“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feel of being rained upon.” – E.L. Doctorow
I’ve learned some interesting things about description, lately. I know to show things using active verbs, selective adjectives, and strong, core nouns. I know to trust the reader – another way of saying “don’t over-describe something.” I know to write with all five senses. These are all common tricks of description. You probably know them yourself.
Today I want to try and take it a step deeper. I’ve noticed some interesting connections that I think we could all apply in our work. Most of it relates to the principles I’ve stated above, so it won’t be a huge revelation, but I think it may shade things differently for you.
Alright then, here it is.
Thing I learned, the first: Use sensory details – taste, touch, and smell.
We’ve all heard of writing with the five senses. This is a valuable method of getting a reader inside your character’s skin, like internal monologue gets them inside a character’s head. But some senses are more relevant than others. Taste, touch, and smell link directly to our memories. If you stimulate one of these senses in your fiction, it can personalize things for your reader.
Like pumpkin pie. Think long and hard for a moment about the smell of pumpkin pie. Imagine it bubbling away somewhere inside a stove. Imagine it thick on the air, tangy with cinnamon. Imagine taking a creamy bite.
What does it remind you of?
Thanksgiving, maybe. Cranberry sauce and stuffing. Sweet potatoes dribbled with brown sugar and real butter. This extends outward to Thanksgiving day itself: the hugs and back-clapping, family in woolen sweaters, a game of football out in the backyard, crisp falls days, winter, Christmas…
This is called association. I’m personally a bit too associative – I can tell you what yellow tastes like just by the way it makes me feel – so this example may be a little extreme. But the point is that some things bring up distinct images. Images have memories, and memories have a feel. Like I said above: if you can tap into these associations, you’ll involve a persons memories and emotions. This more than anything else lets them feel a scene.
Thing I learned, the second: Emotion is a key. Once someone emotionally feels a scene, they’re involved.
This may feel like stating the obvious, but you want a reader invested in your story. You do this by creating a sense of common humanity. Readers can empathize with a character without ever being in the same situation. As Lawrence Block said in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, “If I was that kind of guy, that’s the kind of guy I’d be."
On a small scale, empathy is created when you bring a reader’s emotions into a scene. Take our pumpkin pie example. The average person could relate to that, and in the process, they would bring in their own emotions and memories to create a sense of family, tradition, and goodwill. So If I wrote:
“Someone was making pumpkin pie. Carla leaned back into the doorframe and soaked it up, all creamy and cinnamon. Her mind flit to Thanksgiving dinners around Aunt Jen’s big oak table, the way everyone laughed, dogs licking your legs and hands; how they were all so happy.”
The reader knows exactly how Carla feels. Not because I said “the memories made her happy,” but because the readers have experienced similar memories themselves. That is empathy right there. Metaphors are good at this because they target a reader’s memories. If I tell you “the house smelled like Thanksgiving,” I am allowing you to apply your own history to my story.
When you write, be aware of the emotional connotations your descriptions. What’s the difference between a sob, and a wail? Musk, and stench? Ice that splintered, and ice that sliced?
There’s a bit more I wanted to say, so check in next Wednesday for part 2: Description and Selection.
– Creative A