Appealing to the Senses, Part 3

For a few articles, I’ve been talking about how to make your story come alive by appealing to the reader’s senses, by “showing, not telling.” I pointed out that the human body has several different ways of sensing and reacting to the world. We’re not like cameras that just record sight and sound, we experience the world through sight, sound, kinesthetic senses, touch, taste, smell—and we also are constantly influenced by our thoughts and emotions. If you don’t appeal to all of these, your writing will suffer. Your reader won’t become fully involved in your story and will recognize that you’re missing something.

So we need to appeal to the reader’s senses, but not all appeals are equally strong. I pointed out that sometimes they’re so weak that they can’t possibly work at all. For example, when I say “a crowd stood on the platform,” the reader has so little information that he can’t see the crowd. Yes, the reader might picture a crowd, but is it the crowd that the writer envisioned? Probably not. Depending upon the area and time that you’re writing about, crowds can be quite different. Maybe the platform is for slaves being displayed for sale in a Roman market, or a speaker’s platform during the Russian revolution, or maybe it’s teens at a rock concert. The reader is forced to read on after such a statement in order to get more information and just figure out what to imagine. So that statement is a non-appeal.

But there are also some very weak appeals. Here’s one: “It was raining.” The author has told us that it was raining, but he has not appealed to any of the senses—sight, sound, smell, touch, emotion. So the reader might imagine rain, but what kind of rain? Is it a light drizzle, a warm mist that barely moistens the skin, like something felt on a foggy day in China? Or is it a cold downpour where raindrops seem to bounce off wet cement? We as readers aren’t sure what to imagine, so perhaps we think of our standard version of a normal rain.

But the truth is, the reader’s eye passes over that. I was editing a story a couple of weeks ago, and after a long discussion with another man, the protagonist stepped out into the rain. I thought, “Wait, was it raining when he stepped in?” Well, I had to go back four pages to the setup, where I did in fact see that “It was raining.” But I didn’t know how hard, didn’t have an appeal made to any of the senses. Did the protagonist get out of his carriage with an umbrella, or was his top hat enough protection. Had it gotten worse while he was inside, or better?

So what are some better ways to make the rain real?

One way is to appeal to the senses, to define it further. One of my old writing teachers, the poet Leslie Norris, used to say that “When it rains in your story, the reader should get wet.” So you can begin by adding qualifiers.

Let’s just say that you add something like “cold,” “warm,” “soft,” or “hard.” In front of rain. You’ve just invited the reader to feel the rain. But you could also appeal to sound, “A warm rain pattered on the bamboo roof.” Or you could add an appeal to sight, “He saw the rain advancing from the west, a gray curtain sweeping down.” You could appeal to the sense of smell, “He smelled the rain an hour before it hit, the moisture almost cloying at the back of his throat.” You can add touch to the senses, “The cold rain pelted his forehead, and quickly soaked through his buckskin coat.”

Of course, if you really want to “create” the rain, make it real in the reader’s imagination, you appeal to all of the senses. You might even add in some thoughts and emotions. “Calvin smelled the rain an hour before it hit, the moisture almost cloying at the back of his throat. A wind kicked up dust on the prairie, as he chopped wood for the morning, and he heard distant thunder herald the coming storm. He glanced to the west and saw a gray curtain sweeping toward the ranch. Fear struck. I’d better get that mare shut up into the barn. She was about to give birth to her first colt, and she was already skittish. The storm would likely make her want to run.”

I might then have him run to the barn to close the door and have the rain strike, cold and wet and hard. In fact, one way to strengthen your appeal is to use strong metaphors, so I might describe how it “rained down on the roof, falling like buckshot.”

In short, by appealing to all of the senses, I can make the rain “real” to the reader.

In fact, I’m doing it quite consciously. I know that my reader is probably sitting in an easy chair somewhere, while the television drones in the background. He/she feels no rain. But as I appeal to the senses—smell, sight, sound, touch (hot, cold, wet, dry, soft, hard) emotion, and thought, I’m actually inviting the reader to substitute these sensory inputs for what they’re actually feeling.

The result is that as a writer, I can take over the reader’s imagination, lead them through an event so completely that they forget that they’re reading and instead become involved in a shared dream.

By doing so, I’m using principles of hypnosis on the reader—which happen to be the same principles behind good storytelling.

So give it a try. Here’s a non-appeal: “There was a crowd on the platform.” Now, use body and motion, sound, sight, touch, smell, thoughts, and emotions to write a scene about a crowd. You can imagine any scenario you like—a tourist fighting his way through vendors in a foreign marketplace, demonstrators at a political rally, fans mobbing a favorite band. Just remember, the details will make it real, and you have to tell it from a character’s point of view. Have fun!


New Publication Certificate Program by Kevin J. Anderson

Successful, prolific writer Kevin J. Anderson has a new low-residency program available through Western State Colorado University. Here is what he says about it:

It’s an exciting program unlike any other (in my opinion), a real hands-on program covering the range of publishing options, from traditional to new-model independent publishing. I’ve already formally updated the course descriptions to make sure we cover all the changes in the rapidly evolving field. We’re actively looking for students, but it’s limited to only 6-8 attendees, so we can do it right. Western’s Certificate in Publishing program is 13 months long, almost entirely online, with a two week intensive residency (in the gorgeous Colorado mountains) each summer in July (each cohort does two of these intensives, two years in a row). You can find more information at Western’s Publishing Certificate. Remember, only 6-8 students. I hope you’ll want to join us.

Writers of the Future Vol. 34

I’m always looking for great stories for the Writers of the Future anthology, and I’m happy with what we found this year, with great stories from diverse new writers in the US, Canada, and the Philippines. We even got a rare starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. The anthology releases today, and can be purchased as a gorgeous trade paperback, as an e-book, or as an audiobook. Check out the anthology here.

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