How to Immerse Your Reader in Your Story: Engage the Five Senses

To continue my series on describing your foreign setting and setting mood using light, today I’m going to talk about the other senses.

The Five Senses

Let’s review our five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. Sight is usually the predominant sense covered in stories; most people describe what their characters are seeing. But the other senses sometimes get short-changed.

I’ve read that every intimate moment needs at least two senses involved. So, while your protagonist may be gazing with longing into her beloved’s eyes, that’s not enough; you need to add at least one more sense.

Here are some examples from Acceptance:

Scent

Anselm strolled along the quiet, darkened streets, enjoying the warm breeze off the ocean. He inhaled deeply; the scent of blooming flowers was so strong it was almost suffocating, and yet it was pleasurable at the same time.

He leaned closer to a pine tree. There, among the smell of sap and pine, was Ciaran’s scent in one small spot.

Kalyn rolled down the car window and appreciatively sniffed the salty night air.

Sound

With his foot, Anselm nudged the figure in the back of the leg. It made a wet, gurgling sound, and lifted a hand, dark and glistening with blood.

The cicadas were blaring like police sirens—loud even over the sound of the tires crunching on the sand-and-gravel driveway.

Sounds of a fight were coming out of the living room. Something glass was thrown against a wall, shattering.

The night all around them seemed perfectly silent, as if all the insects—and even the air itself—were still and listening.

Touch/Feeling

The pearls were cool and silky against her skin, but his hands were slightly cooler.

It felt as if he had stabbed her with two hot knives. She tried to cry out, but his hand muffled her screams—his fingers digging in, bruising her face.

Her blood pulsed out with a violent force, and he sucked hard on the wound—every motion of his mouth causing it to burn worse. She could feel some of her blood trickling hot and sticky down her neck and between her breasts.

Taste

She took a sip of water. It was so cold, she could feel it slide down her throat and into her stomach. But the first taste made her suddenly thirsty—thirstier than she had been before. She downed the entire glass, but it still didn’t feel like enough.

Kalyn turned her head away as he began to scream—a horrible, drawn-out scream that sent chills down her spine. She covered her ears with her hands and tasted bile in the back of her throat; if she had eaten recently, she would have been sick.

She could smell blood and death coming from the other room. Actually, it was more like a taste than a smell, stuck in the back of her throat.

You may have noticed that in many of those examples, there’s actually more than one sense engaged. Hearing something horrible can make you feel sick–even taste bile; the feel of a warm breeze can be linked to the scent of flowers.

I don’t think that most people write description strongly on their first draft. If you’re like me, you are in a rush to tell the story, so you need to get out the action and dialogue. But description can easily be added when you go back to edit. Take time to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell what your characters are experiencing.

Writing: The Necessity of Striking While the Iron is Hot

I’ll admit it: last year, I cheated a bit on NaNo. I had a great idea for a historical romance (The Flames of Prague) and I was ready to write it a few days before November. So I did. (I did write far more than 50,000 words in 30 days, so in that respect, I didn’t cheat to win.)

The same thing happened this year. I had a great idea for a new story and I was all gung-ho to write it… about two weeks before NaNo started. Now,  some people say that waiting builds excitement and you’ll be more likely to stay committed once you start. I’ve even heard people say that if you want to start exercising and dieting, you should set a future date to do it, rather than do it right now. Planning for a goal is supposed to imbue it with importance, whereas if you decided to start on a whim, you’re just as likely to decide to quit on whim.

That’s a wonderful idea in theory. And maybe it works for some people. But it does not work for me.

I put off my new story for so long, I no longer have the interest to really start it. I’ve met my word goals so far, but I’m all out of steam.

I have a tendency to work on things in chunks; I can only concentrate on one thing at a time. Since I couldn’t write on my new dystopian story, I didn’t want to think about it, for fear I might get a good idea and then lose it (that commonly happens to me). So I found other things to think about–namely my Acceptance trilogy. And now, that’s all I have on my mind, and I’m worried if I don’t get those ideas down on paper, I might lose them. But if I succumb to writing on other books, I’ll never get this one picked back up (at least not in time to finish NaNo).

