Thursday, January 11, 2007

Writing For The Senses

I don’t want to forget my periodic writing table so I’m posting it again today. Mostly I’ve been talking about character, Ch. But today I wanted to think about “sensory” writing, writing that you can feel, hear, taste, smell. I believe this falls under the Se element, setting.

Character - Ch
Plot - Pl
Style -St
Setting -Se
Mood - M
Voice - V
Point-of-View - PV
Pacing - Pa
Concept - Co

I like writing that involves all of my senses, but I have a problem, one of those weird things that Stewart Sternberg talks about on occasion. This is a weird thing about me. I have no sense of smell. As far as I can remember I’ve never been able to smell. An interesting thing, however, is that smell is easy to fake. I’ve been known on a walk in the park to stop and smell the roses, and then comment to someone else how wonderfully fresh and sweet they are. I’m always agreed with. Now, when I say stop and smell them I mean, press my nose close, draw in air in a large sniff, and then pause for just a moment before commenting on the delightful odor. It’s all an act, but people have no idea that it is unless I tell them.

In my novel, Cold in the Light, I deliberately created a race of beings for whom smell was more important than it is for humans. The Whoun have names for smells that humans can’t even sense. And I’ve had several people comment on how well I handled the Whoun’s relationship with odors. If so, it’s only because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. When you have a sensory capability you take it for granted. You don’t “investigate” it. You don’t “study” it. But I think if we want to write senses convincingly we need to. We shouldn’t just experience what we see or hear. We should break it down, analyze it. Then it’ll be able to contribute the detail to our setting that brings them to life for our readers.

As for my own missing sense? It’s been the source of quite a bit of humor in my life. Someday I’ll tell you the story of how “I discovered that farts stink.”


Danny Tagalog said...

Hello Charles,

I'd like to get to know about the whoun a bit more. Sounds intrifuing, as does the farting conclusion to your post...

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

I am always being told that I neglect writing about the other senses in my work. What does he feel against his face? people ask. What does he smell? Taste?

Jon Zech, at every writers meeting, will often chase after new writers, demanding that they put food somewhere in a story.

"Food's the thing," says Jon, and he illustrates how eating a grapefruit can be used as a way to illustrate character and conflict. You don't want to see what the man will do to a banana.

Charles Gramlich said...

Danny, I promise to reveal the fart story at some point. As for the Whoun, they are an "apparent" alien race that turns out not to be so alien. They have castes, including a breeding caste and a warrior caste, the latter of whom are called the "Warkind." The Warkind are pretty nasty characters, perhaps something like a mix between a wolverine, sasquatch, and "predator." I also enjoy gore and the Warkind let me indulge.

Stewart, I don't usually include food in my stories but maybe I should. I do always try to include some smells and tastes.

Sidney said...

There's a John Silence story, pre-dating the psychedelic era by a while, in which a writer takes a mind altering substance. He winds up hearing colors and things like that. I've always been intrigued by that notion.

What does blue sound like? Or green?

Clifford said...

Farts stink?

Charles Gramlich said...

Hum, are you saying it's a conspiracy by "smellers" to fool a "non-smeller" such as myself? Perhaps farts are truly an aphrodisiac? Perhaps I've been being lied to all this time? Interesting, and yet I somehow don't care to investigate further.

Sphinx Ink said...

In response to Sidney's comment on the story in which the character ends up "hearing" colors, etc., that's not so far removed from possibility. There is, in fact, an organic brain condition some people have--not an illness or disorder, just a different mode of perception--in which they "see" numbers, letters, words, etc., as colors, or hear them as musical notes. It's a known as synesthesia (rhymes with anesthesia). FMI, see

JR's Thumbprints said...

Everything counts in fiction. To incorporate the senses into a story is easy, but to make it seem natural as each fictional character moves about is difficult.