Brown. My novel had turned to brown. At least, that’s what my freelance editor Sharyn Kopf told me when she read my novel. I had used “brown” far too may times. Most writers write by sight. And most readers think by sight, so writing about the sense of sight is the easiest way to connect with readers. It’s also the hardest to write about from a fresh perspective. While tackling all the browns that had invaded the story, I developed three ways to work color into my story.
Write About Color as Your Main Character Sees It
It was a no brainer for me to focus on color when writing about the sense of sight in my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow. My main character, Rae Riley, is an amateur photographer. She should notice color, more than most people. But she wouldn’t describe everything that was brown with just that word. So I had to dig into my descriptions and decide …
Could I Use a Different Color?
In Chapter 8, I had used the word “brown” so many times that the scene was practically wallowing in a mud pit. So I examined all the brown things and decided if they really had to be brown. For example, Rae has come to her uncle’s farm for a riding lesson. The horse she’s going to ride is Pokey. Pokey started as a brown horse because it was based on the first horse I’d ever rode during a lesson. I changed Pokey to a palomino to get rid of a brown that wasn’t necessary. And I love a palominos. In another chapter, I changed a walk-on character’s eyes to hazel because there was no good reason to keep them brown.
Or I deleted any color name, such as when I described a third-grade girl who is having a riding lesson before Rae. The little girl’s father is watching her. I describe him “with his warm, brown eyes and brown hair”. Later, when I describe the girl, I wrote “Alli took off her helmet, only a few wisps of hair, the same shade as her father’s, escaping her French braid.” Readers know she has brown hair without me using the word.
If I couldn’t change the color, I looked …
In a couple places, I wrote that characters had dark hair instead of brown. The horse Alli was riding was sorrel instead of brown. Rae could know this because her late mother worked at a stable when Rae was in middle school. So I eliminated a “brown” and made the new color work with my main character’s eye for photography and her backstory. Rae describes the hair of one of her cousins as “sepia-colored.”
Sound is most likely the second the most used sense in writing, and there’s so many ways to tackle writing about the sense of sound. For example, I’ve always been interested in how characters sound when they talk. And I love how sound adds another layer of complexity to a setting.
How Do You Say That?
My interest in how a character sounds may come from years of being a movie fan. Describing a character’s usual voice gives a story a cinematic touch and is a way to help readers differentiate between characters without relying as heavily on visual cues. Below are the ways I described characters’ voices in my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow.
My main character Rae has a slight Southern accent, which is noticeable now that she lives in Ohio.
Her friend Houston, who’s originally from Texas, speaks with that accent in a drawl.
Her boss Barb speaks in a “crisp clip” when talking to someone she doesn’t like.
Rae’s dad’s voice is a “penetrating” or “booming baritone”.
Rae’s great-grandfather has “a voice as deep and rocky as an abandoned mine shaft.”
Set the Scene with Sound
My goal in describing settings is to let the reader feel like he or she is living a scene with the main character. Sounds aids me enormously in creating that illusion.
Rae sets a trap for whoever has been leaving her threatening notes, waiting in her apartment one night when she has made it look like she’s not at home. Since it’s February, the apartment gets dark quickly, giving me an opportunity to appeal to the sense of sound.
“As the courthouse chimed 7:00”
Rae’s apartment is a finished room over a garage. Her landlady’s “car chugged into the garage beneath me.”
“A meow drifted up to me.”
The winter setting allowed me to add descriptions like:
“I crunched down the drive”
During a thaw, “the ground squished beneath my boot with every step”
“Cars and trucks ground by on the salt-covered streets.”
How do you use the sense of sound in your writing? What tips do you have for writing about the sense of sound?
Touch is another sense that writers tend to overlook. In the story “The Price of Light”, author Ellis Peters brings medieval England to life through the senses and especially through texture. Once I sat down to analyze touch, I realized it encompasses many different kinds of sensation and writing about the sense of touch adds evocative variety to a story.
