What is Deep POV? (Spoiler: It’s “Show Don’t Tell”)

 

Showing Versus Telling

Today I wanted to talk a little about the idea of “deep POV.” I’ve had a couple authors approach/email me asking questions about the concept. While I was familiar with the idea of point of view (POV) and how to sink deeply into it, I wasn’t uniquely familiar with that terminology. So, I did what I always do when seemingly new knowledge presents itself, I tracked it down.

Typing “Deep POV Books” in Amazon yielded many questionable (in regards to author credibility) self-help type books regarding deep POV. About ten books down on the list, I found some pretty interesting erotica. Scrolling farther down yielded even more eyebrow-raising search results. Anyways, that wasn’t the deep POV I was looking for…

I grabbed the two books (writing books mind you) that had the most reviews regarding the subject. The two books are the following:

While both books have some decent information, holy macaroni folks, deep POV is just show, don’t tell dressed up in new words. While the showing/telling song and dance is geared toward many facets of writing, this deep POV concept is geared toward characters.

*Sigh*

Deep POV.jpgThe marketing folks must by doing a river dance right now. There’s nothing like slapping lipstick on a well-used term and screaming, “I’ve uncovered a new gem! Whadayamean it’s the same as…oh…I see. Okay, one-line show don’t tell and write in deep POV!”

Regardless of how used the concept is, if you are unfamiliar with showing versus telling, or deep POV, just know the terms are basically interchangeable in regards to writing characters.

Here are some blog posts I’ve generated regarding showing and telling, if you need a quick fix. The quality of these posts, much like the quality of my brain, is questionable. Though, a few people have found them useful (the posts, not my brain…yet).

Tics and Tells to Show not Tell (talks about using character mannerisms in your writing)

Using Sensory Detail to Enhance Fiction (talks about taking advantage of your senses)

Show vs. Tell & Intensity Scales (talks about the concept and offers a tool to determine when to show or tell)

resourcesTo be honest, if you are looking for resources on deep POV, you would do well to simply search for solid writing books that have a chapter or so on showing/telling. The two books I listed in the beginning are a great start. S.A. Soule’s book is filled with examples, if that floats your literary boat. If I had to pick a couple of books to recommend on the subject, because you all know I eat my greens, I would point toward:

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (This book is simply jammed full of tips and examples of how to write believable, visceral character cues. Tackles 70+ different emotions. Great if you can’t deal with emotions…in your writing.)

Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction, by Marcy Kennedy (Confused about the concept? Can’t find a blogger or source of information to solve the problem? Marcy Kennedy does a good job of clearing the fog. Also, this author states that telling isn’t always wrong, or bad, or bad-wrong. Indeed, telling had its place.)

That’s a wrap for today. Sorry to be away for so long; life has been busy (editing, writing, conventions, stay-at-home dadding, military spousing). As time opens up, I’ll spend a little more of it here. Shooting for a post a week here and on the author page, we’ll see if I can pull that off.

question markQuick question! What books or resources would you all recommend to tackle the idea of deep POV or show don’t tell? I’m always looking for more pieces of information to add to my library. Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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Tics and Tells to Show not Tell

A WaterlooTics and tells are a fun way for you to “show” how a character is feeling, or who they are, without having to “tell” the reader. Yes, the quotation marks were purposeful.  The concept we’re going to discuss today builds on the foundation of showing versus telling, which I’ve talked about before. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, I encourage you to click on the hyperlink. It includes some other great references for you to check out beyond the meager offering I wrote.

Tics and tells help you avoid poker-faced characters in your story. A poker-faced character would be a character who delivers dialogue, but reveals little in the way of body language. It’s also a means to help your characters not fall into the void of floating head syndrome.

Depending on whether you outline or not, the time to consider tics and tells will change. For outliners, you can include some of this info in your character sheets. For you “pantsers,” just see if anything happens organically and try to be consistent. Regardless, pantsers,  you might want to consider examining this aspect during your first revision/rewrite.

There are three things I like to think of when I shape this aspect of my characters: physical traits, items worn, and dialogue tics. This list is incomplete, for sure, but it’s a good jumping-off point.