Which just proves something I already knew (and need to take to heart more often): I must always strike while the iron is hot. Because once it’s cooled, there’s no telling when I may get it hot again.

12.5 Rules of Writing

I found the following rules over on E. L. Taylor III’s blog:

1. As I have mentioned here before, there’s an axiom that every writer has a million words of crap in them. Even if you feel like you’re writing crap, you are accomplishing something: you’re getting the crap out. So yes, write every day, even if it sucks and you end up throwing it out. It is still beneficial.

2. This is related to another axiom: write what you’d like to read. That sounds logical, but some people get caught up in writing for profit and writing what people think they people want to hear. When I decided to try my hand at writing historical romance, I was confronted with the dilemma of whether to word it the way that I thought romances were worded (i.e. “cheesy”), but I decided not to go there. It’s not natural for me to write in that style, and it’s not what I like to read. Time will show if it sells well, but my pre-readers–including my husband–liked the initial draft and, in fact, wanted to see more. So stick with what you know and what you like and you will probably do well. At the very least, you won’t be ashamed of anything you’ve written.

3. I’m not too much on routines–never have been–but I will agree that setting goals/deadlines is important to keeping yourself moving in a forward direction. Once I set a publication date on my book, it necessitated that I word on my final proofreading edits every day (I usually do a little every morning, before I go to work).

4. I suppose it doesn’t have to rhyme, although I do prefer when it does.

5. Stereotypes/caricatures do get boring. Also, be careful that you’re not doing the same thing over and over again. My husband said he used to read science-fiction, until he started to notice that the characters and plots were all very similar. This can be a problem when you’re writing in a genre–be it fantasy, sci-fi, western, or romance. There’s only so many times the shy virgin can be ravished to her rapturous delight before people start to say, “This has been done to death.” So not only avoid stereotypical characters, but also avoid the stereotypes of your genre.

6. I’ve trumpeted this rule before, too. Reading will help you improve your grammar and build your vocabulary. Reading will give you ideas for your own stories. Reading critically–especially in your own genre–will also show you what you should and should not do to your own stories.

7. I don’t see much use in this, however, I would encourage people to make a list of names that they find interesting; then you never lack for a name for a character. Also, I’ve seen it recommended that you compile information on other things you find interesting–a job or a city or pictures of people who interest you–so that you can use that later in your writing. In short, be constantly researching and compile a database of names and faces and jobs and locations so that you can plop a plot down in the middle of it and call it amore.

8. This seems to be true of modern fiction (“literature” or non-genre fiction), but I think it’s probably less true of genres. Romances are expected to have a happy ending and I think sci-fi and fantasy books are expected to have either a cautionary element or an old-fashioned good-versus-evil plot. My own trilogy has a moral: destroy evil when you have the opportunity, or it will come back to destroy you one day. So no, not all fiction requires a moral, but be sure you have one when the genre demands it, or you’ll wind up disappointing everyone.

9. I have to agree with this, because I know if I don’t write something down immediately, I’ll forget it. When I’ve gotten good ideas in the car, I’ve written on the backs of scrap paper and envelopes, just to keep from losing some good idea. So put a small notebook and pencil (no fear that it will die) in your car and keep one beside your bed for those end-of-the-day thoughts. (You might also have a dim reading light or nightlight that you can turn on so you can see to write without completely waking your brain–or partner–up by using a bright light.)

10. This is something I’ve recommended before to people suffering from writer’s block with a story. Start a fresh document and write about your character having an average day. Write about them before the story starts, after it’s done, or on one of the boring days in the middle where nothing exciting is happening–you know, all that time that occurs between important plot points. Make them do the laundry, cook dinner, groom their horse, read a magazine while having a bowel movement–everyday, normal stuff. Why? Because real people do these things, and if you want your character to seem real, you’ll know what they’re doing when they’re not having an exciting life. This can often trigger an idea for some new, exciting plot twist, but at the very least, once you learn what your characters do and don’t like doing, you can sprinkle references to that throughout your book and make your character seem that much more real. And don’t worry about having to throw away this boring chapter; it’s been valuable to you, even if it doesn’t end up in your book (see #1 above).

