So happy to have author M. Liz Boyle back here at JPC Allen Writes. Today she’s giving advice on how to make your stories come alive.
Hi, and thanks to JPC Allen for the opportunity to discuss Writing with the Senses!
What words come to mind when you read this paragraph from Firehorse by Diane Lee Wilson?:
“I crouched so close over Peaches’ neck that her mane whipped my cheek. When I drummed my bare heels against her sides, she doubled her speed. The pebbled dirt road melted into a blur. My heart pounded through my skin.”
Excitement, restlessness, and urgency come to my mind. Interestingly, none of those words or their synonyms are present.
How do we know that it’s a warm summer day? How do we feel the rush of wind and hear the horse’s fast breath? What did the author do to transport us into the rider’s life?
It all comes down to Show, Don’t Tell and catering to the readers’ senses.
Writers at any stage in their career have heard about Show, Don’t Tell. If you’re like me, you may at some point have wondered, “Um, okay, but how?” One thing that has improved my ability to show is to ignite the senses.
How do we ignite the senses? Let’s study a few examples.
Each plump dewdrop glowed with the moon’s reflection. We don’t have to be told that the moon is bright – we can picture it!
My pulse hammered behind my eyes and I craved my pillow and quilt. Obviously the narrator has a headache, and more importantly, we can understand how bad the headache is.
My ears strained to pick up any sound – a snapping twig, a rustle of grass, anything besides my conscience screaming at me. This is stronger than describing the setting as “quiet as a mouse,” and we know that the narrator is in (or will be in) trouble.
It was like the clouds’ paint set exploded with reds, pinks, and orange, filling the world with a rosy glow. So is the sky beautiful? It seems like it to me, even without using the word beautiful.
Grandma hugged me, and like always, she smelled like home. There’s no need to say that Grandma gives comfort, because readers will deduce that.
The soup’s perfect blend of flavors made my tongue regret that I was swallowing the last spoonful. Without using the words delicious or famished, we know that the soup is delicious and that the narrator is still hungry.
Consider what’s missing in the sample sentences. With the exception of the color words in the sunset/sunrise example, there are very few adjectives.
You’re familiar with adjectives, those noun-describing words that your 7th grade English teacher encouraged you to generously season every sentence with. I’m not by any means casting out all adjective use, but I am saying that in some cases, we can give more vivid descriptions without using adjectives.
We provide vivid descriptions by appealing to readers’ senses. When writing a scene, if you ever feel detached from your character, like they’re in the middle of a boring, flat experience while you’re yawning on the sidelines, tell yourself to zero in on one or two senses. Put yourself in the character’s place and describe what they hear, smell, taste, feel, and see. Find the sense words that make the scene come alive and write the scene.
Adjectives have their rightful place, and we don’t want to exhaust readers by constantly bombarding their senses with descriptions, but many times, sense-igniting descriptions are just what we need to make the scene real for our readers.
Loved the examples you gave, especially “My pulse hammered behind my eyes and I craved my pillow and quilt” and “Grandma hugged me, and like always, she smelled like home”.Thank you for the wonderful tips to make our stories comes alive!
For more tips on writing with the senses, click here.
Praise for Ablaze:
“M. Liz Boyle tackles the topic of showering difficult people with grace and forgiveness, making this a must-read for Christian teens. Adventure seekers who loved Avalanche and Chased will fall head-over-heels for the adventure that heats up in Ablaze!” – author Allyson Kennedy
This summer the Stanley sisters and the Miles boys are excited to hike together again, and now they have the unique opportunity to help two of their ranger friends with an outdoor program in the beautiful Montana mountains.
Marlee has always considered herself a willing follower. Give her a direction and she’s happy to help. Her older sister Ellie is a natural leader, and Marlee is content in her role as assistant.
Marlee and her sisters have been assigned to help with Ranger Rose’s team, and they are savoring the adventure. But in a heartbeat while the group is divided by a few hundred feet, fire breaks out between Ranger Rose and Marlee’s group. In this enthralling finale to the Off the Itinerary series, Marlee must face her fears with courage that only God can provide.
Liz is the author of the Off the Itinerary series, the wife of a professional tree climber, and the homeschooling mom of three energetic and laundry-producing children. Liz once spent a summer in Colorado teaching rock climbing, which she believes was a fantastic way to make money and memories. She resides with her family in Wisconsin, where they enjoy hiking and rock climbing. Liz and her husband have also backpacked in Colorado and the Grand Canyon, which have provided inspiration for her writing. She makes adventurous stories to encourage others to find adventures and expand their comfort zones (though admittedly, she still needs lots of practice expanding her own comfort zone).