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour.jpgWhen it comes to physical traits, I’m thinking beyond just the basic height, hair, skin, gender, and eye color.  The basics are a good place to start, but dig deeper.  Don’t just think of normal or beautiful traits, find the flaws too.

While this may seem unnecessary, this front-end work pays dividends down the road. A person with a giant Adams apple may swallow when nervous. It’ll look like a golf ball bobbing up and down in their throat. A person with narrow eyes may look like they have them closed when they are lying. The gap in someones two front teeth may be on display when they chew their lower lip while thinking.

This level of description saves you from having to pepper your dialogue attribution with adverbs to tell the reader information. If you build the blocks early, they will know the second eyes squint, nostrils flare, or foreheads wrinkle that [insert emotion] is being felt. The best part is it only requires a short sentence and you are moving from telling into showing territory.

broken glasses.jpgKnowing what your characters are wearing and have on their person is a useful tool. Understanding how they interact with these things is even better. It can also be of use when anchoring readers in your chapters. I’ve talked about anchoring before, but the concept is to reorient the reader in the beginning of a chapter.

If the chapter opens with a character cleaning his/her broken glasses with a torn and bloody shirt, you’ve opened the chapter with action, zoomed in on POV, and zapped the reader into who this chapter is coming from (unless all your characters are wearing broken glasses and ripped up shirts). If you’ve layered in the idea that this character cleans their glasses when they are nervous, you’ve stacked yet another layer of complexity.
Night_vision.jpgHere’s an example from my military days. Even from behind in the pitch black with night vision goggles on (which aren’t as whiz-bang as Hollywood would like you to think), I could tell who was with me on a mission by how they were acting. How are they holding their rifle? Are they constantly messing with their helmet straps? Are they constantly moving? Are they constantly leaning on something? These observations allowed me to take green and black humanoid blobs and know who they were.

We can apply this to our writing. Our characters wear clothes (hopefully), and they might have some external items with them too. Take a moment to consider how they interact with these items in different situations. Take the list of adverbs you might use (nervously, excitedly, boringly, furiously..and the list goes on) and write how they would manipulate their clothing or worn items in those situations. Again, now you can show instead of tell without bumping the word count up too much or bogging down attribution tags with adverbs.

Mannerisms tie into physical appearance and character possessions, but they can also be hidden within dialogue. Perhaps when a character is lying, they s-s-stutter, add many unnecessary and useless words to increase the length of what they are saying, or perhaps they become concise.  This can be a slippery slope (accents come to mind).  If it’s a fail, your alpha and beta readers will likely clue you in.

question-markThat’s it for today. What suggestions, additions, or ideas would you add to this list?  Do you use any of these concepts in your writing?  I’d love to talk about it and broaden my depth of knowledge.  Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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Writing a Monster into Existence

dragon.jpg

[Editor’s Note]

The QE household has prepared itself for the onslaught of sugar-craving children.  I figured today (Halloween) would be a great day to repost an older blog about monsters to free me up for pumpkin carving and other fun things.  Since writing this post, I purchased Cryptozoology A to Z, by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark (thanks to a suggestion offered by Dillon, over at From Rad to Dad). It’s a very organized glimpse into the monsters of all shapes and sizes.

While I love reading most genres, few things give me more pleasure than reading about monsters chowing down on unfortunate locals.  It can be zombies, aliens, rodents of unusual size,  or anything else you can think of.  I enjoy it even more when the writer creates a new beast for me to add to my bestiary archives.

I‘m currently working with a couple writers who both have monsters in their books.  The human chomping freaks are terrifying and enjoyable to learn about.  One issue we have been sorting out together is how they can describe the monsters clearly.

This lack of description becomes a larger issue when you have spawned a new breed of monster.  When you say dragon, I know what you are talking about.  At the very least, I have an idea of what you are talking about.  But if you go springing an ancient force hell bent on sucking out my eyes and using my spine as a fiddle bow, then I need to some details.

writing monsters.jpgI recently snagged Philip Athans’ book, Writing Monsters, to help me find some creative solutions to provide.  By recently, I mean it came in the mail yesterday.  I sat down to read with a highlighter in hand and a notepad ready to jot down ideas.  My plan was to pull all the pertinent information from the book and compile a list the writers could use to beef up their monster description.  I hit page eight, and bang, there was a goldmine.

