Friday, April 21, 2006

Common Senses

Someone on Miss Snark's blog (side bar) asked for an interpretation of a"flat and uninteresting" comment about their work.
Miss Snark suggested that perhaps it might lack sensory description, particularly smell - a sense, it seems, that is often ignored in novels.
Gabriele provided excellent illustrations in a comment for both smell and sound and Carla posted on the topic with links.
Use of the senses is one of those pieces of writing advice that need to be emphasized again and again.
Most of us are fine with sight and touch, but sound, smell and taste are sometimes relegated or over-looked.
The senses are imperative if one is going to create a sense of reality in the reader's mind, and are particularly important if one is producing an alternate world, whether that world exists as history or in some other universe.
Blanket descriptions - "a dark and stormy night" variant - don't always do, as Gabriele points out, one should fit the introduction of the sense to the character's natural notice.
A character might ignore the stench of a garderobe or a moat - until he's face down in it.
The use and introduction of the senses has to be more than lyric description of the primeval forrest or the urban environment.
A writer can't just outline the normal smells of a 14th century town, dust his hands and say, "there, I've covered that."
A city dweller on a subway may ignore the smell of hydrocarbons and hot pavement because they are familiar, but a stinking man next to them on the subway will cause them to notice and move.
A change in the usual and disregarded night sounds may indicate an intruder.
As an aside, I always chuckle when I see the line "broke the silence." Night can be a noisy place - especially if you adjust your ear downward from macro to micro voices.
A pre-electric fugitive will be alert to the scent of wood smoke on the wind - and know what kind of wood is burning.
We must not forget, secure in our cities, that smell and hearing were survival linked in other places and other times.
They are of particular value and verity in certain kinds of fiction, but enhance all.
So it might be a good idea to go over your WIP with the senses in mind - not as simple value-added description - but as character and action enhancers.
On the other hand,five paragraphs of exquisite detail and analysis are not always necessary to give the general idea.
"I must bathe," he said.
You certainly must, she thought, you reek.
But please, please, don't add some smells and leave out the real ones.
I will forever be annoyed by a battlefield description that spoke of the scent of wild flowers and herbs and left out the stench of guts and feces and blood.

Meant to ask: Do you have a favorite passage engaging the neglected senses?


Sela Carsen said...

I make myself little challenges as I write sometimes to remove a sense, such as sight or hearing (dark room, deaf heroine) -- not both at the same time, preferably -- and see if I can still convey an accurate sense of "being there" to the reader.

This, of course, is usually blown to bits by some reader who whines, "Can't you just turn on the lights?"

No. No, I can't. I'm afraid you'll actually have to use your obviously atrophied imagination. At the risk of sounding repetetive -- hmph.

Erik Ivan James said...

Yes, Miss Snark's comment poked at me with that one as well. I've started to go through what I've written so far with those specific concepts in mind. With a bit of relief, I found a couple of "smells" and a couple "night sounds" so far. I sure as hell didn't put them in there with any concious thought, though, and is something I certainly need to pay more attention to.

Savannah Jordan said...

I think I have this one covered... :D I am very sensual. Writer, that is. LOL

*not enough caffeine*

Dennie McDonald said...

I try to add smells and whatnot - it lends to the ambience of the scene and to me that is as importnat if not more than setting locations and whatnot - people will imagine what they want but smells and atmosphere lend to the "feel" and evoke emotions of the scene -

Bernita said...

That's an interesting and useful exercise, Sela.

Probably with practice it can become a habit, Erik.It's a good idea to check to see if one has left useful things out.Certainly had me wondering if I neglected proper sensories here and there.

Um... yes, Savannah, I think you certainly do!

You've raised another point that Gabriele made, Dennie, that smells can evoke a memory/a reaction from a character, ie. the use is not limited to the reader directly.

Carla said...

Erik - I suspect that if the scene is clear in your imagination you put the sensory descriptions in as part of writing it, without conscious thought.

Bernita, could the writer of that battlefield scene have been aiming for some sort of contrast by stressing the herbs/flowers, do you think? Or could it have been from the viewpoint of a character for whom the blood/sweat/offal etc would have been all in a day's work?

Carla said...

In response to the 'Meant to ask' addendum, how about:
- Aragorn finding athelas in the dark by the scent of its leaves (Lord of the Rings)
- the azaleas in the Happy Valley at Manderley, the way Rebecca's perfume lingers everywhere, and 'the ashes blew towards us on the salt wind from the sea' (Rebecca)

Bernita said...

Those alternatives did not appear to have been under consideration for that particular scene, Carla, rather a simple lack of realistic visualization.

~Sheltered English maiden out gathering herbs stumbles upon battle field and is surprised by groans from wounded muscular hero~

Carla said...

Hmm. Mine would most likely have been either looting boots or looking for a relative's body. What was the book?

Bernita said...

Ahh, those are insidious and more complex examples, Carla, than simple "smelled like".
Thank you.

Bernita said...

