In my last article, I talked about how you can begin to maximize your audience by appealing to all of the senses, and I spoke about appealing to kinetic, audio, visual, and scent in particular. In theory, this will help you reach 100% of your audience. But as with most elements of writing, it can be done so poorly, that it can fail.
Let’s take an example of how it can be done badly:
Kinetic: As he raced through the woods,
Audio: a songbird squawked up above in the trees.
Visual: Peering up, he saw a shape flapping in the branches,
Smoke: and he caught a strange, pungent scent.
Do you see how bad that is? It fails to give any precise images, and therefore doesn’t communicate at all.
As a reader, you’re wondering who “he” is. He might be a young man, a tiger, or a robot.
As he is racing, is he sprinting, biking, driving or what?
As for the alleged woods, what kind of trees are we talking about: pines or palms or something else?
If a “songbird” squawked, what kind of songbird was it? You might imagine a squawk, but if you do, you’re probably imaging a jay or a member of the parrot family—which aren’t really songbirds.
As he peers up, can you really envision a “shape” flapping in the branches? You don’t even know what kind of tree to imagine, nor the size of the shape, or its proximity. So you probably don’t get much of an image.
And that strange pungent scent—can you smell it? Is it a citronella candle, a dirty diaper, a dead body, or none of the above?
So just because you know what kind of appeals to make, that doesn’t mean that you’re making them artfully. You need to be specific, and you need to word your appeals carefully.
In the example above, instead of saying “he,” maybe I should be more specific—Eleven-year-old Caleb is “jogging” instead of running, and he is racing among “aspen trees” instead of generic woods. He hears the squawk of a “blue jay” and glances up to see the bird flapping among the leaves, diving down to perch on a white aspen branch not ten feet above his head. I might then describe exactly what a male jay looks like—its crested head, the shades of its plumage, how it moves, and so on. Then I might address that “pungent scent” and let the reader know that it is actually the dry, acrid scent of smoke.
In short, just being precise will help your reader become transported into your fictive universe. But there are even better techniques. For example, in some cases you might find that a sound can be described more evocatively by a metaphor or a simile than a mere description. “The keening howl that came from the kitchen sounded more like a wolf than a human. The call was almost a moan, like something floating over the snow during a full moon, full of hunger and bereavement, rising and falling in ululating tones. I raced into the kitchen to see a woman’s form kneeling upon the floor, almost as if in prayer, and it took me several moments to realize that it Sarah, and that at her knees lay the body of our five-year-old daughter.”
So an appeal to a sense can be quite long, and indeed you might put two or three appeals to the same sense in a row, comparing and contrasting an image so that you heighten the effect.
My point here is that just appealing to the senses isn’t enough. You have to look at each appeal and ask yourself, “Is this enough to bring this image to life, to make it concrete in the reader’s mind?”
And yet, even if you use all of the KAV images properly, it still won’t bring your story to life. Not completely. You see, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we humans respond to more than just sights and smells and sounds. We also have touch and taste. Our perception of the world is colored by emotions, and peppered with thoughts and observations.
So we have to bring in the protagonist’s thoughts and motivations, deal with his or her emotional state, and bring in touch.
It might almost seem as if the art of writing relies upon the reader substituting one sensory input for another. The reader is sitting in a chair, and through words we as writers try to transport her to a hammock on the beach. She hears the drone of her air conditioner, and we substitute the cries of gulls and the shush of waves lapping the sand. She sees a book in her hand with black lines on white paper, and we lovingly create images of palm trees and cerulean waters.
But even that is not enough. In telling a story, we don’t just substitute the reader’s reality for the author’s imagined world. The author must actually provide a story that excites and teases a reader from one sentence to the next, building toward delivering a massive climax, creating surprise and wonder, worry and intrigue, working toward an epiphany so grand that ultimately it doesn’t just entertain the reader, it literally transforms the reader.
So an author must learn to deal with the KAV cycle, but there is so much more to telling a great story.
I will be teaching a class on Writing Enchanting Prose in Phoenix next week, in which I will cover this topic in far greater depth. If you would like to join me and a few other students, there are still openings. To learn more, just go here.