Saturday, October 20, 2018

Writers: How to Engage the Five Senses

Writers, have you ever received a critique saying that your story wasn't immersive enough? Have you ever heard, "Show, don't tell?" Have you ever struggled to convey your story's setting in a way that doesn't devolve into paragraph upon paragraph of dry exposition?

And readers, have you ever read a scene that felt like talking heads in a white room, with nothing to paint a picture of the surroundings? Have you ever felt detached from the main character, like you've become an outside observer instead of being welcomed into the character's deepest thoughts and feelings?

If you said yes to any of those questions, I've got a technique that will help you!

The writers among us, that is. The only help the readers will receive is an understanding of one reason why they may not click with a story. Sorry, guys.

Let's talk about THE FIVE SENSES.

Before you roll your eyes and tell me, "Yes, yes, we learned this in kindergarten," hear me out. Your story is lush and alive and teeming with creativity . . . in your mind. The challenge of writing is to transfer that vision to the page. It's harder than it looks. You have a living movie reeling through your thoughts, but the page? The page is blank until you start putting that movie into words.

And some things get lost in translation. I've written story elements that seemed so clear and obvious in my mind, only to have beta readers get confused.

I've written descriptions I thought were the most brilliantly vivid words to grace the page, until I reread it the next day and found it flat and lifeless.
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I've been writing long enough to have gotten better at this over time, but it's still something I wrestle with, particularly in first drafts. It might be a skill we writers will never perfect, but can continue improving.

So how do we transform lifeless prose and blank white rooms into that Technicolor movie in our heads?

Engage the senses.

Sight. Sound. Smell. Taste. Touch.

When you draw on all of them, your setting--and more importantly, your character's experiences within the setting--will come alive.

You may find yourself leaning on one or two of the five senses and neglecting the others. I depend most heavily on sight, as do most writers, I suspect. My default is to describe what the setting looks like. Perhaps that is the most important sense most of the time. After all, if the reader cannot picture what a place looks like, it's very difficult to choreograph action or ground a scene.

But sight alone is not enough. Your character has more than eyes--he or she has ears, a tongue, a nose, and skin, and all of these are just as busy experiencing his or her surroundings as yours are. In battle, your character will not just see an enemy horde. He will taste dirt and blood, hear the moans of the dying, feel his arms vibrate with a heavy sword strike. Cozied around a campfire, your character will not merely see the flickering orange flames. She will feel their heat and smell the smoke and hear the crackle of popping logs.

When dispensers of writing advice admonish you to show, not tell, what they often mean is that instead of cruising over the landscape with a cursory "he did this and she felt that," you should dive deep into the sensory experience.

Here are a few examples, some from my own writing, others from published books I've read.


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Throngs of people choked a road winding uphill toward the castle. [The Brightest Thread]

What do we see? Crowds, a twisty road, and some sense of a castle.

Shadows pooled between the trees. [The Brightest Thread]

We see a forest, and the verb choice gives us a sense of mystery.

Norwood stood at his dented and stained herb table, the backdrop of his curio cabinet displaying rows of green-hued bottles and jars, most of which held some sort of powder, paste, or plant. [Fawkes, Nadine Brandes)

These little details--the dented table, green bottles, powders and pastes--are potent enough to create an entire aesthetic for the room.


Low, rumbly voices filtered through the undergrowth, too muffled to make out the words. [The Brightest Thread]

In one sentence we know there are multiple speakers, they are some distance away, and they are either male or monstrous. (Correct answer: they're ogres.)

The yellow flags above me snap sharp and loud in the breeze as if to emphasize my owner's words that yes, she's quite aware such a high count is utterly ridiculous. [Storm Siren, Mary Weber]

"Snap" is a punchy verb bolstered by the two adjectives "sharp" and "loud," which together call to mind exactly the sound you're supposed to hear.

Image result for pixar gifs SMELL

The warm scents of buttered loaves and seasoned roasts were all that was left of the feast. [The Brightest Thread]

Is your mouth watering yet?

Moist air wafted past my nose, carrying the odor of a brewery--malt and hops. [Reapers, Bryan Davis]

In this scene, we're getting a sense of where the protagonist lives, and the smell of a brewery adds a unique detail.

The odor of fish mixed with the scent of roses, berries, fresh bread. Blood from the slaughter stall constricted my throat. [Fawkes, Nadine Brandes]

Ah, nothing like the blend of aromas from a seventeenth century London marketplace, am I right?


It took her awhile, but her reaction is priceless!!
He tosses a berry in a high arc toward me. I catch it in my mouth and break the delicate skin with my teeth. The sweet tartness explodes across my tongue. [The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins]

Mmm, now I'm hungry for berries . . .

