There is one piece of advice that I give to a lot of writers who want to enrich the narrative they produce when they write. I call it, “Writing with the senses.” This is especially useful for people like me, who have difficulty writing descriptions of people’s surroundings and to some degree, even of the people and their actions themselves.
Here’s how it works. You write your basic description of a particular scene, and then you go back over it five times, once for each of the five senses, looking for things related to those senses that can be added to make the scene more real. It can be a lot of work—and when I did this for a few stories, I finally realized why many writers talk about how much work it is to get a story right—but when you read the results, you will be astounded at how much richer and more vivid those scenes are.
I’ll use an example of a fanfic I wrote for the first anime series of Fullmetal Alchemist. It involved a complete (but ancient and utterly empty) city that was discovered in a gigantic underground cavern. It had some buildings on the flat surface at the bottom of the bowl of the cavern, but the streets and buildings also climbed quite high up the curve of the bowl. I had several characters walking through it, exploring it to see how intact the buildings are and how the streets were laid out.
I had written the basic scene, but I went back and asked myself, “What would the characters hear as they walked around in that dead, empty city in the cavern?” You might think, “Well, nothing. On to the next step.” But that’s not true at all. In fact, in a place that empty, even if there were none of the usual sounds of a city, even the tiniest sounds would be magnified.
So no, the characters did not hear even the small sounds you might have expected from little animals moving around in the place. This was in fact an indicator of how dead the place was. But the main character, standing in the central square by himself and turning and turning, looking around and up at the streets rising all around him—his leather boots made the slightest squeak as he turned. A character farther up the side of the bowl grew uncomfortable at the sound of his own soft footfalls and the rasp of his own breathing. And when he came farther down, even though he was still some distance away, he could hear what two other characters were saying to each other, even though they were speaking very quietly.
And in between these things was the heavy, endless hush of a city that had no other life in it.
You might think that there wasn’t really much to touch in a situation like that dead city in the cavern, but this situation illustrates just how real you can make your scene. The character who walked up higher in the city had to undo his collar because the place was warmer than he expected (there’s an issue of feeling with the skin, right?), and the collar began to rub his throat uncomfortably. He found a tiny patch of fenced-in dirt that was once obviously a little park, and there was even a park bench still there. But as he touched it, the ancient wood crumbled under his fingers and he felt it turn to dust that collapsed into a heap under his hand.
He also touched the stone wall of a building, feeling it solid and firm and still whole, despite how everything made of less strong material had dried out and either turned to dust already or was about to turn to dust at the least touch.
Ask yourself what your character’s skin would feel like. Would it feel dampness? Heat? If your character ran a hand along a fence as she walked, how would you describe the feel of the fenceposts under her fingers?
This was a hard one, but this is the sort of situation where you really get to put yourself right in the scene and use your imagination. Just what would you smell in a place like that? Anything? Nothing?
Think about it. This is a city that has been sealed away and eerily preserved in an underground cavern for several hundred years. Nothing has turned moldy; anything organic has long since died and turned to dust. Doesn’t that remind you of places like the ancient Egyptian tombs? If things that are not made of stone (or the occasional bit of metal) are crumbling and turning to dust, that means the place is dry.
And if it’s dry, might there be a faint, almost acrid smell? Not a strong smell, because of how dead everything is, but it would probably be there, barely underlying everything else. A dry, acrid smell where even the air you breathe feels utterly sterile in your mouth and lungs.
And speaking of lungs, one of my characters, the one who was eavesdropping, stood some distance away and had a cigarette. One thing that had alerted people to the cavern in the first place was that someone had burst through its roof, creating a small hole through which both the sun and some fresh air were starting to come through.
This meant that there was now just enough movement of air that the two speakers this character was eavesdropping on became aware of him—because the slight movement of air wafted the slight tobacco aroma toward them despite his being hidden.
I’ve left this one almost to the last, because this is often going to be the sense that you think you can’t possibly add to the scene. I mean, it’s not as though all of your characters are going around sticking objects into their mouths, you know, unless most of your characters are babies or toddlers. And unless your characters are either very weird or perhaps somewhat kinky, they also are not going to go up to every object in the vicinity and lick it.
So are you stuck only being able to write about this sense when you place your characters in a scene where they’re eating lunch, attending a banquet, or, at the very least, quaffing a tasty, satisfying beverage. Not necessarily. It is surprising how much you might be able to use taste in scenes in which you thought it could contribute nothing.
Take my story about the cavern. Sure, I had one chapter in which two characters met at a restaurant and shared a really tasty lunch, and later on, all of my characters attended a banquet. I had a wonderful time describing the food (and I took great care about what they ordered, and I read quite a bit about the ingredients, so I could describe the sensation of those tastes in the characters’ mouths). But what about when some of the characters were in the cavern itself? Nothing to taste there, right?
Oh, really? If the air is so dry and acrid, maybe there is the faintest dusty taste when a character breathes. Or a sterile, almost metallic, sharp taste as the atmosphere of the place descends and begins to affect the characters’ sensations. And that character having a clandestine cigarette while he was eavesdropping? He could certainly taste the hot smoke as it passed through his mouth.
You’d be surprised what you can add to a scene, even if it involves very tiny sensations, when you ask the question, “What sort of things might a character begin to taste in this situation?” Sometimes, it might really be nothing much. But there may be faint tastes that would be associated only with that particular situation (like that sharp, dry air that seemed to suck the moisture out of everything), and you can let the reader feel like she’s almost there, just by making brief a mention of that taste.
I left this one to the very last, almost for the opposite reason that I left the previous sense: you might feel like sight is actually the easiest one of the senses to deal with when you’re writing descriptions. After all, that’s what most people think of when they think of writing a description. What does the location, the scene, the surrounding area, the setting for the next act in the story look like? Where are the characters situated? What is to the left and right? What do they see when they enter the room? What are they wearing, and what are their facial features? All of that type of description is what people see when they are in the scene.
And of course, that is all true. I’ve already written about ways of working some descriptions into the action. The purpose there is so you don’t have a big, heavy block of descriptive text sitting there like a lump of dinner your readers have to digest and allow to diminish before they can go on to the action again. So you might be worrying that I’m now suggesting adding all that description back in, in a big block, in the name of writing according to this one of the five senses.
Not necessarily. You can work much of the visual detail into the action itself, to make it less heavy and an organic part of keeping the story moving. But it’s what sort of visual detail you include that is addressed by this fifth extra pass through the text you’ve already written. Here’s where you can add smaller details or more details about something you have thus far only covered broadly. In my city-in-a-cavern scene, I had a shaft of sunlight coming down into one part of the city through the gaping hole in the roof. But it wasn’t that the sun was shining into the cavern; it was slanting into the cavern (remember how that crack snaked across the wall?), thick with tiny dust motes that seemed to sparkle like fireflies and create an illusion of life in this dead city. I could have just written about the slanting shaft of sunlight, and that would have been sufficient. But those sparkling dust motes added something that actually accentuated just how lifeless the ancient city really was. Not a big visual detail, but a really helpful, vivid detail.
You don’t have to describe every tiny detail of every single thing you see in a scene. Marcel Proust might get away with that, but if you do it, your readers will abandon your story by the second paragraph. But you can add some extra details to your description of the visuals, and if you pick the right details, they can really enrich and add to the living, breathing story you create.
The same applies to writing with the other four senses. Go over your scene five times, concentrating on only one of the senses and looking for small details you might add that accentuate something important or just make the scene more real and vivid. It does add time and work—and maybe this really isn’t something you want to do during the NaNo but can do when you’re back to writing at your normal pace. But when you do this work in your story, you will be thrilled at the rich story that results.