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Writing Prompt #18: SENSE ‘a’ Wonder

September 13, 2010

This post is going to be all about how to incorporate the senses in your writing.  But I want to share a hilarious, fun link that I found also.  This writing prompt generator is meant for K-12 classrooms and students, but it’s also fun.  Just one of its random results was a perfectly fine fantasy inspiration:

“One morning you look out the window and discover that a huge castle has appeared overnight. Write what happens next.”

I had a maladroit writing teacher in graduate school who enjoyed saying things like “metaphor is dead,” and, acknowledging that I could write, demanded one time (in a social situation, too!) to know why somebody who could really write the way I could, would want to write junky SF!  This guy barely read anything anybody turned in, anyway.  So, I didn’t take his comments personally.  I also wasn’t able to muster much of a defense of my commitment to SF/F, so this is hardly a tale of virtue vs. vice.

But the more interesting question is:  if simile and metaphor are dead, how does one describe sensory experiences in fiction?  Because the sort of fiction espoused by Wicked Professor Whasbo wasn’t about plot, and in order to maintain its beat-like faux “coolness,” had to avoid certain conventions, like – making sense and having some relation to the world or reader.

Attempting to realistically portray something that a character saw, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted must involve comparisons of some sort.  Our “sense words” are also adjectives.  This is where grammar intersects with creativity.  Do you understand the impact on the reader when you follow advice like “ruthlessly eliminate all adjectives?”  That author/editor gives the example of the word “snow,” a noun we all know well.

Using a money metaphor, the author suggests that if the basic noun “snow” is worth $50, then “cold snow” is worth $25 or something, and “cold, wet snow” is worth $17.  This advice is true, in the sense of, since when is snow not cold?  As to “wet,” that’s got some meaning, because all of us who ski know the difference between slush and nice, dry packed powder.  There are many other adjectives that apply to the sensory experience of snow that DO fit and CAN be used in fiction, and if left-out, rob stories of their emotional power and impact.

So, here we are, writing sci fi stuff, and let’s just say we want to describe these aliens who’ve thrown an impenetrable  dome over our little town, thus causing everyone’s true, inner demons to come out, differentiating the good, God-questioning, authority-questioning liberal folk from the wicked, God-abusing, surface-conservatives who are in reality, a bunch of murderous, nasty meth-peddling boils on the little town’s collective rear that all need to be lanced and drained.

The author of one story similar to what I described came up with “leatherheads” to describe these aliens, and said that their faces kept shifting and changing.

OK.

In a story or sketch you have written, take one page that features the initial encounter with either a) an alien – friend or foe; b) a human antagonist; or c) a fantasy antagonist.  If you have no such scene or story that you think fits, then invent the alien, human antagonist, or fantasy antagonist, and the viewpoint character who will communicate the senses that are experienced.

I will give some examples – and they are not from our genre – well, perhaps not.  Chekhov is always good for using the senses to great effect.  This is from “Fat and Thin,” a very short story about what happens when old school friends meet as adults, and their lives have taken two different paths – one up, and one downward.

Two friends — one a fat man and the other a thin man — met at the Nikolaevsky station. The fat man had just dined in the station and his greasy lips shone like ripe cherries. He smelt of sherry and fleur d’orange. The thin man had just slipped out of the train and was laden with portmanteaus, bundles, and bandboxes. He smelt of ham and coffee grounds. A thin woman with a long chin, his wife, and a tall schoolboy with one eye screwed up came into view behind his back.

Here is another Chekhov story in which sensory descriptions are used very well.

And here is the description of the two school friends from “The Fat and the Thin,” applying the remove all adjectives ruthlessly advice:

Two friends met at the Nikolaevsky station. One man had just dined at the station.  The other had slipped out of the train and was laden with portmanteaus, bundles, and bandboxes. His wife and son came into view behind his back.

One would also have to alter the title as well, I suppose, as “fat” and “thin” are visual descriptions and adjectives.  How about “Two School Friends”?  Yeah, that’s got a ring to it . . . (not).

Do not use the sensory description for no reason, or for a random reason.  By doing this exercise, you will access your characters and story in a deeper way – finding access to the unspoken level of the world that we all understand through our senses.

Here is some cool writing advice from SF Signal’s Mind Meld from last year, and you can read two very different pieces of work from me this month:  A rather Chekovian story in Blood Lite II: Overbite, and a postapocalyptic novella in Panverse 2.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 15, 2010 7:04 am

    Thoughtful discussion and good points! I appreciate the link to my article about weeding out adjectives and adverbs, but I’d like to point out that I don’t advocate “ruthlessly eliminat[ing] all adjectives.” In fact, at the end of my post I wrote:

    “Adjectives and adverbs are properly used as *qualifiers,* not *emphasizers.* I’m all for necessary adverbs and adjectives; I just suspect you’ll find that they are necessary only rarely.”

    My point was that strong nouns and verbs don’t need additional emphasis, but they often require fine-tuning for nuance, as with your excellent example of powder vs. slush, which are nouns that are more responsive to fine-tuning with well-chosen adjectives (“nice dry packed powder”) than a generic noun like “snow.”

    Looking forward to reading more. Site bookmarked!

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