Athan had created a template called, “The Monster Creation Form.”  I’m not going to reproduce that simple, but genius, form here.  I think that level of borrowing would border on copyright infringement.  It did get me thinking about a similar form I used to play with a lot – a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) character sheet.  I’ve done a blog post on character sheets before, which has examples.  You can check that out here.  If your monster is quasi-human, you might be able to use one of the templates I provided there.

monster manual.jpgI also ordered the D&D Monster Manual (the version I linked).  I could remember a younger version of me flipping through one of these and marveling at both the written descriptions, variety, and artwork.  I figured the older version of me could use another point of reference.

After the euphoria of my Amazon impulse buy wore off, I began searching for D&D type templates to build monsters.  After some internet scouring I ended up right back here on WordPress.  I found a blogger, OldDungeonMaster, who has a literary ton of great D&D related materials.  One such item was a monster sheet for a Cranium Rat.  You can look at the image below.  I also linked this image to his/her page so you check out the rest their content (for you aspiring D&D players and Dungeon Masters).

cranium_ratI combined some elements from the monster sheet above, and some elements from Writing Monsters, and created my own Bestiary of Destiny.  You can use this template to sketch out your monster and assign elements.  While I’m no artist, I sometimes find even a crude drawing helps me better understand how something looks.  It helps pull the description out of the creative whirlpool in my head and give it shape.

Bestiary of Destiny

If you click the image it will send you to my Flickr page where I uploaded this image in higher resolution.  Print it in landscape and have some fun.  As with anything I create for the blog, it’s free to share and use for whatever nefarious purpose you have in mind.

 

Many times when I talk to writers about description, they know all the answers.  I’ll say something like, “It was great when Zolgorg the Mighty ate that guy.  What does Zolgorg look like when he eats someone?  Does he tear them in two and go into a blood frenzy, or does he carefully quarter them?”  Usually the writer will launch into a five minute description-fest explaining the ordeal in fine detail.

griffin.jpgWhen they wrote the scene, the information was clear in their head, it just didn’t make it onto the page.  In my own writing, having visual references (like character sheets and templates) reminds me to include those descriptions.  I make sure to stick the papers up on the wall in front of me, or somewhere I can see them.  This way when the time comes for juicy description, a glance at those papers zeroes me in on important descriptive elements.

If you are having issues being consistent with description, or generating a clear picture of what your monster should look like, I encourage you to try this tool.  Worst case scenario is you have a crudely drawn picture, but a clearer mental one.

 

Oftheunicorn.jpgThat’s it for today.  I hope you found some useful tools to create your own monsters here.  I’m sure as I continue reading through Writing Monsters some more nuggets of information will accumulate.  You can look forward to some posts about flesh chewing chinchillas and what not.

Do any of you have effective ways to create new and terrifying monsters?  Or know of good books on crafting monsters?  If you are willing to share I would love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Description: Finding the Sweet Spot

A while ago (as this is a repost) I read an article by fellow WordPress maverick Raeanne G. Roy regarding the fine line we walk when deciding just how much description to provide the reader.  Her original post is located here.  I tossed my humble two cents into the comments box and went on with my day.

description meme.jpgThat evening I sat down at the appointed hour and began my own writing, and wouldn’t you know it, I couldn’t stop thinking about description.  Suddenly, the wasteland renegades I write about were sporting sweaters with patches and rips and buttons, but not just any buttons, buttons made of bone, but not just any bone, the bone from a forgotten slave from a forgotten land.  I realized it was happening —gave myself a quick facepalm—then beat on the backspace for a few minutes.

With this in mind, I decided it wouldn’t hurt if I tossed some information into the blogosphere regarding description.  Then I could watch it float away like wasteland confetti.  Coincidentally, this confetti is not made of colorful bits of plastic, but actually the brittle, delicate pages from an old book. Not just any book, the good book. That’s right! Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  A first edition—the inside cover still faintly bearing the worn signature of…uh…erm…on with the blog!