Not only clothes, but everything we touch has some kind of texture, if we think about it. The table I’m eating on, the chair I’m sitting on, the jacket of the woman I brush up against in a crowded mall, the goop my kid just invented in the basement. If the point of view (POV) character is touching something, I can switch from sight to touch to give my description variety.
I’m sensitive to food textures. Regardless of how a food tastes, if the texture triggers my gag reflex, I’m done with it. In fact, I will soldier through food that doesn’t taste good, but I can’t choke it down if the texture is bad. Marshmallows and meringue are two foods with textures I literally can’t swallow.
The temperature and moisture of the air around us is sensed through our skin. So instead of limiting myself to how a snowy scene looks, I will add how the cold makes my POV character feel. Humidity can be described the same way. Instead of writing how the sweat glistens on someone’s face, I will write about how humidity wraps around my skin like a wet quilt. When describing wind, I can switch to how it feels, rather than the effects the character sees or hears.
Pressure on the skin signals all kinds of emotions. If you want large man to intimidate your small main character, he can press against her, crowding her, trapping her. A squeeze of the hand can mean reassurance, a slap on the back affection or anger, a handshake, depending upon the strength, friendship or fury.
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 tipsto make our stories comes alive!
“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).
Welcome to March on JPC AllenWrites! This month’s theme will be about how to invoke the senses when we write. Since I am doing my own version of NaNoWriMo with author Theresa Van Meter this month, my posts will be largely reposts from a few years ago. I’ll kick off the theme with a post on writing about taste and smell.
How Does That Taste?
Because the sense of taste can only occur in certain settings, writers may overlook it and not take advantage of it where they can. But writing about the sense of taste can bring a fresh perspective to a scene that is dominated by sights and sounds.
How a meal tastes can show the emotional state of your point of view (POV) character. If your character is eating a favorite food, and someone tells her bad news, she will find the food tasteless or disgusting. Conversely, your character eats something he usually avoids, but he’s in such a good mood, his distaste disappears.
Describing what tastes your character likes and dislikes gives readers insight into her character. If your character is critical or spoiled, then she would harshly describe how certain foods don’t meet her high standards. Or your character may eat something he hates so as not to hurt the feelings of the cook, giving readers clues about his personality. For more on food as writing inspiration, click here.
Words may be compared to tastes. A character makes a confession, and the words taste bitter. He says the name of a loved one, and it tastes sweet. For some people with a rare form of synesthesia, certain words really do stimulate a sense of taste.
Since smell and taste are so closely link, you can bring in taste to give a different spin on a smell. The odor of burning metal leaves a metallic taste. Sweet-scented flowers, the ocean, and fires all have a tastes to them.
Did You Smell That?
“There are fragrances. Beyond fragrances are smells, beyond smells are odors, and beyond odors are stenches. Beyond stenches is what I am about to write here.” \
These three sentences are some of the best writing about the sense of smell that I’ve read. Using the sense of smell in my writing is something I need to work on. It’s the last sense of I think of because I have such a poor sense of smell. Unless a scent is especially strong, I just don’t notice it.
One way I have noticed the power of smell is its ability to trigger memories. No other sense works as well to recall past events. When I smell cooking onions, I immediately think I’m back at my grandmother’s house. Even if the smell is coming from the basement cafeteria at an elementary school, I still think of grandma. A smokey fire in reminds me of the wood burning stove that my grandparents had. Sunscreen, especially when mixed with the scent of bug repellant, sends me back to high school when I attended camp for marching band.
This unique aspect of smell inspires me as a crime writer. What if something tragic happened to a character at a young age, and now that the person is grown up, she can barely remember it? But when she encounters the same unusual odor that she smelled at the time of the tragedy, her memories come into focus.
Or a man is attacked and never saw who it was but did notice a distinct scent about the attacker. Months later, the man meets someone who smells the same way. With only this clue to go on, he begins digging into this person’s background.
In a lighter vein, describing horrible smells lends itself to humorous writing. The quote above comes from a story about how a terrible stench prevents a young man from enjoying his favorite fishing hole.
What authors do you think write about taste and smell effectively?