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Writing Excuses 7.5: Sensory Writing

Writing Excuses 7.5: Sensory Writing


Key points: sensory writing, evocative writing pulls the reader into the scene and engages them. Sensory information and description is interesting. Challenge their senses! Keep the reader engaged. But don't overstimulate. Avoid literary diabetes. Err on the side of excess, you can always trim later (Luxury!). Look for details that are important to your character's emotional state or the plot. Details that get the reader into the character's skin. Try "not looking directly at it." Don't show the monster, let the reader fill it in. Hammer it home with a glancing blow to reality?

[Dan] Is Writing Excuses, reporting live from the World Fantasy Convention. We're going to talk about sensory writing.
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart. I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Dan] And we have with us our special guest...
[Mary] Sam Sykes.
[Dan] Sam, tell us about yourself.
[Sam] What? Oh, I was listening. I thought, "Do I say I'm Sam? Is that what they want me to..." But, I'm Sam Sykes. I wrote Tome of the Undergates and Black Halo, both with Pyr Publishing in the US, Gollancz in the UK. As of a week ago, Fleuve Noir in France. That just debuted there.
[Dan] Those are fantasies?
[Sam] Fantasy, yes. Fantasy stories about misanthropes trying to hold shut the gates of Hell and overcoming their self loathing and loathing of each other. Good wholesome writing.
[Dan] Wonderful. Sounds like my Thanksgiving family reunions.
[Sam] Yeah. Very...

[Dan] All right. So, we want to talk about sensory writing. Evocative, evoking the senses. When... And when not to use them. So, you just taught... Gave a presentation on that. Is that correct?
[Sam] Yeah. The Surrey International Writers Conference which has long been a favorite of mine. Mary just joined me for the last one.
[Mary] Let me go ahead and put in a plug for them. It's a fantastic conference for aspiring writers.
[Dan] Say the name again.
[Mary] Surrey International Writers Conference, in Surrey, British Columbia.
[Dan] All right. Perfect.
[Sam] Yeah. If you are aspiring at all.
[Mary] Aspiring at any level.
[Sam] At any level. Yeah. It's fantastic. But. We're here to talk about me, not those jerks.
[Mary] I'm totally telling on you.
[Sam] That's fine. They already know. But I did a very... What I hoped was a pretty eloquent workshop on it, describing, as you say, when to use all the senses in writing and when not to. I found when to is fairly self-evident... Pretty much all the time, so that we are taken into a scene. So when we talk about evocative writing, we're talking about being pulled into a scene, being engaged. Engagement with the audience is all... What sensory writing and evocative writing is about.

[Dan] Why is it that using sensory information and description engages the reader in that way?
[Sam] Because... Mostly so that their eyes don't glaze over. If you're using exactly one sense, as we all do usually, sight, merely listing off what happened, what's going on, what you're seeing. There was... You say, "There's a demon standing up." It reads like you have the world's most boring Dungeon Master.
[Mary] I think among other things from a... It makes other parts of the brain fire, which is immediately going to make things somewhat more interesting.
[Sam] Yeah.
[Dan] So in the case of the demon, you would want to describe the smell of brimstone...
[Sam] You want to describe...
[Dan] The sound of screaming crows or whatever.
[Sam] Yeah, whatever is going... Something to pull you into the story, so that you're... As I say, the eyes aren't glazing over, the reader's senses are constantly being challenged at one point or another. It's the same theory as why you don't write 20 pages of dialogue, 50 pages of uninterrupted action. You need to break up things. This is breaking things up at a smaller level. That is, keeping the reader engaged so that they don't start tuning everything out and everything doesn't start reading exactly the same. But what I find is a problem for a lot of authors... Or a lot of aspiring writers and also quite a few...
[Dan] A lot of published authors...
[Mary] Authors... Yes.
[Sam] Published authors, is that you go way, way, way too much into detail. At that point, the senses become... The reader will become over-stimulated, and he'll put down the book because you have just given him literary diabetes. Can we say that?
[Dan] Yeah, we can say that.
[Sam] Okay. We're dealing with some clean rating, and it's really messing with me right now. I don't know what safe anymore. But... Basically...
[Mary] I was going to make a bad joke, and I think we're past that point.
[Dan] We've already made the bad joke. Don't worry about it. Let's move on.

