Do You See What I See?

Saturday, November 10, 2007
As a parent of a sensory sensitive child, to say we have tremendous challenges on a daily basis is an understatement. But, as odd as it may sound, Jaimie has taught me a great deal about the art of sensory detail. Allow me to explain.

We’re fortunate because Jaimie has excellent verbal skills so when we see the signs of a fit, we bring her down by asking her to describe what she’s feeling (hearing, smelling, etc.) so that we know what we can try to counteract the height of her reaction.

To Jaimie, a smell isn’t just “stinky,” it “crawls around in my nose like a spider—tickling and itching—until my tummy tries to come out of my mouth.” A taste she doesn’t like isn’t just “bad,” to her, the taste “sticks on my tongue like bugs on fly paper and I want to scrape it off with a knife!” And a light touch on her skin—which drives her crazy—feels like “thousands of creepy caterpillars crawling all over me and I can’t get them off no matter how hard I try.”

Can’t you just smell, taste and feel what Jaimie’s describing? That’s the art of sensory detail. It’s the ability to draw your reader into your scene by describing the character’s environment. But, of course, you have to be able to give enough description without going overboard and stay within your character’s vantage point. Believe me, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

For me, I always do two things when drawing my readers into my character’s world: (1) I think of how Jaimie would feel in the situation I’m attempting to describe and “feel” things as sensitively as she would; and (2) I follow the advice of my Novel Writing instructor: “See things the way a blind person would. They need to pay close attention to everything around them in order to ‘see’ things.”

Brilliant! So the next time you come to a scene requiring vivid details, do this: close your eyes and absorb yourself in the scene. For example, suppose your character is at the beach. Can you hear the “thunderous roar of the waves as they crash into the shore?” Can you feel the “salty mist settle on your face?” What else is there? What can you smell? Taste? See? How would you set these up so we can sense them too?

Technically, we’re supposed to tantalize all the senses with our writing. Just remember, even when we don’t pay attention to it, every sense is stimulated in everything we do. The next time you’re out somewhere, pay closer attention to what's around you—like a blind person or Jaimie. “See” things the way they do and you’ll be writing those sensory-rich scenes like a pro.

I’d love to hear your favorite sensory descriptions. How do you create such scenes? Enlighten us!

Happy writing!


Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post Chynna! And wow, is Jaimie descriptive. That's a gift. She'll probably take after her mom and become a great writer someday. ;-)

When I was working hard at my novel, I was the sensory queen! I could spend an hour describing how dust particles danced in swirls through the early morning light and peppered my pillow like distant ash from a bonfire. Of course, then I'd have a lot of editing to do later on. ;-)

I love descriptive prose, but it's also important not to fall deeply in love with your words. That makes them all the harder to cut. I think that's my biggest problem. (And I call myself an editor!) Too much description can ruin the plot, and not enough leaves the reader confused. There has to be that perfect balance that allows the reader to envision their own world, making the reading much more personal, but at the same time extracting the very essence of what needs to be revealed.

So, I guess for me, it's not the description that gives me heartache, it's cutting it out of my story. This is because most of the time when I'm writing fiction, it's based on an experience I had or a place I know well. By sipping a little wine and letting my subconscious take over I'm able to feel like I'm actually there in the moment. I suppose that's a great way to start (sans the wine if you don't drink).

One method Amy Tan uses is to focus on one object -- like a pair of chopsticks placed slightly askew on top of a bowl -- a small snapshot of an object, then pan out like a camera would and describe what's next to the bowl, the place setting, the crumpled napkin, then the people in the room. By limiting your "vision" in this way you can see things spatially and really delve into the moment with your description. I use her method often.

Gee, now I want to work on my novel! How is your class going?



Sue said...

Chynna, I love how you apply the way Jaimie faces "issues" to writing. We can learn so much from kids, no matter how they view their surroundings.

When I'm in the writing zone, I close my eyes and pretend I'm in a character's body, of course, in his or her world. I scribble or type what I smell and hear first, and then I work out toward the other senses. Of course, it depends on the character, his or her likes, dislikes, abilities or disabilities. For the novel course that I'm taking, I'm learning a lot more than I knew. I'll keep you posted! LOL.

Annette said...

I LOVE using sensory detail in my descriptions. I also focus a lot on what is going on internally/viscerally within my character when she is in a particular situation.

Her stomach twisting and bucking... Pulse beating in her temples... Leg bouncing uncontrollably under the table... Of course, not using all the images together, but strategically placed in situations where I want to convey the inner feelings of the character and display it by physical manifestations of anxiety or unease, or any other emotion that causes a physical reaction. Showing, instead of telling, that she is nervous, frustrated, angry or whatever.

It's tough to do, but the next time you are in an emotional situation, try to notice what is going on within your body so you can transfer those feelings and physical reactions to your characters.

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