11. I decided to write a historical romance because I thought it would be easier to get my first book published in that genre. The surprising thing was that I actually enjoyed writing it and I came out with a story that I really like. It inspired me to consider writing possibilities in all genres. I also wrote it from the POV of a man–not something I do often. Another way to break out of a rut is to switch from third person to first person or active tense versus past tense.

12. Even if you want to stay in the POV of a single character all the time (almost a requirement if you’re writing from first person), write a throwaway chapter (or three) where you tell the story from the POV of another character. Again, this is a good way to get over writer’s block, plus it makes your non-primary characters more believable.

12.5. What are you waiting for?

Troll Brain Screws Me Again

Sometimes a rage comic is just the best form of expression.

So, we’re coming back from vacation on Sunday, and about halfway through an 8-hour car ride, I get comfy in my seat, put on my headphones, and chill to my eclectic blend of music.

My husband’s window was down and the breeze felt good. I was soaking up some sunlight, getting my vitamin D. I closed my eyes and got into pre-nap mode.

Then I began thinking about a scene for my second book. I imagined a conversation between Kalyn and Anselm. It was kind of romantic, then it covered a lot of really important points, and ended up with Anselm simultaneously laughing and crying over the memory of Isaac. It was all quite beautiful, really.

When I got home, I had to take a bath and then I went to bed, exhausted. The next evening I realized I left my USB key at work, so I didn’t have the most recent copy of the book, and I knew better than to mix versions.

Finally, on Tuesday, I had the time to write that scene.

I CAN’T REMEMBER ANY OF IT!

This is why I try to write down everything as soon as I think of it–even if it’s out of order, or is for a book or story I’m not primarily working on at the moment. If I don’t, good things are lost forever.

Advice for Young Writers

On the NaNoWriMo forums, a 15-year-old writer asked for a critique of his work. I went into specifics, then offered some advice, which I think is good for any new writer, but especially someone who is young and who is looking forward to a possible career as a writer.

I wrote my first “book” (okay, it was about 20 pages) when I was in 6th grade. Here I am now, 31 years old, and I have a book written and I’m trying to get it published. I actually wrote most of a book in college. And when I look at it now, ten years later, I see how badly it sucked, LOL. Looking back on my early writing, I see some broad truths:

Life experience helps you as a writer. I sometimes surprise myself by the things that show up in my writing; things you’ve studied, people you know… it all ends up in your writing, one way or another. The more things you’ve studied and the more people you’ve met, the better your writing gets. So know, as you get older, your writing will only get better!

Secondly, read, read, read. The more you read, the better your writing will get. One, you absorb vocabulary and sentence structure as you read, which will help you as a new writer. Secondly, you can see what does and doesn’t work. I think I learned how to kill off good, interesting characters by reading “Harry Potter.” Sometimes you have to build up a character just to kill him off.

Try reading a book critically. I did this recently with “Twilight.” Yeah, it’s easy for people to joke about the fact that it sucks, but most people can’t cite why. Make sure you can enumerate all the reasons why something sucks or doesn’t suck.

And not everything about “Twilight” sucks. I could have taken a black marker to the fourth book and edited huge chunks out of it, but I actually thought Stephanie Meyer did a really good job of building the tension at the end of the book. I liked the fact that Bella made arrangements to save her daughter in the even that she and Edward died. Picking up passports, getting together cash, planning clothing–all of these things built up tension and a sense of dread and inevitable doom.

I liked it so well, in fact, I did something very similar in the end of my third book–my people spend time preparing for their deaths. And that’s something that I like to emphasize in my writing: I want my readers to be emotionally-involved in the story. I want them biting their nails with worry that someone is going to die. You can only accomplish this by having really developed characters that readers love (even if they love to hate them). I want people begging to know if Anselm and Kalyn get together in the second book; you can only accomplish this by making them and their relationship realistic.

When you write, think about making your reader emotionally involved. I think books like that are not only good reads, but they’re books you keep coming back to.

I would also add a rule that one of my English professors taught us: in life, you only get three exclamation points. Use them wisely.