundings as well as gives you a hint of characterization or the scene’s mood. A brooding landscape provides the reader with information. He knows it will not be a comedic scene. In the same way, the ornate decor or dusty table helps reader to envision the owner’s personality, and/or values.

When you combine numerous "telling" adjectives, words like brooding landscape, choking weeds, pealing bark, dead wildflowers, we can anticipate sadness or suspense or a combination. The words activate our imagination and, along with the introspection of the POV character, will guide us in grasping the tone of the setting.

Sounds are effective in creating mood as well. From the grating of fingernails on a chalkboard to the wind whispering through the eaves or the purr of a cat, the author sets up the scene by focusing on the sounds that work to achieve the scene’s purpose. Children’s voices echoing on a hill can be a lovely sound to a woman pregnant with her first child, but if doctor’s have warned her that her child might have serious handicaps or if this woman lost a child sometime in her life, this sound could create the opposite emotion.

Sounds can be pleasant or cacophonic. Again these sounds come to life when you use a poetic device called onomatopoeia, which are words that imitate the sound they are describing. This would include words like zip, hiss, pow, sizzle, crackle, lull, tinkle, pop, whish, or boom. By repeating these words and listening to the sounds they make, you can hear the plosive Ps, Ts, Ks, and Cs of the more explosive sounds, and the softer tones of the L, Wh, H, and vowels that are more soothing and create a different image. S is the sound the sound we associate with a snake, so words like hiss helps to capture that extended S sound. The sizzle of meat on the stove works well because the S and Z in sizzle recreates that sound while the word stove re-echoes the S.

Sounds are easy to tell rather than show—a dog’s bar—but again, finding a way to show the sound is more effective. A word like howl is more onomatopoetic. So is arf. The dog danced around her feet with its incessant arf-arf. This brings the sound and scene to life.

Combining sound and sight helps to emphasize the image. The apple snapped as her teeth sank into it’s crispy pulp and the juice spray into the air.

Using onomatopoeia and dynamic verb choices, and despite hearing adjectives are as bad as adverbs, vivid nouns and adjectives help to bring the scene to life used in both sight and sound.

The final three of the five scenes—touch, taste and smell—will be covered in the next blog. Keep these final three senses in the forefront of your mind as you write, because they are more easily overlooked. Yet they can be as vivid and dramatic in setting mood, creating emotion, and bringing your story to life as the more common sight and sound.

No comments: