Friday, October 21, 2011

What is Your Novel Missing? Senses

It's my goal with every new story I write to make it better than the last. Sure, I try to hit all the big topics--a great hook, no plot holes, deeper characters, etc. but with my new manuscript, I also have a goal to specifically address all those small things my novels are often missing - at least during the first draft.

So today I wanted to start with one of the simplest things I tend to miss in my manuscript. Senses. Yep, something so basic yet something I know I tend to skimp on when writing a story.

Using each of the senses throughout the story is a great and simple way to bring your story to life.


Uses/Examples - Colors, textures, patterns, movements, placement of objects or people in a room.

Application - Imagine your character walking into the setting (a home, somewhere outside or in public, etc.). Try to pick out the objects they (looking through the eyes of your character) would gravitate toward first. A picture on the wall, a polka-dot pillow, a fish jumping in the stream. It will probably be different depending on your character's gender or their characteristics (like whether they're more creative or analytical).


Uses/Examples - Backgroung noise/white noise (a fan humming, dishwasher churning), the noise a character is making (tapping nails on a tabletop, the stomp of feet while walking). Also, the common sounds of nature, traffic, animals, other people.

Application - Close your eyes, hear all the noises around you, commonplace noises and distinct ones. Now picture your character doing the same and apply what they would hear to the scene.


Uses/Examples - Flowers, foods, anything else in nature, cleaning products, etc. Not just good smells but negative smells, too.

Application - Ask yourself what the character would tend to notice. Flowery smells, pungent smells, perfumes, etc. and use them to not only enhance the scene but teach more about the character by showing how the smell affects them.


Uses/Examples - Textures, temperatures, potency, blandness.

Application - Use your own experiences about specific tastes and try to use strong descriptive words to capture those in your scene.


Uses/Examples - Textures, temperatures, pressure (hard, soft, light, rough).

Application - Again, be character sensitive and use descriptions of how the touch of something feels to the character and how it makes them feel inside as well.

So when you're applying these to your story, sight will obviously be there most frequently. Try to be unique and use strong adjectives. Not, the air was cold, but the air had bite or instead of a cool breeze, maybe a frigid wind. As far as frequency, I have heard of putting each of the senses on each page but on such senses as taste, that seems excessive. Try using the most common (sight) on every page and one or two additional senses on each page as well. Balance it per scene so you can incorporate at least one of the four less used senses per scene, and then decide whether or not you need more (if you have longer scenes).

For me, smell is the sense I'm always challenged with remembering to incorporate. What about you? What sense is the most challenging for you to remember, and what tricks do you use to incorporate the senses into your manuscript?

Also, next post I'll be continuing the What Is You Novel Missing? series with something a bit more complicated - deep POV.

*photos from flickr


Sarah Forgrave said...

Great post, Cindy! One trick I learned from Margie Lawson's classes is to scan a scene and mark each spot where I've used senses. I add a comment in my file as to what type of sense it is. That helps me see the voids and fill in as appropriate. :)

Julia said...

Great post. This is what I'm working on right now, too. The one thing that struck me is textures. I don't tend to use touch as much. Wonder if this is related to how we learn as individuals. I'm thinking I notice texture, etc. less than say smell or sound.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Cindy, what a practical post! I'm copying this one so I can really think on how to best add senses to my wip. So appreciate the specific suggestions you gave to add them in in the best way.

When I'm writing a scene, I close my eyes to see and experience what my character is sensing. This helps me to add them in my scene. I think smell and taste are hard ones for me to add in. I guess my characters do need to eat every now and then, eh? :)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

You know I love doing this. I even "act out" some scenes. And this is scary b/c I have no idea how to act. ;)
~ Wendy

Mary Vee Writer said...

I so appreciate your point: not all senses need to be used on each page. I also heard the saying "all five senses on each page" as well and wondered how I could do that.

I agree with you that the point is: look for natural ways to thread senses into our work.

Starting from infants we learn from our senses. If we see/touch an object, we can understand the word attached to it. We hear laughter, we understand joy.

Our senses give definition to words.

Great post, Cindy. Thanks:)

Joanne Sher said...

Really good stuff - and with great examples. I KNOW I don't use taste or scent very much. I'll definitely start marking them. Thanks!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Hi Sarah, that's a great tool to use. We can really improve our manuscripts if we make sure we're very aware of what we do and don't have in them.

Julia, that's interesting. It seems to me we probably all have certain senses we don't use as much--at least not naturally. Touch--at least the more unique aspects of it like texture--are tough for me, too.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Jeanne, yeah, I suppose our characters should probably get some kind of sustenance :) But that's one of those mundane tasks we're always told not to put in a story too much, right? I think it's great you close your eyes to experience what your character is sensing. It's all about being able to portray that to your reader, so that's a good way to do it!

Oh, Wendy, I would love to see that! I'll bet you're a superb actor :)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Mary, I love how you put that. "Our senses give definition to words." That's so true because we only know how WE experience things and what they mean to us, but through our character's eyes it's going to be totally different.

Hi Joanne, smell and taste are hard ones, aren't they? I guess sometimes we get so visual, trying to make sure our readers "see" what our characters see that the other senses go by the wayside. Thanks for stopping by!

LadyD Piano said...

I love this post. Thanks so much!

Casey said...

Great and helpful post, Cindy! I too often seem to gloss over senses when I'm writing. I love how Susan May Warren makes each of her books so unique in that aspect of the senses and unique to each character. I want to learn how to do that. :)

Keli Gwyn said...

Great tips, Cindy. Lack of sensory detail is something my early contest judges point out as being one of my (many) weaknesses, so I've been working on it ever since. I challenge myself to work in the senses whenever I can, and it's getting easier with practice.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

LadyD, glad the post was helpful. Have a great weekend!

Casey, that sounds like a great thing to endeavor to do. Really giving a character personality through their senses and their experiences sounds challenging but a great thing to work toward.

Keli, glad to hear it's getting easier :) because I know it's something I really need to work on. Thanks for stopping by!

JoAnne Potter said...

Yes, this is a great reminder and I don't really forget about this, but find some senses harder to describe than others...smell, for instance. That can be a stinker (!)