Chapter 7, Part 4: Using the Five Senses

In today’s Journal

* A New Story
* Chapter 7, Part 4: Using the Five Senses
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

A New Story

“The Cycle of Ramón,” the seventh story in an interconnected series of ten magic realism stories, went live yesterday on my Stanbrough Writes Substack. If you enjoy magic realism, you probably don’t want to miss this series of stories.

Chapter 7, Part 4: Using the Five Senses

When describing setting, most writers use only the sense of sight. They’re leaving a LOT of the story in their head.

To make the setting (and the scene) come alive, and to get your POV character down into the setting, use as many of the character’s five senses as possible in each major scene and in each chapter. Express those along with the character’s opinion.

For example, say you’re purposefully lying very still behind the stock of a sniper rifle. You’re in a dense jungle and sweat is trickling down your face in rivulets. The rifle is propped up on a stone at one end of a fallen, rotted tree trunk. There are gnats and mosquitoes.

Chances are the sweat is due in part to the ambient heat from the climate and the surrounding jungle, and in part to fear.

So in that one image, you’ve conveyed the ambient temperature, the feel (and maybe smell) of the sweat on the skin, the texture and maybe smell of the rotting log, and the emotional sense of fear and tension.

And maybe swatting at gnats and mosquitoes. Or not, because any movement could make you a target. So fear too.

The sense of smell also often evokes memories. Maybe the rotting log reminds the sniper of one he sat on along the bank of a river while fly fishing back when he was a civilian. Maybe it reminds him of one he saw imbedded in the river.

If anything evokes a memory for a character, write it. You can see this technique in action in my short story “Keep Calm & Carry On” (persona Nicolas Z Porter). It’s only a little over 2000 words. Email me if you want a copy and I’ll send it to you.

Note: I wrote the story back in 2014. I know a great deal more about writing now than I did then, but it still a very strong story.

Again, Focus Down

As you invoke those five physical senses, let the reader see, hear, smell, taste and feel (physically) specifics of the setting. Don’t just see a desk, but the nick in the front edge of the desk.

In the jungle setting I started with above, let the reader hears the buzzing of the gnat who keeps annoying the POV character’s right ear.

Let the reader see and maybe feel and maybe hear a drop of sweat falling from the tip of the POV character’s nose. Let him feel the edge of the bright green leaf touching the POV character’s forehead (and maybe him wondering vaguely whether the edge might cut him).

Let the reader inhale the rich, earthy smell (or aroma or stench, depending on the POV character) of the jungle floor and the rotting log. Let him see the damp reddish-brown and black texture of the rotted log, and so on.

Are there maggots on the log? How does the sight of them affect the POV character?

Focusing down makes the setting come to life and pulls the reader into the story.

Take. Your. Time.

This is might be the most important technique I can pass back to beginning and early and mid-stage writers. Take your time. Don’t rush through recording the POV character’s senses and opinions of the setting.

Here’s a great rule of thumb (again) for writing description: Any description that comes through the POV character is essential, so take your time and get it all in.

If in your mind you just asked, “What if it isn’t important to the story?” stop. Just stop.

The story is unfolding around the characters and you as you run through it with them, so how can you possibly know whether something is or isn’t important to the story?

Trust the POV character. If s/he sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels (physically or emotionally) something in the scene, it’s important to the story.

And if s/he DOESN’T notice something, it ISN’T important to the story. Which brings us to the second part of the rule of thumb:

Any description that comes from outside the character and the story (in other words, any description that comes from the writer, a member of a critique group, or any other conscious, critical mind) is too much. Period. Don’t intrude on the story.

Just write (record) what the POV character sees, hears, smell, tastes, and feels both physically and emotionally, and you’ll be golden. Trust yourself. Seriously, you’ve got this.

Finally, if something in the setting reminds the POV character of something else or another experience (as it did in my short story “Keep Calm”) go with it. It will tie back in.

Also under the heading of Take Your Time, understand that the reader can’t see (hear, smell, etc.) what you don’t put on the page. If you see, hear, smell, etc. something of the story in your mind, be sure you take the time to write it down.

This is a particularly large problem for beginning and less-experienced writers. They tend to skip from one exciting scene to the next without letting the readers see the characters crossing the intervening space.

Another Cautionary Tale

In one romance I edited, for example, a second-story study-like room opened on a balcony. One moment the male and female leads were in that room quietly discussing an upcoming event.

The next (with no transition) they were standing on the balcony overlooking the grounds.

And the next (still with no transition), they were back inside and she was reaching for his hands and looking up to say something romantic to him.

Yet they didn’t GO out onto the balcony and they didn’t GO back inside.

Obviously in the story they did, and I don’t doubt that they did in the writer’s mind, but on the page they didn’t. As the copyeditor (and reader) I felt almost physically jerked from place to place to place.

That sort of thing will make your stories feel gapped and thin.

But if you’re guilty of this, don’t feel bad. Many writers omit part of the story at first. Especially Stage 1 and 2 writers, when they’re still focused on the words and sentences instead of on Story.

When you give yourself over to Story, you will begin to slow down, focus more deeply on the setting and the scene, and just enjoy your time running through the story with the characters.

And that’s exactly where you’ll want to be.

Anyway, I don’t like bursting people’s bubbles so I no longer offer critiques except to trusted students, whom I know want to learn.

As I wrote earlier in this chapter, saying I “like” something sight-unseen and unconditionally is not my job. That’s a job for Mom or a mutual-admiration-society critique group.

My job is to write, and to a lesser degree, to attempt to pass along what I know. I hope I’ve passed along some good stuff in this chapter.

Next up, Chapter 8, Part 1. Talk with you again then.

Of Interest

The Black Sheep of the Short Form—the Novelette Note: if you browse other posts on the site, don’t get lost in the myths.

Gallows Humor magazine Write short-shorts and short stories? They’re taking submissions. Pay rates are not mentioned.

Also check out Phil “Big Philly” Smith and Gallows Humor

Want to write a novel in only 101 days? Start here If you can’t pull the trigger on WITD, this might be for you. This is not an endorsement.

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 1300

Writing of Blackwell Ops 20: Soleada Garcia: Into the Future

Day 1…… 3681 words. To date…… 3681
Day 2…… 3044 words. To date…… 6725
Day 3…… 3375 words. To date…… 10100
Day 4…… 3349 words. To date…… 13449
Day 5…… 4262 words. To date…… 17711
Day 6…… 3153 words. To date…… 20864
Day 7…… 3152 words. To date…… 24016
Day 8…… 2192 words. To date…… 26208
Day 9…… 2493 words. To date…… 28701

Fiction for February……………………. 32387
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 149991
Fiction since October 1……………… 453048
Nonfiction for February……………… 22550
Nonfiction for 2024…………………… 54510
2024 consumable words…………… 204501

2024 Novels to Date……………………… 3
2024 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2024 Short Stories to Date……………… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 85
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)…… 239
Short story collections…………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

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