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Apr 19 2011

Dana’s Dojo: Sensory Deprivation and How to Avoid It

Today in the Dojo: Using senses other than sight in writing.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. 
     -Anton Chekhov

I had a very strict routine when I left work in Tempe, AZ:  I punched out at lightning speed and race-walked through the parking lot to my car, threw my bags in the back, lit a cigarette, and tried to get my little car airborne.  I didn’t pause for anything except traffic.  My entire focus was narrowed on one goal: get home in as few minutes as possible.  My only thoughts: will I get to the end of the road before the light changes?  Avoid the slow people on the freeway?  Find a parking space close to the house? 

One night, however, I stopped dead as I reached for the car door, frozen.  Not with cold, of course: this was spring in the Sonoran Desert, which meant air conditioners were already blasting.  I didn’t know at first what had stopped me, until I took a deep noseful of the typically polluted, dry, acrid and unpleasant Phoenix air and smelled – orange blossoms.

I stood transfixed in a darkness lit by saffron-hued street lamps and the bluer glow of our parking lot lights, staring at the low clumps of trees rising from the incongruous strip of grass between our lot and the road, sucking down draughts of petal-scented air.  My balance shifted from flat-footed to nearly on my toes, as if my pounding heart was trying to pull me up into the black sky.  Usually, I only noticed the air enough to determine it’s temperature – it’s never a good idea to linger too long with Phoenix metro air.  But I was feeling its texture now – cool, stirring with the breathy breeze that carried the scent of the blooms from somewhere, soft with a rare touch of humidity.  My first thoughts skittered along wild courses of where? and how? and is it real?  I searched the night for orange trees and saw none.  But I could tell from the richness of the scent that this wasn’t a coworker’s perfume wafting across parking spaces: nothing but pure, living orange blossoms smell like that.

I’d almost forgotten the keys in my hand and the weight of my backpack dragging at my shoulder.  I stood by the rear fender of my car, pulling in as much of that scent as I could, mouth opening in a wondrous grin.  I knew that Phoenix had orange trees, often planted as hedges and spilling their pale orange-yellow fruits onto the road where passing cars squished them into mush, but I’d never expected to actually smell them bloom through the haze of dust and ozone and exhaust and other, less pleasant big-city odors.  Now my mind swirled around thoughts of beauty, and spun out associations at lightning speed: my mother, who spent her life searching for really authentic orange blossom perfume, would love this.  How could I get a scent like this into my story, where there are no oranges and I can’t even use association because the characters have no experience with oranges?  And this must be what an evening in the Court of Oranges smells like.  That took me back to one of my favorite books, The Walking Drum, and one of the most sensual scenes I’ve ever read: walking into the Court of Oranges in Cordoba, Spain, with everything so richly described that I could feel the dust on the paving stones, listen to fountains splash, and draw the scent of blooming orange trees deep into the soul of myself.

My consciousness filtered out the sounds of the Valley Metro bus laboring down the road, coworkers’ cars starting up, any sound except the rustle of leaves as the breeze stirred them.  I barely saw anything except those gently waving branches, and the way the light danced off of their shiny green leaves and shadowed the grass beneath.  I was experiencing magic in the heart of Tempe – the usual business of the city had no place there.  It’s a good thing we had good security in our parking lot, because if someone had decided to step out of the darkness and rob me, I would have just passed my purse over and shushed him.  Or possibly grabbed his arm and danced him around shouting, “It smells gorgeous out tonight!”  It could have led to a whole new school of self-defense: hug your robber, he won’t know what to do. 

I finally shook myself out of it.  I could have stood there all night breathing in the scent of orange blossoms, but my cat wouldn’t have been pleased, and I needed to get home and get this down in my mind.  I needed to be away from work.  But oh, how I hated leaving that scent behind.

Why this extended description of a very personal experience?  Because it was a great way to show you the power of scent to change a mood and preconceived notions.

It seems like 90% of the writers out there don’t use all of their senses when they’re writing.  5% of the ones who do mangle it.  The remaining 5% – well, they weave such a tapestry of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste that you live their worlds in all dimensions.  You experience everything.  And that experience lingers in your mind long after the story is over, to be pulled to full consciousness again years later on a metro Phoenix city street in the middle of the night by the scent of orange blossoms.

