Thursday, August 9, 2007

Sensory underload

Bernita, Jaye, Seeley and a few others have blogged recently on the advantages of using the senses to enrich your stories and characters. These posts have really made me think about the way I describe things. Basic writing is easy for me and I do mean BASIC. I’m a bottom line person, you know the one who always says, “get to the point,” when people are describing things. And yet I love to read well written books that are visually and sensually descriptive.

The delicious smell of garlic and onion sautéing in a pan with some butter and olive oil. The lovely aroma of new mown grass. Aunt Alice’s sweetly fragrant roses. Hot apple pie with a hint of cinnamon fresh from the oven. The strong odor of a pine or cedar tree. Morning breath.

The feel of a silk blouse against your skin. The softness of a down pillow. The sharp edges of a holly leaf. The soothing warmth of soft sand on a beach. The icy blast of a cold winter wind. The smoothness of suede or fleece. A loved one’s hand on your face.

The taste of a sweet, ripe peach. Or a chocolate chip cookie fresh from the oven, dipped in milk. Hot chocolate with marshmallows on a cold day. Or pasta with a white clam sauce and lots of garlic. A fresh, crisp apple from the tree.

Birds singing in the trees. A baby crying. A lonely train whistle in the distance. A fog horn on the sound. A boombox car rolling down the street. Crickets at night. Screeching tires. The hum of electricity through the wires.

The sight of a field of happy, yellow daffodils. The gold, orange and red hues of a glorious sunset. Blood on a pavement. A sign advertising shoes on sale. Lipstick on a collar. Dirty hair and unclean clothes.

All of these things evoke different pictures in my mind and stir different senses. Depending on how they’re presented and the context in which they are used they can be happy, sad, or neutral. What I’ve learned from my fellow bloggers is that explicit descriptions can provide readers with sensory experiences that will enhance the reading experience – make it more personal. They’re able to relate to the story and characters better because they become part of it.

This is an area I really need to work on. Jason Evans’ short fiction contest provided a wonderful venue for me to practice. Here’s what I wrote:

As they danced on the branches the birds filled the air with a soothing melody. The path was covered with dead leaves and branches upon which the tiniest forest creatures dined. It created a soft carpet underfoot. Sunlight filtered through the green canopy illuminating cobwebs and providing interesting shadows. The scent of pine, earth and wildflowers combined to remind her why she always loved coming here as a child.

The woods were tranquil and quiet – a sharp contrast to her nearby home. There was no yelling and screaming here. No one belittled or demeaned her or reminded her of her failures. No one compared her to her perfect sibling or blamed her for the other’s problems.She escaped the emotional brutality of her youth here. She loved this cool, crisp haven. It was her refuge. On rare visits home, she always came here.

Her mother’s letter surprised her. The instructions were specific. The casket should be wood – not just any wood – mahogany. The pillow should be silk. There should be two days of viewing before the funeral. Burial should be in the old cemetery in the family area. Her perfect sibling would oversee the actual services and more important details.

She noticed the small creature staring at her in the distance as she opened the cardboard box and pulled out the plastic bag. “Lunch,” she said as she scattered the ashes across the decaying tree stump.

As she walked away she thought, “Screw you.”

It’s not ready for prime time yet, but I think it’s a pretty good start at sensory expression.

What do you think? Honestly!


Church Lady said...

Hi Anti-Wife,
Love your descriptions!!

Dropped in for a quickie so I can get your address for a link. I'm going to post you on my blog, if that's okay.

And thanks for posting me!!! But, a small favor? I'm no longer Takoda. I just jumped in and became Church Lady.

Thanks so much!!!

Bernita said...

I liked your story - particularly the 'bite" at the end.
Honestly? Your preliminary description is rather generic - melody, creatures, carpet.

The Anti-Wife said...

Church Lady,
Thanks! I'll change your link and appreciate having you stop by!

Thanks! That's the kind of feedback I need - and appreciate.

mcewen said...

I think it's great! but I'm not a literary type, and it certainly hit my funny bone. You go for it.
Best wishes

The Anti-Wife said...

Thanks Maddy. I'm not that literary either. I think I'm more emotional than sensory.

Church Lady said...

Hi again, Anti-Wife....okay, honest criticism, here goes. My biggest writing weakness is writing rich sensory detail. So, while I can pick on yours, I can offer no suggestions.

The first part of your vignette fell flat. The words didn't pull me in. But when I got to the part that began "There was no yelling and screaming.." That was a powerful line. I wondered what the character had to endure.

Also, I didn't get the importance of the woods to the character until after that line. They could have been anyone's trees. But they were HER trees, and I wanted to feel that more. I wanted it to be the MC's forest, not a generic forest.

How to do that? Dunno. Sorry. But I really liked your vignette in the contest. I'm hoping now that I commented.

The Anti-Wife said...

Thanks. From the comments so far, it seems like then middle and ending work, but the beginning is just words. I really appreciate the feedback.

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