by Orly Konig-Lopez, @OrlyKonigLopez
The other day I finished a book and when my husband asked if it was good, my answer was a rather drawn out, “Yeeaaahhhh.” The story was interesting and the author had a pleasant, easy style. She’d done a nice job of showing me what the rooms looked like, what the characters were wearing, what the car looked like … you get the picture.
And that’s exactly what it was—a nice picture.
But that’s all it was.
That nice picture was behind a glass wall. As a reader, I was left admiring the world the author so carefully created from the outside. So “yeeaaahhhh” it was good but it’ll go in the read and forgotten pile.
That’s not the pile you want your books to go in.
What can you do to make sure your book doesn’t end up there? Don’t just paint a nice visual picture, use all 5 senses.
I know, I know, as a good writing soldier you’ve been holding tight to the “show, don’t tell” rule. And writing is, after all, about drawing a visual picture. So yes, you’ll still be writing mostly visual descriptions. But, make sure every word counts. Include only what strengthens the image and look for fresh ways to describe things.
- Instead of white sand, sand like iridescent crushed pearls
- Curly hair can become corkscrew curls that a character has the sudden urge to tug and watch them bounce back
Now put yourself in the scene. What can you show your reader that’s beyond the obvious?
- A shadow passing outside the window that makes the hair on the character’s arms prickle
- The way leaves dance with the gentle breeze
- The slight discoloration on the couch that reminds your character about where her brother spilled a soda the last time she saw him, right before he was killed in the car accident
- The seam in the wallpaper that’s a fraction off
Think about the last movie or TV program you watched. It had a soundtrack, right? Characters were talking to each other, music during key scenes, the revving of a car engine, the ringing of a phone. Obvious sounds.
When writing, you have to put those sounds into words. Your reader needs to hear what your characters are experiencing.
- The raspy sound of a character’s cough
- The twang of an accent
- The rev of a motor
- The jangle of keys
Then there’s the unexpected. Those are the details that will make your reader catch her/his breath and will linger in their minds long after they’re done reading.
- The tap-tap against a window during the middle of the night, as a branch sways in the wind
- The squeak-squelch of sneakers on a linoleum floor
- The sound of a house settling when the air-conditioner turns off
- A character trapped in the slowest line at the grocery store and agitated at being late might notice the otherwise invisible sound of air bubbles snapping as the guy in line behind her chews his gum
No “my dog ate my manuscript” jokes here. In real life, you’re constantly tasting something so why aren’t your characters?
- The cherry chapstick when the guy kisses the girl
- The melting heaven of a chocolate lava cake
- The added boost of coffee as the character licks an escaping drop
Don’t stop with the obvious.
- A character who arrives at the beach will lick her lips and taste the salt from the ocean breeze
- A character who’s been running on a hot day might taste the grit of dirt
- Or maybe a character has just gone through a terrible breakup and is looking for a safe haven at her parent’s house. During the drive there she might taste the rice pudding her mom always made for her when she needed cheering up.
- During a long car ride, a character stares at the passing scenery and catches sight of the Golden Arches and can suddenly taste the Quarter Pounder with cheese and the salty fries.
Okay fess up, do you touch a flower petal to see what it feels like? Or run your fingers along a brick wall? What about stroking the leather of a couch? If a friend has a new sweater, do you reach out to see if it’s soft as you’re oooing and ahhhing?
Your characters will be doing the same. And the reader wants to feel through your characters.
- The prickle as an ant crawls up your character’s arm
- The stab of pain when your character miss-judges the distance and stubs her toe into the side of the desk
- The sting of a slap to the cheek
- The comforting warmth of a blanket
There are times, though when it’s not as much what the character is touching but the act of the touch itself.
- The way a character touches the tip of her finger to the heart-shaped pendant her husband gave her before he died
- A character tracing the name of a loved one on a headstone
- A character putting his hand on another’s upper arm in a “keep it under control” gesture
Smell is an incredibly powerful sense. It’s probably the most nostalgic of the senses, which makes it the ideal tool for flashbacks.
- Who hasn’t taken a deep inhale of fresh-mowed grass and immediately been transported to a lazy summer day?
- Or caught the whiff of a perfume and you’re suddenly remembering a best friend or family member who died.
- What about the smell of a favorite food to transport you back to holidays when the family still got together?
It’s also a fabulous way to suck your reader into a scene.
- Does the homeless guy smell like car exhaust from sitting on the median of the busy intersection all day? Does his body odor make your character’s nose curl?
- What about the house your character just walked into? Is that lavender air freshener she smells?
- Does the chapstick one of the characters use obsessively smell like rootbeer? Maybe your main character hates rootbeer and can’t focus on what the other person is saying to her because she can only think about getting to the bathroom on time.
- There’s the clichéd perfume on the husband or boyfriend’s shirt when he comes home from a long day “at the office.”
- Or the hot guy who loses several degrees of hotness when the main character catches a whiff of cigar smoke clinging to his clothes.
Take a few minutes as you’re sitting in your house or walking down the street or in the grocery and really pay attention to what’s around you (without getting arrested, please).
Imagine writing using different senses. Instead of telling your reader that the lettuce was next to the cucumbers and there was a squashed tomato in the middle of the aisle, how could you write that using taste or smell?
Now go back to your manuscript and think about pushing that glass wall aside. Invite your reader in, let her/him enjoy the smells, sounds, tastes that your character experiences.
If you need a little extra inspiration with sense words, click here for a nice starter list.
Do you uses all the senses in your writing? Pick one of the five senses and share a sentence or two from your work in progress.
After years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet. When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.