We want to be that 5%, don’t we?  So let’s get started on figuring out how to do it.

Don’t Let the Thugs of Sight and Sound Shove the Other Three to the Far Back Corner

We live in an age where the magic of movies and television predominate.  Those mediums have only two senses: sight and sound.  We see the picture and hear the sounds.  Other senses can only be suggested: characters can inhale the fragrance from a rose, savor a good meal, spit out something gross, fan themselves when it’s hot and shiver when it’s cold… but it’s still all sight and sound.  Unless, of course, they’re rhapsodizing on the scent of the rose or the taste of the food, in which case you probably want to beat the living crap out of them until they shut up and get on with the show.

Movies and television can’t make us experience the other senses, only suggest.  And usually, they’re such a visual feast, with the sound coming thick and fast, that the viewer doesn’t have time for more than a fleeting impression of bad, good, warm, cold, painful, soft, or otherwise.  I mean, come on – during that hot bedroom scene, were you really smelling the intermingling of sweat and perfume and feeling the silk sheets slide under you, or were you just salivating over the hot the actor/actress/both?

Admit it.  You were feasting your eyes, maybe enjoying the soundtrack and the moans, but you weren’t experiencing the rest. 

Prose writers, on the other hand, have the power to evoke all five senses directly, and bring them to vibrant life in such rich detail that the reader experiences them too.  We are not restricted to being able to present only sight and sound directly and have to imply the rest.  Yet what do we do?  Visualize scenes, throw some sounds in, and merely hint at the rest, nine times out of ten.

So we must push the thugs of sight and sound aside.  We need to beat them with mighty sticks until they fall to their knees and shuffle into line.  They are powerful – they need to be at the forefront of most scenes.  But just a little bit in front.  Humble them.

If you must, write several scenes from the point of view of a deaf and blind character.  Believe me, this will make you pay attention to taste, touch and smell, unless you are a coward and have them imagining what things must sound and look like.  In that case, STOP BEING A BLOODY COWARD.

Now.

Walk around with earplugs and a blindfold if you have to (along with a person who will ensure you don’t step over the balcony or get run over by a train you never heard coming).  Dinner time is not the only time to taste things.  Being in a rose garden or a cesspit is not the only time you’ll smell things.  Touch is more than being in contact with items – it’s also the feel of the air on your skin, the sense of large or small things around you. 

When I was writing “Charity Cases,” I had to shut off sight.  I’m in the POV of a blind man, after all.  Sound actually took back seat to feel as I wandered around the house in artificial darkness.  I could tell what room I was in by the way it felt – hallways felt smaller than the living room whether I was touching the walls or not.  Stepping on cat litter in bare feet took on a whole new meaning without visual distraction.  I wouldn’t have needed hearing to tell me when I went outside: the feel of open spaces and moving air, the smell of pine trees and dust, the taste of pollen in the air, would have told me as much.

Really experience things.  Pollution leaves a haze in the air, but it also has a taste and odor of its own.  So does clean a
ir.  If I was out in the rain, I could tell you whether it was pine country or the heart of the city from the taste of the raindrops.  I can tell you where we are from the way it smells – wet buildings smell far different from wet trees, damp clean sidewalks a lot different from moist earth or dirty asphalt.  Notice these things.  Don’t relegate taste and smell to the dinner table.

Want to get across the idea that it’s humid or dry?  Each kind of air feels different.  Dry air makes your skin feel dusty and tight.  Humid air feels soft, sometimes slick.  It even tastes different – the sandy taste of the air in Phoenix becomes clearer, sharper with an underlying plant-oil tang when it’s getting ready to rain.  Have you ever considered describing the weather in terms of taste like that?  You should.  It’s an excellent tool.  Don’t just smell the coming rain, taste it.  Feel your skin starting to plump.  Unless of course you live in a humid climate, in which case it probably won’t be as intense a sensation as it is to a desert dweller.

Character has zits?  Excellent.  Don’t just show them.  Feel their oily ooze and their squelchy bumpy texture.