No idea of title now.
Left out the flies and the carrion birds too.
Wasn't being narrowly critical.
Always have the fear that some of my scenes will fall into the same wall-banger category.

Dennie McDonald said...

oh ... you asked about a fave passage - always be partial to this one:

When the gun did no more than click, Charlie dropped her head back down to the wet earth unable to hold it up any longer. She closed her eyes to the rain that fell again. Blood and dirt tasted in her mouth. A musty, muddy smell clogged her nose and gagged her.

Bernita said...

Interesting, Dennie. Another complex one. I see it as emotion - panic, relief, fear - conveyed by transfer of smell.

Sam said...

That is something I tend to pick up on in a book - I'm reading one now that is heavy on sound and smell, and too light on sight and touch - as if the author was afraid of boring the reader with too much description, lol. It's nice to have a good balance.

Bernita said...

That's a little unusual.
Sight is the primary sense, I think, followed by sound.
Probably smell and touch are the most neglected sensations, and I suppose that "he grabbed her arm" is more action than sensation.

Sela Carsen said...

A subtle evocation of the senses -- "Somehow it was hotter then. A black dog suffered on a summer's day."

Bernita said...

Indeed, Sela, one can almost feel the heat strike through some dark clothing, feel the trickling sweat, in sympathy.

Here's one, though it uses simile.
"a sharp wind chill as the lips of a dying lover..."

Bonnie Calhoun said...

That's my problem....the description...I get so involved in it that I slow down the action too much, so now I'm learning to write tighter...

What I could use and it is eluding me at the moment, is a good description of the smells from a gun M-16's!

Bernita said...

Sounds exciting, Bonnie!
Um...maybe going to an indoor range, and inhaling?
Hot metal jacket!

kmfrontain said...

Smells. Hmm. Generally, I mention them once in a bit, especially when I want a potent (smiles) scene.

Jeroh, the skirmish that had almost been the death of him; around him, his human brothers had nearly all been slaughtered, only himself and a few others still standing inside the megalithic circle on the ridge, the smells of warfare in their noses. The blood, the vomit of those whose courage had failed, the stink of lost bowel control that sometimes comes at the moment of death. And there was the Hierat prince, thundering out into the open as if he thought he’d already won.

Pulled that one from my WIP. And in the same scene:

The prince’s form became a shadowy mass that seemed to lurch over him. Brul felt a breath in his ear, smelled the sweat and the metal and the horse stink of a rider.

Carla said...

Aren't there some accounts written by soldiers serving in Iraq, Bonnie? I'm sure I've heard of servicemen's blogs, not to mention journalists' reports. Soldiers' diaries and letters home are some of the most vivid sources for historical battles, so it might apply to modern warfare too? Just a thought.

December Quinn said...

I once had someone ask me why I didn't mention the smell of the ocean in one of my books, when my characters live in South Florida.

I didn't have the heart to tell her that South Florida smells like a nasty swamp, and that when you live there you don't smell the ocean anymore-your nose gets adjusted to it and you don't notice it at all.

Bernita said...

Really excellent,KM!

Sometimes just searching "gunsmoke smell" or something similar on line can produce surprising results.

Sometimes it's appropriate just to mention the smell or other sense is present, sometimes it must be described.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I would be afraid to look at someone's real description of war...I wouldn't want to wind up plagerizing it without realizing it.

But for's easy to say the smell of blood or the smell of death or the smell of gunfire....but what I want is...what do those things smell like?

What does blood smell like? What does vomit smell like...yuck! What does gunfire smell like? That's what I'm trying to put together.

Bernita said...

Sounds foetid, December.
I like the smell of water, shoreside. In a bit of synesthesia, it smells brown to me.

kmfrontain said...

Good point, Bonnie. How to describe the actual smells? Well, it could be done, but perhaps we'd be off on weird writer tangents describing the bouquet's of certain smells like the sommelier does for wine.

The tangy stink of the result of his hangover...the ripe farmy atmosphere that came of his fart...;-)

It can be done. But I read earilier in the comment thread that you were worried about going into depths and losing story play. I think specific, in-depth care toward the notes of a smell would have to be reduced to only one important one, if you want to keep the plot flowing nicely. In my case, I went for the generic mention of the smelly object. It's usually enough for most readers. We've all smelled vomit, after all.

Bernita said...

KM is right, one does not always have to describe ("coppery smell of blood, the acrid stink of gunfire" being the usual)Some smells are more like tastes anyway, Bonnie - bitter in the mouth.
Gun smoke, to me, is more like a blue feather on the face, though my brain tells me it's a smell.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

That's perfect Bernita...that's exactly what I'm looking for...I'm procuring those examples...LOL

Bernita said...


Gabriele C. said...