As usual, I thought I would provide some examples from legit authors to steer us in the right direction.

Chuck Wendig provides some great (and often hilarious) nuggets of information regarding description in his book, The Kick-Ass Writer.  I earmarked this excerpt in particular:

“When Betty Crocker first started selling mixes, they were super-easy to make. Packet of powder, add water, and bake.  But they didn’t sell – in part because they were too easy.  It felt like a cheat.  So Crocker chose to leave out the egg – meaning, a housewife had to add an egg, an extra step.  And bam!  They sold like a sonofabitch.  The lesson is that your audience wants to work.  When they work, they feel invested. Hand them a pickaxe, a pith helmet.  Don’t give them all parts of the description – let them fill in details with their imagination.  Let them add the egg” (p. 95).

The Kick-Ass Writer

A collection of phrases and quotes from the book, The Kick-Ass Writer, written by Chuck Wendig.  I wrote a post about this book here

The takeaway here is to not spoon feed the reader description (unless that description is made out of Betty Crocker cupcake mix).

Stephen King in his book On Writing discusses description.  He states, “For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.  In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind” (p. 175).  While this a small excerpt of a larger explanation, what King seems to be driving at is this:  when you sit down to write those first details you see in your minds eye are usually the strongest ones.

Those first sparks are the bones of your description, and often times, they can support the muscle and meat that make up the scene.  The mistake I tend to make is I worry those bones are too feeble. So the black revolver in the hand of anonymous bad guy #3, becomes a pearl handled, laser engraved, .44 caliber, black and silver hand-cannon with a laser sight duct taped to the barrel.  I shall resist!

So these two examples are basically saying, “take it easy with too much description,” but what exactly is too much description?  There are more than a few schools of thought out there.  Let’s talk about a couple.

80s montage.jpg

*cue montage music*

One is that you focus on describing people, places, and things that will reinforce the actions and emotions of your characters as they move through your story and shy away from stuff that is just, well, stuff.  The danger here is the reader can catch on.  If every building is a building, except for the one you spend a paragraph describing—they know something is about to go down in that building.  This can be a good and this can be bad.  It’s obviously an issue if you are trying to catch them off guard.  If your book is an 80s movie, sudden and uncharacteristic description of anything cues the montage music and lets the reader know the big boss battle is coming.

The other school of thought is you simply describe things instinctively.  Let your minds eye be the judge as to what is important at first.  When you come back through with the editing pen of fury (or doom), you can subtract or add.  By letting your creative side assign importance to the mundane you might stumble onto something more.

Example. The curtains were light blue.  Two pages later, when the protagonist pulls them open to look out the window, he realizes they are actually hospital linens.  Cool.  In my wasteland story, people re-purpose items all the time.  Maybe a doctor lived in the house, maybe there are meds stashed away behind the bookcase, maybe he’s down in the basement cutting someone to pieces while everyone is upstairs sleeping unaware?  This organic description while writing allows for the story to gain its own life outside of any rigid outline you have preordained.  As long as it doesn’t veer you too far off track, I think you’ll be all right.

different viewpoints.jpg

What do you see?

Lastly and most importantly, does the description enhance the reader’s understanding of the people and events happening in the story?  Delicious tidbits of description scattered throughout tell us a lot about the characters and world we are reading about, and saves us from beating people over the head with paragraphs of background information.  If one person observes a rifle of some kind, that tells us something about the person.  If another observes the same rifle, and concludes it’s a lightweight, 5.56, air-cooled, gas operated, magazine-fed assault rifle, with a rotating bolt, we can draw some pretty obvious conclusions about that character’s background without typing anything else.

Renni Browne and Dave King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers explain:

“…if you allow your readers to get to know your characters gradually, each reader will interpret them in his or her own way, thus getting a deeper sense of who your characters are than you could ever convey in a summary.  Allowing your readers this sort of leeway in understanding your characters enables you to reach a wider audience – and reach it far more effectively – than would defining your characters before we get to know them or analyzing them afterward” (p. 26).

question markWell, I’ve scratched the surface with this post about description.  It’s a giant beast requiring many knives to bring down.  I would love to hear your two cents/insights regarding description and what you feel is vital to the story.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge.jpgI recently had a friend contact me because an editor had given them feedback that mentioned, ‘the curse of knowledge’.  My friend mentioned it for two reasons: they weren’t entirely tracking on what it meant, and they knew I blog about writing and thought I could mention it in a post.