Once you have sight and sound properly humbled, let them come crawling back, and then weave them in with the rest.  You’ll have a properly complex description once you do.

Words = Associations

I mentioned the 5% of writers who use all senses but don’t use them well.  Here’s what I mean:

The odor of roses.


The scent of roses.


The smell of roses.

We’re keeping it simple here.  Which one had the most positive associations for you?  Which word came closer to evoking the richness and delicacy of a full-blown rose?  I can pretty much guarantee you it wasn’t odor.

We associate odor with bad.  OdorEaters insoles to kill foot stench.  Oust to eliminate odors from the air.  You don’t even have to add the word bad to odor to get the wrinkling nose and the idea of stinky. 

But we associate scent with something positive or at least neutral.  Perfumes are called scents.  We have pine-scented, berry-scented, and lavender-scented products for everything from bathroom cleaners to candles.  Scented oil fans to make the room smell lovely.  If we say a product is scented, we’re not associating a bad scent with it.  It’s supposed to be pleasant.

You also don’t want to talk about the smell of something if you’re trying to wax poetic over how good it smells, because smell is a dual-purpose word.  It could smell good or bad.  In this context, it passes no judgments.  It just says roses smell without implying how the author or the character feels about that smell.  For all we know, the roses don’t smell like anything much at all.

See how tricky that is?

Be very, very careful with your sensory words.  You’re passing judgments.  You want to make sure those judgments are the ones you want the reader to make.

I’m now going to play a dirty trick on you by way of Louis L’Amour.  Louis won’t mind if I quote him.  If his estate does, well, the work is properly cited and it might sell a book, so they can deal.

First, the adulterated version:

It was hot at noon in the Court of Oranges.  The air was filled with the odor of flowers and the sound of water.  There was a crunching of sandals as the white-robed thousands walked into the mosque.  Above them the palms threw shadows on the orange trees, and fruit peeked through the leaves.


There were four big basins in the Court of Oranges and water poured into them with a faint trickle.  The air felt still and hot, thick with the smells of jasmine and rose, and along the walls were hibiscus, large red flowers beside others of light gold or white.

Not bad.  Not bad.  We’ve got sight, sound, smell and a touch of touch.  Everything’s described well enough to get the idea of what it all was like. 

But it is a poor, sad thing compared to the real version:

At noon in the Court of Oranges the sun was hot.  The air was heavy with the scent of flowers and lazy with the sound of running water.  At noon in the Court of Oranges there was a shuffling of feet as the white-robed thousands moved slowly into the mosque.  Above them the palms cast slender shadows over the orange trees, and golden fruit shone through the glossy leaves like the Golden Apples of legend.


There were four great basins in the Court of Oranges and water tumbled into them with a pleasant, sleepy sound.  The air hung still and hot, thick with the scent of jasmine and rose, and along the walls were hibiscus, great soft red flowers beside others of pale gold or white.

                -from The Walking Drum by Louis L’Amour

I didn’t change all that much in the adulterated version, but the differences were huge anyway, weren’t they?  The first didn’t flow like poetry.  It didn’t evoke such specific images and associations.  The feel of things was quite weak.  Even the sounds didn’t weave around us quite so intensely, and the visuals were frankly lacking.  We didn’t really even smell the flowers – they were odorous, but that was about all.

Louis was very specific in his word choices and details.  First, it wasn’t hot.  The sun was hot.  That gives us the glare of hot sun off of stones and skin without having to go into great detail.  The sun being hot rather than merely the air changes everything.

The air could be heavy with scent, but Louis chose to fill the air instead.  Filled evokes a different sense than heavy.  Heavy implies weight bearing down.  Filled implies we were sated, content. 

We’ve already discussed scent vs. odor.  Now you’ve gotten to see it in action.  Smells better when it’s not an odor, doesn’t it?  And the air being lazy with the sound of running water is different than just the sound of water.  Sound means little unless it’s specific, and even running water wouldn’t have done here alone: it needed to impart a lazy feel to the air.

Crunching sandals and people walking is a far different thing than shuffling feet as people walk slowly.  The first is brisk.  Folk don’t walk briskly into mosques, not when there’s such a press of them.  Walking slowly, shuffling, implies the proper humility and reverence for this holy place.

