Monday, April 1, 2013

Setting that Sparks the Senses!

 A lifetime ago, I graduated with a Degree in Landscape Architecture. One thing we were taught to incorporate in our designs is a thematic experience that would engage the senses. Whether it be the use of a site line to direct the somber view of a memorial, or aromatic plant material to provide pleasant smells in an outdoor tea room, the senses were always considered in our landscape designs.

As writers, this is also true for the setting. Using the setting to spark the senses is a crucial tool for active participation of the reader. It transports them into the novel, and ultimately, into the character's mind. If we miss the opportunities to utilize the setting in an active way, then we've missed the chance to connect readers deeper to the story and characters.

Here are some examples of instances in three of my novels with very different settings. I first give an attempt without the use of senses, and then the actual section with the senses incorporated.

Rural Hunt County, Texas: 

Without senses:  When she stepped off the bus, the white steeple in the distance stirred bad memories in her mind. Even now, after many years, she was reminded of her awful childhood every Sunday.


The odor of exhaust offended her, but not nearly as much as the pointed steeple growing closer in the distance. She could almost smell the bleach used to scrub the church and make it shine. The scent of that place was clearer in her mind than the exhaust haze she had just stepped through. She was assaulted every Sunday with the stench. 

Using her sense of SMELL gives enough implication  at her internal struggle affected by the external surroundings without just saying the setting had a negative effect.

The Coal mines of Utah:

Without senses: The coal mine began to cave in. 
"Run Jack!" Stavros yelled. He ran through the mine amidst the commotion. Rocks fell everywhere. He covered his mouth and nose to keep from inhaling the dust. When Stavros stepped into the daylight, he wept. 

Jack was gone.


When the moan turned into a loud crack just behind and above Stavros, he whipped his head around. “Run Jack!” But a rocky clatter of tumbling rock muffled his words. 

Stavros covered his face with his arm and began to crawl away. He looked back one more time, into darkness and rubble. The ceiling had collapsed within seconds, a puff of dust pushing Stavros to continue on and avoid breathing as much as possible. He moved faster, drowning in powdery breaths. 
When the light of day seared his eyes, and the crisp air soothed his lungs, Stavros fell to the ground and wept. 

 Jack was gone.

The coal mine setting becomes the enemy for the hero. The senses of SOUND, SIGHT, TOUCH, and TASTE heighten the intensity of the struggle.

The Peruvian Amazon Jungle: 

Without senses: I ran through the jungle, determined to reach my destination. When I reached the pool, I jumped in. But as I came up, I noticed the beautiful man upon the rocks, just above the falls. 


I ran through the vibrant foliage like a monkey running from a hungry jaguar. The thick forest air glazed my skin with its moist kiss and lingered long enough to induce an anxious thirst for the waiting waters. I wiped the beads from my eyes, the hair from my cheeks. Fingers of light summoned me through two large ferns, and I heard the gurgle of the falls spilling into the pool. Brushing through the fronds, I came to the most familiar edge of our sunlit pool, and slipped my whole body into the water without a second blink or a gasp for air. The swimming mirror delighted my skin. My previous thoughts were left on the side of the bank. I indulged in the pure quenching of my body's heat, nothing else entered my mind. 

But as I came up to fill my chest with air, I nearly choked on my anticipated breath. All the thoughts laying on the bank jumped up and took hold of me again when I saw the beautiful man upon the rocks, just above the falls.

The setting is crucial to developing the character in this story. Because she is a native, she has a unique relationship to the land, so engaging the senses of TOUCH, SOUND, SIGHT, and TASTE, enhance the importance of the relationship.

Wanna share a snippet from your own stories? If not, do you have a setting in mind that you would love to explore with your senses?

Angie Dicken first began writing fiction as a creative outlet during the monotonous days of diapers and temper tantrums. She is passionate to impress God's love on women regardless of their background or belief. This desire serves as a catalyst for Angie's fiction, which weaves salvation and grace themes across historical cultures and social boundaries. Angie is an ACFW member and is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency.


Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Love this post! I am BIG on my senses. I especially like to take liberties with them to make the scenery take on it's own personality to enhance it's effect on the characters and the reader.

This is just a snipped from my last book but I loved the visual.

A canopy of tangled branches from the aging Sweet Gum and White Ash trees caught the whipping lashes of fire, slashing vibrant flames through the dark, silky canvas of night.


Angie Dicken said...

Ooh, love that! I love the idea of giving the scenery a personality! Thanks, Amy!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I loved your examples, Angie! Beautiful writing, and such a geeat way to highlight the difference it makes to incorporate the senses.

Angie Dicken said...

Thanks, Karen! I originally wrote the post without the first instance, but thought it would be fun to see it written sans senses. Have a great day down there...I am going to bed soon!