There’s a touch of irony in having an editor tell you to avoid the curse of knowledge.  It becomes even more ironic when they don’t explain exactly what it means.  I’ve seen a few explanations of the term, but to put it plainly, it’s when a writer makes assumptions about what their readers know and end up writing above their heads.

Here’s a non-fiction example.  When I was a journalist in the Navy, we were instructed to break down our writing to the grade school level.  This tailored our writing to a wider audience and made it more accessible to the average reader.

nps

The Naval Postgraduate School wasn’t a terrible place to be stationed. 

Then, later in my Navy career, I got stationed at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The students at the school were senior officers from all branches of the military and from allied countries.  The focus was mostly on advanced science and technology projects.  I was told to step up the complexity of my writing because now the average audience was perceived to be more intelligent.

I remember being assigned a story about a professor and some students who were developing free electron laser technology to be used on ships.  The idea was to use directed energy to blast incoming rockets and projectiles out of the sky before they would reach a ship. The professor’s name was Bill Coulson, and I was super excited to talk about something that hearkened images of the planet Alderaan being destroyed.

When I sat down with Bill, I asked him to describe the scope of the project.  The explanation was interesting, but very confusing.  There were lots of technical terms and science jargon.  After he finished, I asked in the nicest way possible if he could explain some aspects of it again, but dumb it down for me. He obliged.

FEL_principle.png

At this point in time I didn’t know a lick about ‘the curse of knowledge,’ but in retrospect, this example really illustrates it well.  Bill, due to his technical experience and level of knowledge, glossed over some facts that would be essential to my story.  By glossing over, I do mean, used scientific jargon very few people truly understand.  I needed a way to write those bits of information in a way for the average reader to comprehend.  For me to do that, I needed to understand it myself.

complex description.jpgThis is an important concept to think of when you are writing.  I find that many times people who use lots of technical terms and jargon do so for two reasons: sometimes they don’t really understand what they are talking about themselves, and sometimes they are afraid to be seen as simpletons by peers.

Now, about that first conclusion.  When I ask someone to break something complex down and they can’t, I often wonder if they actually know what it is they are talking about.  In the example I offered, Bill had no trouble simplifying some very advanced engineering and physics concepts to their bare bones.  He truly understood the content; I just needed to filter and understand it myself.

In regards to being afraid to look like a simpleton, that’s something we just need to be able to get over unless we want to only appeal to the most pretentious readers (and those blow-hards are probably going to criticize your work no matter what).  When I interviewed Bill, I could have just nodded my head and dumped all of the content he gave me into the story in its raw state.  But that would have been a disservice to him because a story of this nature helps spread the word.  If no one understands the science, then it’s harder for him to get grants to pay for all of his cool toys.

Navy_laser_shoots_drone..jpgI‘m not saying my story helped change the world, but these lasers are on ships now…

[Side Note:  If you are still reading and are thinking, QE tell me how to build my own laser weaponhere is a cool pdf Bill put together that talks about the evolution of the tech. Good luck…

The curse of knowledge also manifests in a lack of detail.  Some writers make the assumption, because they are so close to the story, that everyone may know what it is they are describing.  Because of this, they strip the setting of detail and only offer a skeleton.  Steven Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, states that, “Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images…” (p. 72).