[Sam] Okay. I'll get it right after. But basically, you don't want your reader to be overloaded either. I know this sounds like one of those, "Oh, it's a happy balance." But I tend to err... I advise people to err on the side of excess, because you can always trim stuff back. The more you do it, the more you realize exactly what sense is needed for what scene and what you're describing. Because... Think of a powerful memory or something that you always have thought of whenever you smell a certain type of perfume. That's linked entirely to smell. I think with a lot of memories that we have, they're linked specifically to one sense. Just the sound of something that paints the rest of the picture. The rest of the picture may be hazy, may even... Like when I remember times that my dad yelled at me when I was a kid. It's freaky being yelled at. I can remember the tone. Not necessarily the words, but the tone, the pitch, everything about that situation except what he's mad about. There were a lot of options. There were a lot of reasons.
[Dan] Sounds like very effective discipline, then. The ways in which you evoke the senses, I think, is also very important.
[Mary] Yes. Very true.
[Dan] Because you don't want to just give very bland descriptions. Just like you don't want your visual things to be... And then he saw a red car. You want to describe it well. When you came into this room where we are recording, the first thing you said was, "It smells like dead grandparents." That's a really evocative kind of thing, that you... It's not generic. It's not the kind of thing that you would immediately come to mind. And yet when you say it, everyone listening now knows exactly what this room smells like, because they've visited an old folks home or something like that, and they've smelled this smell before.
[Sam] It really does smell like... It's not bad, it just smells like dead grandparents.
[Mary] It's that faint talcum powder thing.
[Sam] Yeah. Talcum and wood and dying hope...
[Mary] Furniture polish. Yeah.
[Sam] That sort of thing.
[Dan] Ah, the smell of dying hope.
[Sam] But you raise a good point. If we use the senses blandly, as you say... If you list off... It becomes the same problem as just listing off details with sight in that instead of he looked like and this look like and that looked like, you get he looked like and then he smiled like that she felt like and... The reader's eyes are still glazing, because you're not getting anything out of that. You say, "She smelled like cherries." Oh. Awesome. I feel the same way for this woman as I do feel about cherries. I like cherries, but I'm not really into cherries... So...
[Mary] We do have a clean rating. So...
[Sam] We'll leave it here.

[Dan] All right. Well. What a great time for us to talk about our book of the week! Sam, you have our book of the week this time.
[Sam] The book of the week is Terrorists in Love by Ken Ballen, which is a series of six interviews with former terrorists, jihadi soldiers, arrested by the government of Saudi Arabia and sent to a terrorist rehab center. There are interviews from Ken Ballen, an American Jewish Attorney General who figures out their motive. It's nonfiction, but I wholly recommend it for anyone who writes, especially in a genre that has frequently been criticized for black-and-white morality. This really paints a picture of what goes on in the head of someone who does something as abhorrent as terrorism and inflicting violence on civilians. It's a case study of morality, and I wholly recommend it.
[Dan] Sounds great. You can get at is the website. You get a 14 day free trial, and you can download a free book. So...

[Sam] Sounds awesome.
[Dan] Check that out. We'll also have a link on the website. All right. Let's get back into this topic then. One of the things I find interesting, that you mentioned at the beginning, is talking specifically about places to not use sensory information. Tell us a little bit more about that.
[Sam] As I said, I advise... I don't think you have a lot to lose by erring on the side of excess, but the key word there is erring. You can... I find a lot of authors, especially in fantasy, have a problem with wanting to bring absolutely everything they are thinking or have ever thought in every sentence.
[Dan] I have rent one of those books.
[Sam] Yes. We have all read one of those books.
[Mary] I killed a chihuahua with one of those books.
[Sam] They are heavy. You could probably kill people with them.
[Mary] I'm kidding. Please do not send anyone after me.
[Dan] Especially not with one of those books.
[Mary] No, no. But it is true. That will tend to feel like in order to make the room alive, you have to describe every detail in the room. Frequently, those details are not details that are important to your character's emotional state in the room, to the plot... They are simply details. The temptation to describe everything can sometimes lead to overwriting.
[Sam] Absolutely. In places like describing a room, that's fairly... You can excuse that. Suffice it to say that not everyone cares. I could go on and on about the luscious curves of this chair in the corner here, too. It's a pretty attractive chair.
[Mary] I find the upholstery somewhat at odds with the... No, we aren't going to go there.
[Dan] You bored me. My eyes are glazing over.
[Sam] All right. We were about to get into something there. But that's the point. Your eyes were about to glaze over. But people think that painting a vivid scene... It's as much about what you don't use as what you do use. As I said, in painting this scene, it's merely boring. If you do it in a scene of high emotional intensity, such as torture or sex, you will frequently gross out the reader. That's overstimulation. At that point, they will be positively freaked out. We've all probably read those scenes where the author was just enjoying himself a little too much.
[Dan] There's far too much in there. This seems to work really well... Work best when you find just one or two details that you could pull out, that just pull it all together. Or add that right splash. One of the examples that leaps to my mind... One of my all-time favorite books is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. That book almost is defined for me by one scene where the God of the Internet... He's kind of the personification of modern computerization, is eating McDonald's food and burns his fingers on a hot apple pie. Just... All of that, instantly you have... We've all burned our fingers on some hot fast food or something like that. It all comes together. But it also serves to humanize that character and that cast of deities in a very important way for the novel.

