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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

RTW: Using the 5 Senses In Storytelling

Road Trip Wednesday is a blog carnival, where YA Highway’s contributors and readers post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on our own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody’s take on the topic.

This week’s prompt was: The Five Senses. How you use them in your writing, how you are inspired by them, pictorial essays, that character with smelly socks, books that have used them well, the ones that are currently missing from your work, etc.

I’ve been trying to think of books that use one or all of the five senses particularly well, but it’s late* (or early, depending on whether 3 a.m. is morning or night to you) and my brain has given me the Battery Is Low signal. Even though I’m a night owl, my memory becomes critically impaired after 2 a.m. and I’d hate to suggest scratch-and-sniff Fabreeze ads are great examples of the sense of smell.

Since pretty much all books use sight as the main way to tell a story (although I’d love to read a book with a blind narrator; any suggestions?) it’s kind of a no brainer that the sense is one of the most important aspects of a novel. It’s what helps readers visualize your story, the setting, the characters. Let me become Captain Metaphor for a moment: Visual descriptions are the map of your story. From there, readers can see the lay of the land.

The other senses, though, are the points of interest and the route you’ve mapped from here to there. Instead of just seeing the boundaries of a place, you can now see awesome landmarks like the world’s biggest rubber band or the best chili restaurant in Omaha. (Don’t think for one second that I’ve been to that chili place. I can’t even confirm that Omaha has a great chili restaurant.)

The other senses add layers to the story that helps us not only see the story but enter into the story. Instead of just seeing the city’s towering buildings and packed streets we smell the hot dogs from the hot dog stand, hear the honking cars and the hum of music from a nearby car. We feel the thick, hot air and the cool metal inside a subway car. And we can taste the sweet icing on a cupcake.

Metaphor complete.

As much as sight is an important part of storytelling, it’s the one sense I tend to skimp on during my first draft and need to go back and fill in during revisions. (I’m well aware that this might have something to do with 20 years of bad vision.) Instead, my first drafts are heavy on dialog and the other four senses. Of all, though, smell is the sense I use most often—I wrote about this here—because I tend to notice scent first. (Note: this is not a good thing. No one should have to live with the unique ability to smell cat pee from a mile away.)

So here are some excerpts from my WIP that illustrate the five senses. Feel free to mock—it’s a rough draft so if you think something sucks, it probably does.

Even inside, I could smell the steam engine, a mix of coal fire, hot metal, and oil.

I turned to the window. The trees had grown sparse. A steep cliff with jagged angles took their place until the train snaked right. It climbed higher. The rocks dropped away, revealing the entire valley. Billows of smoke rolled over the miles and miles of green that spread from below the train to the two small mountains that sat beside each other in the background.

Three short whistles shrieked through the car. We lurched to the right as the train set off, the wheels clacking over the tracks.

My toes banged against rough brick. I followed that wall with my hand, expecting it to lead down a hallway to my left. My fingers touched cool metal. I examined the space with both hands. It was wide enough to be a door, rough like sandpaper.

I took a sip. The drink was chunky with bits of strawberry and what I assumed was the mango. There was something chewy every sip or so, and a sour powder that made my mouth feel like I had just licked a cotton ball.

Okay, guys, how do you use the senses in your writing? Are there some you always remember and others you have to go back and add?

*I know, I know: If you wrote this so late, why is it after 2:30 p.m. when you posted? I blame the malfunctioning schedule post option in Blogger. Also, being too busy to check if it went up. 

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