We want people to remember our story.  It’s often why it’s recommended to anchor the reader in setting early in chapters.  When people recall a story, they often recall it in chunks (our brain chunks information to help us remember it).  For them to remember a specific chunk/chapter, it’s vital for the storyteller to anchor them in each chapter and paint a brief picture.perception-quote

Whether you are bamboozling people with complex language, or stripping things down, the best way to cure the curse is to step outside of your own perception.  Put another way, it’s a fools errand to solely apply your own judgement as to what other people understand.  If you want to know what people think, you need to ask them.  This is why it’s of vital importance to pay special attention to your beta and alpha readers (your editor might be able to offer some insight too).

question markThat’s the breakdown of the concept.  I may do one future post on this that discusses some of the misconceptions and beliefs behind the curse.  Let me know if this is something any of you are interested in.  Have any of you fallen victim to the curse?  Have you read the work of someone afflicted with it?  I’d love to hear about.  I’m also very open to more solutions.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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World Builder’s Disease: Knowing the Sickness

World Builder's Disease.jpgWorking as an editor, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with other writers.  For me, getting to be a part of the process of creation is very rewarding.  However, it doesn’t come without peril.  Part of being an editor, much like being a doctor, is that you have to develop a sort of bedside manner.  When you look into the eyes of a vulnerable writer during review and utter, “My concern is that you have developed late stage World Builder’s Disease,” you need to be able to at least explain the nature of the sickness.  (Okay, I might not say it just like that — but I’m trying to make a point).

Some of you may already know, but World Builder’s Disease is basically when a writer gets so lost in the backstory of the world they are creating that they produce endless pages of history, character background, cultural information, and setting.  The characters, conflicts, and actual telling of the story become secondary to this grand history and complex world.  The book begins to look like an anthropological dissertation, instead of a story.

If you are completely unfamiliar with this term (or concerned that rash on your neck is actually World Builder’s Disease manifesting physically) there are a few sources I would recommend checking out.

The first thing to do would be to swing over to Writing Excuses and listen to the Season 3, Episode 1 podcast titled World Building History.  I’ve mentioned this website in a few of my posts already and will continue to do so.  There’s a reason the website is listed as one of the top 101 websites for writers by Writer’s Digest.  It’s an awesome source of information.

Gentleman World Builder.jpgNext, you should review, (The Dreaded) World Builder’s Disease from The Writersaurus blog. It’s a fun read and a very descriptive look at the menace.  This blog is loaded with some fun, writing specific, content.

Finally, check out the article The Truth About World Building Disease, from the website, The Worldbuilding School.  The article offers a basic explanation of World Builder’s Disease and explains some causes.  If you wanted to get a map illustrated for your work, this would be a good place to check out.  Additionally, if you are suffering from a lack of world building, this is a good place to start getting the gears moving.

Now for my two cents.  I feel writers have the most trouble recovering from this because the words are coming easily.  We hear this all the time: “Just write.  Meet those daily goals. You’re right if you just write.”  I still agree with these statements.  Just because you have a stack of paper with no real story, doesn’t mean its useless.  It just doesn’t have use as a publishable story just yet.

history.jpgSo if you have sat down and blasted out inches worth of unrelated historical information regarding a world, character, or item — don’t despair.  Set it aside and use it as part of your reference material.  Try sprinkling in some of it as descriptive beats and reveal the history throughout the course of your book.  Maybe you can set up a wiki page for your readers on your blog or website that lists this extra information after the book drops?  Or you could use this extra info to market your book before release, like I’ve been doing with my Wasteland Wednesday posts.

Regardless, unless you are working against a deadline, or have finished the book only to realize half of it is historical information (i.e. not characters dealing with conflicts), then don’t stress it.  Everyone’s creative process works differently.  Some people have the easiest time writing their characters, some people surge when they write conflicts, and other people create unbelievably complex worlds, histories, and cultures.  A blending of these things is what we need.

question-markAre you a sufferer of this affliction?  Do you know someone who is?  Do you have a cure that works for you?  Let me know.  While I don’t have a magic elixir, sometimes just addressing it works as a soothing balm.  Thanks for reading and be sure to stop by tomorrow.  Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Using Sensory Details to Enhance Fiction

Smell the Napalm.jpgWhen people read our stories we want them to feel like they are part of it.  One method of accomplishing this is hitting them with sensory details (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste).  Right now, as you read this, all of your senses are hard at work.  If you would, take a moment to really consider this.