[Mary] I think that that's actually a really important thing about why and when to use detail, is that it does get you into the character's skin. Picking details that have a sense of familiarity that we can relate to, helps you get more grounded in that character and see things through their eyes. At the same time, being able to present the details that are different. Like, if you compare those, I think a lot of times that that is a way to lead the reader through.
[Sam] We're not necessarily talking about leading them through, but, as we said, engaging the reader. Putting them in their skin, as you say. Getting them in a part of that. This technique I discussed in the workshop, which I find a lot of people either don't know about or know about and don't know how to use, is a technique I call not looking directly at it. I think of a more elegant title later. But...
[Mary] That works great.
[Sam] I wrote a scene... A torture scene in which someone gets tortured by electricity in my upcoming book Skybound Sea. I absolutely did not want to go into huge detail because at that point... What you don't want to do is bore someone with torture. You don't want to... You don't want them to...
[Dan] That's its own form of torture.
[Sam] Yeah. You don't want them to hit the third paragraph describing it and go, "Oh, my God. Like this is..."
[Dan] Still?
[Mary] How long?
[Sam] So if you're describing everything, you know every/, every stroke...
[Dan] That would be a great cover line on a book. "The world's most boring torture scene..."
[Sam] The world's most boring torture... That would... People might read it for that, but you won't be remembered well. But if you describe some things, like just the sound of skin coming apart in two sections as a scalpel blade is run down the length of someone's forearm. The smell of burning hair as it coils and just leaves an acrid wisp of smoke.
[Dan] You're far too good at this.
[Sam] I know. I don't...
[Mary] I was like... You two are totally... You're like... I'm taking notes.
[Sam] But the point is, I don't have to say anything else.
[Mary] Right.
[Sam] You are filling in the details. The reader is filling in the details. The reader is engaged. Now the reader knows exactly what's going on... God forbid they're actually filling in personal experience, but they're filling in their personal details.
[Dan] At the risk of grossing out our readers further, your specific choices there were very telling. The skin coming apart... That seems like a visual thing, but as you just add the word sound... You didn't need to provide any sound effect. But just the fact that we're thinking of a visual thing in terms of sound, that makes it all the grosser, and all the more effective.

[Mary] This reminds me of a horror film technique, which is that you don't show the monster. Part of the reason is the viewer's sense of horror will fill it in with whatever they find most horrific.
[Dan] Yes. I think it's important at this point to say that this is not a purely horror-based technique.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Dan] You can use it for any genre.
[Sam] Right.
[Dan] And for anything you're trying to convey. When you were talking about not showing the whole thing or whatever, you said you wanted to find a better phrase. The phrase that leapt immediately to mind is a folksinger whose name I can't remember, but he always talked about how he tried to write his songs as a glancing blow to reality. Trying to convey just enough, off to the side, so that you can fill in the rest of the details yourself.
[Sam] Exactly. As you say, it's not for purely horror, it's not for grossing the reader out, it's also for moments... It's for any moment of extreme emotion. A moment of extreme tenderness, as well. Like we... No one's going to name anyone's name, but we've read scenes in which sex is also kind of boring.
[Mary] Yeah, yeah. Or comic.
[Sam] Or comic. Or unintentionally comic, which is the worst. In those cases, it's all describing just... The sound of sand scraping against skin. The way shadow... You can only see half of someone's eye because the rest of them is in shadow. Just that pure... That glimpse of light illuminates just one eye. Again, I don't need to go any further than that.
[Mary] No, no. It's funny because shadow puppetry, in particular, people will fill in the details of the puppet and talk about the puppet's expression even though it is a simple black silhouette against a white screen. It is because you're working on the edges.
[Sam] There are authors that work with this idea of reader interpretation. Cormac McCarthy comes to mind. I've only read The Road, but he never ever describes what the great Apocalypse was. He barely ever says what horrors are going on around you. Because he doesn't need to. He just mentions it. He mentions just a few scant details. That book is minimalist to the point where anyone else... For anyone else, it would be obscene. But for him, it just works. I'm not saying, by Cormac McCarthy's style because everyone will know. But he's definitely someone to read to get a real good... An extreme look at what we're talking about. But...

[Dan] All right. Well, that's all the time that we have, so we're going to wrap up. I actually have a writing prompt...
[Mary] I am so proud of you.
[Dan] So I am not going to throw this at you, again, Mary. What I would like you to do for your writing prompt is, you have a character whose vision is obscured... They're blindfolded, they're in a closet or a trunk or whatever, and they're trying to figure out where they are using all their other senses. So. There you go. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.
Tags: details, engagement, evocative writing, excess, literary diabetes, scene, senses, sensory writing

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