The Journal: Conveying the Senses

In today’s Journal

* Quote of the Day
* Topic: Conveying the Senses
* By the Way
* By the Way 2
* Of Interest

(An Inane) Quote of the Day

“On the use of senses. Morrell suggests taking sight for granted, then including two others, but ‘sneak them in’ so it isn’t obvious. The object is to make the reader feel, not see. … I liked this better than the ‘use all 5 senses in every scene’ approach, which to me, often feels forced.” Terry Odell, a writer

Any aspect of a story that is forced on the characters by the writer will feel ‘forced’ to the reader. Duh.

Topic: Conveying the Senses

For years, I’ve been advising writers to “use all five OF THE POV CHARACTER’S physical senses and at least one of the POV character’s emotional senses (fear, trepidation, joy, anticipation, etc.)” in every major scene. I stand by that advice. It’s one of the surest ways to engage readers directly and draw them into the scene.

Of course, others’ opinions differ. But as always, I offer nothing on faith alone. I can explain the meat of my advice.

When the WRITER uses all five senses — or even one or two — they might well feel forced. As I wrote above, any aspect of a story that is forced on the characters by the writer will feel ‘forced’ to the reader.

That’s because the writer is imposing what s/he believes the character SHOULD be sensing rather than what the character is ACTUALLY sensing.

On the other hand, when the writer filters everything through the POV character instead of imposing the writer’s senses on the POV character, it never feels forced.

The solution? Don’t force anything. You’re writing the characters’ story, so let them tell it. Then you will have forced nothing, so nothing will feel forced. Duh.

I’ve also been advising writers for years to try to understand the difference between the two stories that are going on simultaneously when they write.

In the writer’s story (the writer’s life) her fingers are on a keyboard and she’s channeling or otherwise sensing the lives and story of other people.

But the story the writer is writing is not the writer’s story. It’s the CHARACTERS’ story. The characters, not the writer, are living it. The writer is only the conduit the characters use to convey their story — the story they’re living — to the rest of the world.

Writers truly are nothing special. If you want to be thought special as a writer, you must achieve something considered noteworthy by others. Writers are only human, and most are introverted or broken to one degree or another. All can put up with solitude for at least a while.

Writers have only two distinctive features, and the first is distinctive only in comparison to their characters. In comparison to other humans, it’s mundane and about as notable and intersting as a (yawn) *sophmore typing class in high school.

Like almost all humans, writers possess a set of working, physical, flesh and blood fingers and a passable working knowledge of how to apply the tips of those fingers to a keyboard. Characters apparently don’t have those. It’s why they need us to record stories on their behalf.

But second, and much more importantly, writers have the absolutely distinctive, unique ability to channel or otherwise sense various characters as those characters go about living their lives and their stories. Which are always much more exciting or intriguing than the writer’s own life and story. Which is probably why we so enjoy telling our characters’ stories in the first place.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe writers are envious. Maybe that’s why they’re so quick to refer to the story they’re putting on paper or the screen as “my story” and so seemingly loathe to think of it as “my characters’ story.”

Ah well. Nothing I can do about it, and neither does it really matter. And that’s fine.

By the Way

My spelling of “*sophmore” above without that stupid middle “O” was intentional. The modern word derives from “sophism” (so no “O”) and the English promptly added a “U” (“sophum”), for no apparent reason.

Later, they added the suffix “er” to create “sophumer” which, for an even less-apparent reason, we Americans chose to keep as “sophomore” to continue the silliness. We managed to destroy the elegance of words like “colour” by dropping the “U,” so why not drop the middle “O” out of “sophomore”? Just sayin’.

By the Way 2

Not that it should matter to anyone but me and maybe my readers, but I think I’m writing fiction again.

Years ago, I read Hemingway’s “The Old Man at the Bridge” and it inspired me to write a short story of my own: “No Better Day.”

Yesterday as I started through The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition (I recommend it), I read “The Old Man at the Bridge” again. When I’d finished, I was moved to find “No Better Day” and read it too. But as I started reading it, another storyline began to form in my mind.

So I saved the file under a new name and started writing. There were time constraints though, so I was able to write for only about a half-hour. Today I’ll have a lot more time.

This won’t be a rewrite. In fact, the only similarity is that both stories — “No Better Day” and this new one — were inspired by Hemingway’s story. I could even say they’re being written by different writers: me in 2016 and me today.

I’m taking my time. Fingers crossed, I’ll let you know how it goes. Maybe. With any luck at all, my mentioning it today won’t jinx it. And it shouldn’t.

I suspect this is just another segment of the path I must follow to get back to where I care either way and actually want to write again.

It’s a tender balancing act, isn’t it? We must play down the importance of WHAT we write — that is, what we write must not seem important to us at all, and whether any given story is important is solely up to the reader — but THAT we write must be of the greatest practical importance.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Two Days Left On the Workshop Sale” at Just in case you wanted to participate but forgot.

See “Reader Conferences…” at Just in case something in this article speaks to you.

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

2 thoughts on “The Journal: Conveying the Senses”

  1. The reason they tell people that if they can do anything other than writing, they should, is that the writer’s life (mine, anyway) can be extremely boring – if we weren’t channeling much more interesting characters.

    Jack Reacher doesn’t write stories.

    • Interesting take. No doubt everyone has an opinion on why other people do or say things. I personally think some writers tell people “If you can do anything other than writing, you should” it’s to build themselves up and make themselves seem more dramatically important than they are. The old “writing is a high calling, writing is drudgery,” forearm across the forehead kind of thing. I’m not that important. I just like passing my characters’ stories along to appreciative readers. And Stephen King himself discounts his own talent, calls himself a “stenographer” for his characters.

      And you’re right, the character Jack Reacher doesn’t write stories (he can’t access or manipulate a physical keyboard), but Lee Child didn’t force anything on Reacher. He wrote what Reacher gave him. When Child’s New York editor pointed out one time over lunch that a particular scene might be better at a different place in the book, Child said, “Yes, it probably would. But it didn’t happen that way.” The scene remained where it was.

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