Many writers focus on sight, and maybe sound, but they often neglect smell, taste, and touch, for instance. And we often do not deeply explore emotions and the physical impact they can have on our bodies.
At one Roaring Writers Retreat, our mentor gave us this exercise: write a paragraph with every physical sense in it.
Here was my first draft:
Jadence wrinkled her nose at the smell of piss and vomit as she crouched in the dead end of the waste-strewn alley. She forced deep steady breaths to calm her thundering heart and listened for sounds of her pursuers. Her roughened fingers traced over the mortar lines of the old brick wall. Her marble-white eyes brought in no light, but her mind’s eye used the touch to make a picture of the space around her.
And my revision:
Jadence dropped on aching knees at the alley’s dead end. Piss and vomit soaked into her linens. She pushed down her own bile as the foul odors flooded her nose and throat like slime. She listened for her pursuers, heaving deep breaths to slow her thundering heart. Rough fingers traced the crumbling mortar lines of the old brick wall. Though her marble-white eyes brought in no light, her mind’s eye drew a picture of the space around her. Nowhere to hide.
Yeah, I want to get back to that story eventually.
But my point is about using our senses to strengthen our storytelling. One way we can integrate sensory description into our storytelling is to call on real-life experiences. W all have plenty of ordinary experiences, but we often have unusual experiences that can enrich our storytelling as well. I will (probably) never be on another planet, or in the past, or a mermaid, but I have experiences I can use.
I once drove through a controlled burn in Queensland. The smoke was like fog, heavy against the ground, and swirling up in tendrils with sparks from the fire that were both beautiful and frightening. The smoke had a sharp, woody smell that bit the back of my throat and made me cough. The flames were low and scattered, but the trees glowed red and burning leaves drifted up and down on the currents, made visible by the smoke. I was trying to see everything in the dim twilight—searching across my field of view for anything that might cross our path, from falling trees or branches to running animals. I felt excitement, curiosity, and fear—an adrenaline cocktail that made my movements jerky as I drove slowly through, and left me shaky and actually giddy long after we had left the scene.
My daughter had terrible reflux as an infant. I’ve dealt with just about every bodily fluid imaginable. I won’t describe them for you here. You’re welcome. But once when she was older, she became very sick and threw up an epic twelve times in one very long 12-hour period when we were visiting family. Everyone else had gone to bed, and I was lying with her across me. She had been resting quietly for almost two hours, and I thought we might be through the worst of it. I tried to move her to the side so I could change into pajamas and climb back in bed with her. She rolled over in her sleep and threw up all over me. I won’t describe that either. You’re welcome. But I also remember the eerie quiet of the unfamiliar house. The frustration of tying to be quiet myself as I searched for clean towels and bedding. The irritation and loneliness I felt at being the only one awake to deal with this. The worry I felt for my child.
A few years ago, my best friend called me, sobbing. Our friend had been killed in a car crash. I felt numb, hollow with shock. I cried, ugly sobbing, that left my throat sore, my forehead tight and throbbing, my chest aching, my eyes burning, my nose rubbed raw. At some point, I had the conscious thought that I could write down exactly what I was feeling and experiencing and use that in a story. I felt a certain sense of guilt about that, but I also recognized the value, not only in my storytelling, but for a reader who might have experienced something similar and feel the strength of kindred spirit—and maybe not feel so alone. This is, coincidentally and importantly, the same idea behind #HoldOntoTheLight…*
I’ve twice had the amazing experience of swimming in the open ocean with wild dolphins, courtesy of Wildquest (I highly recommend them!). Four sensory memories I will share:
- The water. So many colors. That gorgeous green. That brilliant blue. The glare of sunlight, the splash of waves, the flow over the rocks, coral, and grass below. The slap against the hull, an the rocking up and down. The salty tang that is both smell and taste.
- Daring myself to dive to the “floor”, some 17 feet deep, inhaling as much air as I could hold, folding my body and stretching my legs to push down, the pain in my ears, the fullness in my chest, the reluctant decision to ascend, then pushing against the water with the fins as fast as possible against the increasing urgency to inhale
- unfortunately on my most recent trip in Summer 2016, a sun rash all over my legs, chest, and arms, that burned and itched despite every topical relief…and when touched by the sun, became unbearably miserable
- Hanging on a pull-line as the boat slowly moved through the water, trying to take steady breaths through the snorkel and not inhale saltwater, feeling the drag of the water as I held on to the handle, feeling the burn in my arm, core, and legs as I wrestled to stay face-down and not twist against or under my line partner…and the hope and excitement as the dolphins swam under and around us
- The thrill of hearing dolphin whistles underwater, and feeling dolphin sonar thrum through my body from my toes up through my head.
And recently, I have injured my shoulder, perhaps tearing the rotator cuff. When I stretch or twist it, it feels like fire shooting through my arm, nauseating in its intensity. I can’t do anything to relieve the pain, I can only hold still, breathe deeply, and wait for it to pass. But at some point I realized I can strengthen the intensity of a scene for a work-in-progress by using these feelings as my protag fights her way to freedom and safety.
I’m not saying that as writer you should go looking for extreme experiences. I’m saying pay attention to the experiences in your own life. The excitement of going to a state fair or amusement park—the adrenaline thrill of riding a roller coaster, or the dizziness and disorientation of riding some spinning thing (and by my phrasing you might ascertain some of my feelings about these rides). The smell of smoke or fire—the difference between a wood-fire, a leafpile, or a building. And how you feel, physically and emotionally…when you’re falling in love. When you’re scared. When you’re sad or grieving. When you’re laughing and having a good time with family or friends.
Take note of these feelings and experiences. How can you use them to enrich your characters and stories?
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* #HoldOntoTheLight is a blog series initiated by Gail Z Martin after some tremendously powerful convention panel sessions on depression and suicide. Over 100 SF and Fantasy authors have shared their stories about “holding on to the light” in the face of depression, chronic illness, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. If you or someone you know is struggling, #YouAreNotAlone <3