(Oddly enough, I had a terribly hard time finding more good examples for this sense. It seems that the mere mention of food is often enough to conjure an idea of its taste. Other tastes often found in the books I read are blood, alcohol, salt, medicine, etc.*)

*Sounds like I read fantasy. *wink*


Aleida jumped off the log and stumbled on unsteady feet. Her skin buzzed with the aftermath of magic. [The Brightest Thread]

We all know how it feels to stumble or feel unsteady. We also get a sense of electricity with the word buzzed.

Thorns scratched her ankles and tree limbs whipped past her face. [The Brightest Thread]

Rather than just knowing the character is running through a forest, we feel the scratches of thorns and branches reaching out to block her way.

Prickly vibrations raced along my cloak from the baggy sleeves to the top of the hood, tickling the two-day stubble across my cheeks and chin. [Reapers, Bryan Davis]

Here a sensation is woven into the book's first clues about who the protagonist is (a male wearing a cloak).

All Together Now!

Now that we've seen the five senses in action, let's see what it looks like when multiple senses are used together.

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Birdsong filtered through the branches. Every rock and pine needle poked her slippers, but it didn’t matter. She was out; she was on an adventure and about to set her parents at ease. The thought of someone detecting her absence and giving chase prodded her into a light run. How good it felt to stretch her legs. [The Brightest Thread]

The only explicitly referenced senses are hearing (birdsong) and touch (poking her slippers, stretching her legs). But notice how other senses are implied? You might have pictured the forest, since branches, rocks, and pine needles are mentioned (sight). You may have even assumed the temperature (touch again) or imagined the scent of forest air (smell).

In well-written description it's not the quantity of senses used, but the quality that depicts the mood.

The important thing isn't to reel out a grocery list of sensory inputs every time your character walks onto a new scene. It's to use whichever senses are most important at the moment and let the reader's imagination fill in the gaps.

And that, my writer friends, is one way to immerse your reader in every scene you write! It's not the only tool by any means, but it certainly goes a long way in painting a vivid picture that lives and moves and breathes.


Assignment #1: If you're looking to practice this method, try reading a chapter of your current work-in-progress and highlighting every sensory description. See which senses you use most often. Consider which senses are underused. Look for places you haven't described any senses at all. Then dive in and make some changes!

Assignment #2: Crack open a favorite book and page to your favorite chapter. On a separate piece of paper, make two columns. In the first, list all the senses that the author explicitly describes. In the second, list all the extra, unwritten senses you imagine as you read. Have fun!

Monday, October 8, 2018

Subplots and Storylines - August and September 2018

Hey friends, it's been a while! My blogging schedule laughed at me and took a plane to Antarctica, I think. What with the fantastic Silmaril Awards taking place, I haven't written a "normal" post since July. And since I missed the August edition of S&S, we've got a double feature today!

Life Subplots

  • Relaxing
  • Editing The Brightest Thread
  • Preparing for college year 2
  • Picking apples
  • Enjoying fresh corn on the cob
  • College started on the last week of the month

  • The Silmaril Awards 2018 was a smashing success
  • Nature had the nerve to snow on the very first day of autumn (thank goodness it didn't stick around)
  • I got a cold
  • Other than that, my days revolved around school. Because I switched campuses, I now spend 2-3 hours driving back and forth every day.
  • There's been a ton of homework and group work. No solitary Batman gig for me. But that's okay. I'm learning all sorts of cool things about business and marketing.
  • My biggest school project involves building a business with my team--coming up with an idea, validating it with input from real businesspeople, completing a feasibility study . . . and there's lots more to come. So if things are a little quiet here at Adventure Awaits, you know why.

Screen Storylines


Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 1 (two episodes)
It's been so long, I honestly don't remember what exactly I saw. It was probably fun, though!

Once Upon a Time Season 6 (two episodes)
Some good bits . . . but also a lot that fell flat. The new villainess (SPOILER: The Black Fairy) just isn't scary. She's hyped up as this dark, twisted being who's behind all sorts of other darkness, but when you meet her . . . eh. I didn't even flinch. Kind of disappointing.

Stay Here (two episodes)
This is a Netflix show about people who renovate short-term rentals like cottages and B&Bs, and also totally transform the owners' marketing strategies. I had to watch one episode for a school assignment, but enjoyed it enough to watch two!

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The Lone Ranger
I've been meaning to see this one ever since it came out. With a generous helping of embellishment and comedy, this wild west story was a lot of fun from start to finish. Johnny Depp is hilarious as Tonto. (And come on, that soundtrack is glorious.)