For me, I feel the weight of my body resting against my computer chair.  My fingertips feel the smoothness of my keyboard keys and my forearms are kind of sticking to my computer desk.  My eyes are straining a little as I just woke up a bit ago and the monitor is still too bright.  I’m listening to music, but the cooling fans of my computer are also buzzing away.  The writing cave (my office) smells like hot pockets, energy drinks, and my cat Niblet.  There is an unnatural minty freshness lingering in my mouth because I brushed my teeth a few minutes ago.

In that hastily written example, I offered some very basic examples of sensory description.  While it’s a giant block of information, it highlights some of the elements many writers forget when they tackle their manuscripts.  Again, these elements are sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.

The trick is figuring out when, and how, to best utilize sensory information.  If you do it too much, it will bog down your writing and slow your pacing significantly.  If you don’t do it at all, your reader may feel slightly disconnected from aspects of your story.  However, there are a couple basic guidelines you can consider when applying sensory detail to bolster your writing.

Showing Versus Telling

Show vs Tell.   There’s a ton of great articles out there about showing versus telling.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept, you can check out one I wrote right here.  When you are moving into showing territory, utilizing some sensory details will help your reader sink into the scene you are creating.

Opening a Chapter.  I’ve talked in the past about anchoring your reader in setting early in your chapters.  This is especially important if a reader has put your book down and came back to it.  You need to quickly pull them back into the story world.  Sensory elements will help the reader sink back into the story and the POVs of the characters within.

looking.jpgChange of Location.  My office smells a lot differently than the bathroom at a gas station (or so I like to think).  When we move our readers from one place to the next, it’s good practice to help them transition by using sensory details.  If you find ways to repeat this information throughout the story, sensory cues by themselves can act to quickly prompt the reader to a change in location or character.

Enhancing Emotion.  We’ve talked briefly about writing emotion in the past. Sensory details can enhance emotion.  My wife and I bought some basic macaroni and cheese to try to feed Thor.  He’s starting to experiment with different kinds of “grown up” food now.  As a kid, this was a quick and easy thing my mom would make for me.  After we made it for Thor, the smell and taste immediately began to make me feel an extreme sense of nostalgia.  Pairing that with the idea that this was the first time Thor was eating it (or trying to at least) enhanced this feeling.

You likely have some sensory experiences that are highly personal to you as well.  These are great fodder to build more realistic stories.  After that experience with Thor, I jotted a brief notation of it down in one of my journals; maybe it will end up in a story one day.  When you are wandering through life, take note to open your senses up and pull information from your surroundings.  Not only should this enrich your life, it should enrich your writing as well.

gladiator fallen.jpgSensory detail to reveal motivation, or as a metaphor.  In the movie Gladiator, we see Maximus Decimus Meridius reach down and pick up a handful of sand before he enters the arena.  He does this every single time.  He grinds the sand into his palms and we can almost feel the grit.  He also smells it.

Even before he becomes a slave and is a Roman general, he is shown reaching down, picking up soil, and smelling it before he rubs it into his palms.  At first you could make the assumption he does this to enhance his grip of the weapon.  However, as we learn more about the character that simple action takes on a deeper meaning.

We learn that he is a farmer and just wants to return home to his crops and his family.  The act of smelling and feeling the soil almost becomes a metaphor for his desire to return to something he lost.  This sensory element is repeated throughout the entire movie and is a constant reminder of his internal motivations.  Without going into spoilerland, this use of sensory driven action serves other facets in the movie as well.  Especially as a contrast in the end where he is walking through a field and feeling the swaying stalks of wheat with his fingers.

A word of caution.  I mentioned it above, but it’s worth restating, you can absolutely overuse sensory details.  As with most things in writing, there is a balance one must try to achieve.  Mary Buckham, in her book, A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting, said it best: “Not every setting needs all five senses described in detail—that approach is overkill and can have a major impact on your story pacing, not to mention overwhelming the reader with information” (p. 52).

question-markThat’s it for today.  This was a basic introduction to the concept.  In the future, we will break this down and explain some of the components more in-depth.  As always, I’m curious about how you all manage to weave sensory information into your projects.  Do you actively find yourself smelling and feeling things in an attempt to write about them realistically? Do you just close your eyes and think about them?  I’d love to hear about your process.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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