Ok, since Bernita asked for examples, I'm showing off again. *grin*
(From Kings and Rebels; there are some smells hiding in this scene, and one may be given by an unreliable POV):

A glint of light caught Alastair O'Duibhne's attention. He stood atop the newly built stone tower of the Talla Dearg and gazed across Loch Awe. In the grey evening, the lake shone the colour of molten lead; the mountains merged as darker shadows into the twilight. Resting his forearms on the battlement, Alastair inhaled the cool breeze that carried the tang of salt and seaweed from the nearby shore. He had missed the sea.

A gust whipped back his long auburn hair. He shifted his position.

There it was again, on the mainland to the right of the Chonnel isle, a flash, as though the fading light had glinted off polished steel. Alastair stared in that direction: Shadows that were not boulders. A group of men hiding in the heather, betrayed by their polished spearheads.

"Niall," he called over his shoulder.

Alastair's older brother ascended the staircase. Somewhat heavier in build than Alastair, his movements yet were swift. He brushed a strand of black hair out of his face and stepped beside Alastair.

"What do you make of that?" Alastair pointed with his arm. "Close to the montain pine brushwood where you got the fox yesterday."

Niall's glance followed the direction his brother indicated. "A score of men trying to hide," he confirmed. "And I'm sure to be able to put a name to them: Men of Somarled. Trying to get some of our cattle, to be sure." He slammed his fist on the battlement. "Those freckled bastards will never give peace. Yet, we can fight them the traditional way. No need for those fancy tricks you learned in France."

"Niall, please, must we have this discussion again? Those are no fancy tricks. If our people are to gain a prominent position in the wars to come, we'll have to adapt new ways of warfare."

Niall shrugged. "None here at the westcoast does it."

"Not yet. But they will. Cinaed macEoghain told me Somarled's son Ranald has been to court recently."

"A travelling bard's gossip."

"More than gossip. Cinaed said Ranald spoke with Roderic de Sinclaire before the latter was called off to fight at the border of Caithness. If Somarled's son has the ear of someone at court ...."

Niall's eyes went wide. "What is Somarled up to?"

"I don't know, but Somarled has had dealings with King Malcolm before." Alastair put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Believe me, I didn't advise you to use the gold our father got from the Irish on building a stone tower, or sending me to France, without reason."

"No, you didn't," Niall said in a low voice. "I should remember that."

"What are we going to do about the men out there? There will be no fog this night, the air is not wet enough."

"I see you haven't lost your senses in the stink of those French towns," Niall said. "Fog or no fog, we'll take the men from Talla Dearg, surround those bandits in the shelter of darkness, and finish them off before they can do any harm."

"Finish them off. That sounds a cruel solution." Alastair let his hand sink, resting it on the battlement instead.

Two pairs of green eyes locked, but it was Niall who lowered his gaze. "Well, what would you do? Invite them to our evening meal?"

"Of course not. But corpses are of no use to us. Hostages are, though. We could recover those cattle Somarled's men stole last spring, and make them pay weregild for the three wounded men." Alastair gazed out into the evening sky, where a pale moon appeared between the clouds. "Killing Somarled's men would only lead to a blood-feud and more raiding parties, and that never ends. We can ill afford to lose men to such folly."

Niall sheathed his dagger, only now aware he had been playing with it, and put his hand on Alastair's shoulder in turn. "You may be right. Let's go inside."

Gabriele C. said...

Argh, what is the matter with Blogger again. I need to make a second post for my first to show up. I thought they killed that bug. :(

Bernita said...

Yes, there's smell in there, which lingers in the breeze that whips their hair - but you know what I like the best? Niall sheathing his dagger only then aware he had been playing with it.
That is a very good touch.

Gabriele C. said...

Thanks Bernita. Those are the moments I like my muse, when he comes up with cool little ideas like that. :)

The brothers are very different and there's a lot of tension, but both would go any length to save the other.

Yes, there's the sea breeze and what it means for Alastair, there's the characters' ability to tell by the smell of the air if there'll be fog (a skill pretty much lost today, except with some peasants), and there's Niall' prejudice that towns stink.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Good piece Gabriel...but no descriptions that are helpful for the Vietnam war! LOL!

Bernita said...

Indeed, Gabriele, should have mentioned them - just got carried away in my delight at the natural detail with the dagger.

Smell > weather> survival.
Smell may be one component of an automatic computation of approaching weather( temperature/clouds) but is often described as smell ( air smells like snow, for example.)Realism tool/authentic to any time prior weathermen on radio/TV.

Smell as a character/attitude clue.
Have used that one myself - woman referrs to having seen some "sneaking,stinking foreigners" and is dismissed because our hero assumes she's just exhibiting regional prejudice, that a " stinking foreigner" is anyone from north of the Wall or south of the Downs.

Even today, people in small towns may describe incomers as "from away."
These prejudices still exist.

Sam said...

Nice excerpt Gabriele! And a good example of using all the senses!

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Yes, Miss Snark's comment poked at me with that one as well. I've started to go through what I've written so far with those specific concepts in mind. With a bit of relief, I found a couple of "smells" and a couple "night sounds" so far. I sure as hell didn't put them in there with any concious thought, though, and is something I certainly need to pay more attention to.

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