Monday, January 5, 2009

Make Good on Your Promise...Go Visceral

If two people enter a white room and sit at a booth to have a discussion without food in front of them, without other people around, without interruption, background clamor, color or scents, how thrilling would it be to read about, unless it's in The Matrix? How realistic is that? Not very. It's pretty sparse and empty in fact, right? But it’s done often. Too often. When a reader is invited into the world you’ve created, you’ve made a promise to them that you're going to give them an entertaining and/or thrilling ride. You’re shortchanging readers if you have naked, blank-faced blokes in barely there spaces.

When readers enter a scene with those characters talking, if you don’t have anything to ground them in the setting, then all they’re getting is TV snow. I’m not talking about adding buttloads of description, but just a few details to set the stage to show where the characters are, a few impressions to help them experience what your MC does.

If I’m not paying attention to my own work, I can be so focused on getting the dialogue right and advancing the plot, that I forget to include a little bit of spatial content or a character’s sensory observation. I’m so grateful to have critters who find these kinds of noids and voids.

If you take those two same characters, put them in a booth in a 50’s diner with a checkerboard floor, a tune playing on the jukebox, red covered chrome stools with a busy lunch crowd with greasy smells in the air, patrons yelling for things. Which one is more lively, more captivating, more realistic? The second. Readers' senses need to be tickled to get them to not only get a feel for the scene but develop a closer, more identifying bond with your characters as well. The little extras make your story come alive.

Yeah, everyone knows there are five senses. But if you think about it, there are more and various shades and blends of senses and physical and emotional triggers and experiences. So dig a little deeper.

You can have a heightened sense of awareness or dead-on intuition. People can have chemical surges, drunkenness or acid trips which alter and exaggerate senses. One can have a spiritual sensitivity to an external nudger: a guardian angel, a spirit guide, a dead grandpa or God. Some people experience spiritual sight, a higher level of consciousness or frequent epiphanies, like a thousand words flooding into the mind at once. There’s déjà vu, which I get all the time, or gut instinct. Some people can predict the weather based on what their knees tell them or the intensity of a migraine.

And there’s me, with my crazy super power. In the split second I see someone, and every time, I detect this texture in a person’s soul that triggers an instant yet momentary emotional response. Some are dull, others vibrant. Like whenever my husband walks into the room, I get a peace that’s so soft, like a dryer-fresh towel, all smelling nice and feeling warm. My best friend from college = a teddy-bear warmth. Another friend = a zippy jolt. She loves to travel and is always on the go. It can be linked to personality, interests, what a person’s going through at the time I first see or meet them or how they’ll make me feel in the future. It’s a weird sense, it’s unique and hard to pinpoint and describe even, but it’s mine.

In fiction, you can create senses people don’t normally have. In Eighteen Seconds, by George D. Shuman, a blind character can experience the last eighteen seconds of a person’s life if she touches a corpse. In Wicked Lovely, by Melissa Marr, the MC can see faeries walking among mere mortals. Characters can have normal senses or strange ones. You can use your imagination. That’s what’s so cool about fiction. You just have to make it believable. Think of ways beyond the five senses by which you can bring your work to a new height and a deeper dimension. You can find your entire plot in an invented or blended sense. And when you include sensory details, familiar and not, don’t write, he smelled, she saw, but rather lace them into the narrative.

One of the ways to get the attention of an agent, as mentioned on Anne Mini’s blog, is to have scensory impressions at the beginning of your manuscript, beyond seeing and hearing. So I wrote an intro that included many impressions. Here are some examples of sensory input from my novel Kings & Queens.

Ignoring the call of fresh-baked banana bread, she turned to slink up the stairs, but her mother met her at the door, which made her grouse.

Majesty bit her banana, sugary with ripeness, and followed Alec and Aislyn with her gaze as they headed toward the exit with Snapples in hand.

With her mouth gagged, the taste of dirt laced her tongue. She wrestled the bonds wrapping her wrists and ankles to a chair and let out a muffled scream.

He cut pieces of apple with a knife and fed them to her, and the tart Granny Smith pleased her palate.

Wind delighted her, caressing her face and tickling her sense of smell as it braided with the aroma of lilacs and apple blossoms.

I’m not a writer or reader who’s enthralled with tons of description. I’ve read some works that have turned me off with an overabundance of detail, like a whole paragraph devoted to an outfit a woman was wearing. In my sequel, I’m experimenting with way more description and sensory impressions than I need for some plume stretching, but when I edit, I will burn away and cut off anything extraneous.

In the correct scheme of things, balance is key. Give enough so readers don’t feel like your characters are walking, talking and living in vacuums yet don’t smother them with detail either. With sensory imagery and description you can set tone, establish setting, paint contrast, give some uniqueness to your characters. Grounding your work with some description and sensory impressions will bring your story and characters to life. You made a promise to tell a good tale. Now you just need to fulfill it.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

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