I could go on, but you have the idea.  Word choice is vital when you’re using all five senses, or even just a few.  It’s like weaving a tapestry: you don’t simply choose red thread, you go for carmine or scarlet or vermilion, and that choice affects the whole rest of the weaving.  So does the choice between wool, cotton or silk thread.  So does… well, I won’t lecture you on different looms and such.

Words have associations.  Concrete things and words evoke more than general ones. 

Unusual Marriages You’d Never Expect Would Work

We’ve all heard leaves whispering or rustling or chuckling.  How about hissing?  Slithering?  Do they do that?

Yes, they do.  Depending on what mood you’re in and whether you like wind in the trees.

Can a rose smell bad?  Certainly, if your lover gave you a bouquet of heady reds and then dumped you in the middle of an expensive restaurant, leaving you wit
h the check, the public humiliation and no ride home. 

Dirt tastes wonderful?  Certainly does, if you’re a farmer moving from a poor farm to a rich one, or a bloke who has just hit the ground and avoided death by a millimeter.

Everybody can have babbling brooks and silky hair and delicious cuisine.  Your challenge is to look for new ways to say the same things, or combine a sense with a thing you’d never expect but which happens in real life.  Taste the pine sap, don’t simply smell the alpine forest.  Let the silk be clammy and uncomfortable.  How does love taste, or boredom sound, or eagerness smell?  Figure it out, then make it so.

In fact, I challenge you to make a list of clichéd sensory descriptions: babbling brook, running water, and so forth. Then pair them with new words.  Babbling trees.  Trotting water.  See what comes of it – could be something useful.

And if you’re at a loss, go experience the world with all your senses.  Next time you fall in love, focus on how it tastes.  Next time you drink wine, concentrate on how it makes your nose feel.  What does utter darkness look like?  What does bright light sound like?  Believe me, you can find associations that work.

The Babbling Brook Might Grate on the Troubled Soul

Remember that the emotions a character is going through is going to influence their sensory impressions.  You will not feel the same way about the babbling brook if it reminds you of your chattering coworker that you fled to the mountains to escape.  Speaking of those majestic peaks, they’re kinda broad at the bottom and tiny and bald on top, just like the boss who’s always looming over you, and those damned trees are clustered at the edge of the glade like all of those damned jackals who are just waiting for you to fuck up so they can pounce on your job…

See how that can take a clichéd pastoral scene and give it a whole new meaning?  Same sights.  Same sounds.  Same smells.  Completely different experience.  Completely different way of describing it. 
Conversely, in the worst moment of your life, that brief whiff of jasmine might be the only thing that gives you hope and strength.  A pleasant scent may have just become your life raft in the middle of a very stormy sea.

What I’m getting at here is that sensory impressions in and of themselves aren’t all that useful.  What really makes them pop is the character experiencing them, and what their experience of them says about themselves and their condition.

Sensory impressions are also an under-used way of showing changes over time.  For instance, when I was young and immortal, hot breezes and bright sun made me feel free and energetic.  Now, they just remind me that sun and dry air are aggravating the wrinkles developing all over my face, and sapping what little energy I possess to boot.  I loved the desert in summer when I was young.  Now, it just makes me weep for clouds, rain and cool green climes.

Snow was exciting.  Cold was crisp, sharp, tasty.  Now it’s blocking the driveway and making my work shoes miserably soggy, and as far as eating the stuff – well, I know how much pollution it had to fall through to get on the ground.  They don’t have a Brita snow purifier yet.

Could be just the opposite for a character of mine who grew up in freezing cold Minnesota winters and moved to the desert so they would never have to see a cloud or snowflake again.  Or for the middle-aged bloke who discovered a passion for skiing at age forty-five and owns an SUV to boot.  Snow?  What great stuff!  And so tasty, too!

I think I’ve given you enough to get you thinking about how the senses can do so much more than just show you’re aware that things get seen, sounds get heard, food gets tasted, flowers smelled, and various and sundry touched  You’re now ready to move on from simple embroidery to full-blown tapestry weaving.  And you’ll create a work that engages all five senses for the reader, and lingers on in the mind long after the final page is turned.