September 1, 2011
All Three Monkeys And More – sensory writing
What Can Your Character Physically Feel and Touch?
Confining your description of a setting to what is visible, is not to do it justice. A writer should encourage the reader to imagine using all five senses. Think of what this environment would smell like, taste like, feel like and the sounds you would hear. The sense of smell is particularly potent as it is the strongest of memory triggers and naming a distinctive scent will pull your readers into your work.
Compare the following:
Isobel lay on the ground and gazed at a sky dotted with yellow leaves. Smoke curled into view and her eyes followed its trail to a nearby bonfire.
Isobel lay on the ground and gazed at a sky dotted with yellow leaves. The branches rustled like paper bags and the wind carried the scent of a bonfire and air that tasted of earth, smoked, damp earth and beneath her, wet mud seeped through her clothes and onto her skin, cold and embracing.
I think you’ll agree that the second version draws the reader into the setting, allowing them to roundly experience the landscape – via every imaginary sense.
What Can Your Character Hear?
Try to use all senses to describe the following:
Your grandmother’s sitting room
From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022.
Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer.
Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series.
Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts).
Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm.
Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy.
An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus.
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September 3rd, 2011 at 20:52
Use of all available senses is even more important when your POV character is missing one or more senses. I’ve used blind and/or paralyzed characters once or twice, and find I really have to work at imagining how they perceive the world through their other senses. Have a couple of chapters from a blind POV in my WIP.
September 3rd, 2011 at 21:09
Hi Sue Ann, I completely agree. A friend of mine has written a book from the POV of a deaf person and has just started one with a protag with one eye (which affects ability to judge distance amongst other thihngs). It’s a good exercise in getting you to consider other senses. Thanks for your comment. BTW, I’m also a ‘Sue Ann’ – though I go more by just ‘Sue’ these days : )
September 4th, 2011 at 20:15
I can definitely relate to one eye–I went through several years when six months of the year one eye was blind due to a retinal bleed (diabetic retinopathy) leaving blood in the eye. Had to quit driving and had an awful time with herding–couldn’t tell if the dog was lined up behind the sheep on cross drives.
September 5th, 2011 at 14:38
As always, great advice Sue! And, just as a note, I have a favorite street musician who is usually at the Bedford Avenue stop but yours is of a different one… makes me want to write the story of why yours is there and mine is not. Of course I haven’t been to that stop in over a year so who knows what else has changed.
September 5th, 2011 at 17:21
Nancy, thanks for your citation on your blog! Actually, I took that photo last year (June 2010) – so maybe there is a story re why this guy was there and yours was missing… hmmm, there’s a springboard for ya.
September 5th, 2011 at 19:46
Your advice in this post is a bit counter to your advice in your Word Up post. In the latter, you advise pithiness, and in the former you advise exposition. But all is not lost! Taken in aggregate, a prudent reader will discern that judiciousness is key; let the descriptive punishment fit the situational crime, as it were.
But then, what do I know? My blog is the literary equivalent of a shotgun. Specifically, a shotgun where a little flag with “BANG!” emblazoned on it comes out of the barrel.
September 5th, 2011 at 19:56
Hi Edward, thanks for your comment! No, I don’t advise exposition here – at least not in the heady sense. As I say in the piece, if you want to use PF, you need to do so sparingly – and landscape description, if used at all should be short and succinct. I’m saying the same thing here as I said in “word up” re adverbs etc… ie, use with caution. My blog encourages the new writer to stand back and look at their writing and ask why they are using the different elements and what each brings to their work. Clarity, simplicity and brevity are usually best but if you embellish, shade, flesh-out, I suggest the writer thinks about the tools used to do so.