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Now You See Me
While not kid-friendly, this was surprisingly engaging! The cast was spot-on, the magic tricks were fascinating, the plot kept me guessing, and I didn't see that twist coming. Definitely need to see the sequel.

Related imageInfinity War (rewatch)
You all know how I feel about this one. *proceeds to curl into a ball and sob in a corner*


Once Upon a Time Season 4 (just one episode)
Boy, my siblings and I are rewatching OUAT very s l o w l y. We started the season a couple months ago, and we're only on episode four. But Hook is as awesome as ever, and I'd forgotten how much I like Will (as stupid as he is sometimes).
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The Fellowship of the Ring (rewatch)
A friend and I needed a fantasy fix, so we started watching LotR. We were both exhausted though, so we only made it through the first half.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The wizarding world is so much fun! Already Harry, Ron, and Hermione look and act a bit older than in the first movie, and I loved watching their shenanigans. Aragog was genuinely creepy. *shudders*

Page Subplots

There's surprisingly quite a few books to talk about, so let's do these reviews blitzkrieg style!*

*lightning war . . . short and to the point? I dunno, does that make sense?


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Embers // Ronie Kendig
Loved the concept! A fire-wielding princess trades places with her crippled brother, and he must go on a quest to save her from his own paralyzed fate. Prince Haegan was a well-rounded protagonist whom I quite liked. Definitely some Avatar: The Last Airbender vibes with the fire abilities too. The only snags? The book took a little while to get going, slowed down by lots of points of view. Still, things were being set up for some epicness! 4 stars. (See my full review on Goodreads for more details.)

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The Bones of Makaidos // Bryan Davis
One of my absolute favorite Bryan Davis books ever! Lots of tension as the full cast of characters gathers for war and so many people get hurt. Beautiful themes of sacrificial love are woven throughout. All the plot threads are brought to a graceful, stirring finale. 5 stars!

Fairest Son // H.S.J. Williams
I reviewed this lovely little Snow White novella in August! 5 stars!

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Quiet // Susan Cain
A fascinating (nonfiction) book on the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking. I appreciated that the author didn't really do any extrovert-bashing in the process of affirming introverts' strengths. I now feel a bit more aware of why I think the way I do, why busy social settings tire me out, how I can create space for myself to recharge, and how I can bring quiet strength into any situation. 4 stars.

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Hacker // Ted Dekker
While it may not be my top favorite Dekker novel ever, it was still a great ride. I've found that the Outlaw series reads more like allegories or extended metaphors than anything else. Hacker took a surprising look at the reality of the unseen world. Hacking the human conscience was a nifty way to go about it. 4 stars.


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The Story of With // Allen Arnold
This unique book is part allegorical fiction, part inspiring nonfiction--and its message is life-changing. I had the pleasure of meeting the author at Realm Makers and attending his classes on the very topic written about in his book. (Scroll to the end of the linked post to see how amazing that was!) There were a few typos I wish had been cleaned up, but this is still a book I'll want to reread in the future. And I actually--gasp--attacked it with a pencil and underlined things! 5 stars!

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All seven Chronicles of Narnia audio dramas // C.S. Lewis
On my long commutes, I took to listening to Focus on the Family's radio theater version of this beloved series! Bless my heart, it was so, so good to return to Narnia. I found tears coming to my eyes multiple times as I followed the characters on their wild adventures, encountering Aslan in the most unexpected places. 5 stars for all of them!

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Song of the Ovulum // Bryan Davis
This tale picks up fifteen years after The Bones of Makaidos, with a new generation of characters. The world is now fraught with danger for dragonkind. I really enjoyed rereading Matt and Lauren's adventure, and I love how strong their sibling bond becomes over such a short span of time. Joren and Selah's storyline, too, was really good. "What color is mercy?" is a question that haunts both Joren and the reader, and it is answered beautifully by the end. 5 stars!

Written Storylines


I surpassed my editing goals for the month by working through The Brightest Thread chapters 6-11. I'm still not 100% happy with the beginning (#recoveringperfectionist) but I have ideas for how to strengthen it later. The important thing is that I made forward progress.


Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

I've relinquished my writing goals during college, so I suppose you could say I accomplished everything I set out to write in September--which was nothing! Yay me! That has actually been one of the more difficult things about school, but I'm consoling myself with the truth that I'm living life right now, and that will mean more life to pour into my stories later.

Thanks for sticking around, fellow questers! I hope to get back to a biweekly posting schedule as promised, but in case all goes silent here, don't panic--probably just doing battle with the Beast of Homework. I still love you guys, and I'm positively brimming with ideas for how to shake things up around here next spring. In the meantime, tell me how your autumn is going. Happy October!