Thursday, August 18, 2005

Sense and Sensibility

Janet Finch has written an essay for The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing (an excellent book, by the way) on conveying the "other four" senses in fiction. Her main idea is that, traditionally, fiction tends to rely strictly on the visual sense, totally ignoring the other four. She makes the interesting point that in modern Western society and culture, our control of our physical environment has effectively cut us off from experiencing the world with most of our senses. Believe it or not, touch and smell are our most baseline senses. These senses have a direct, hard-wired connection to the brain. Our sense of touch is deadened because we (as she puts it) "smooth" our physical environment. We wear shoes and clothes, so we never feel the grass or rocks beneath our feet or the sun on our skin. We live and work in carefully climate-controlled environments. She also points out that even our culture discourages touch while encouraging vision: "look but don't touch," "stop touching yourself," "keep your hands to yourself."

Smell is bad, too. When was the last time you really smelled anything? We avoid any kind of strong smell, body odor, sure, but also strong-smelling foods cooking (this one in particular bothers me). When we do smell something, it's usually been covered up with some sort of perfume. There are few natural smells left that we seek out.

What about hearing? Try to describe your favorite music in words. We naturally tune out most of the sounds in our environment -- without this filter, we'd literally go crazy. I'm hearing impaired myself, but I became deaf at a late age (21), so I have a sense of what I'm missing. While I do hear sounds when I wear my hearing aids (and can even make out speech with my new digital hearing aids), they don't sound anything like what I remember. Church music, for example, sounds very much like cats screeching. Most unpleasant. Current music sounds about as bad. Interestingly, I still like to listen to the music that was popular before I became deaf. It sounds the same as the other, but my brain fills in the missing pieces so that I experience it almost as it's supposed to be. Strange the way the brain works.

Taste? We think about this one more often, since we are always looking for good-tasting foods. But again, try describing the taste of a cheeseburger in words. I'll bet you'll find that to be a serious challenge.

Finch proposes a number of exercises to build your awareness of your senses. She says that readers today live in a sense-starved world, so they hunger for it in their fiction. I haven't tried the exercises, but they look like they'd be well worth doing. For example, she suggests taking a fairly strong taste and first describing it in words. Then, she says to describe it using "synesthesia," using one sense to describe another (she points out that wine critics do this all the time -- how can a wine have a "sunny taste"?). Finally, she says to create a scene that carries the sense of that taste (but not, I gather, uses the actual taste). She proposes a similar exercise with smells, even recommending keeping small sample bottles of various scents as a "smell library." Psychologically, scent is the most powerful trigger of memory there is. If you can evoke the memory of a scent in your readers' minds, you can literally take them back to the place they associate with that scent. I distinctly remember smelling a first grade classroom when my son started school and instantly recalling being in first grade myself. Amazing experience...

Finch proposes exercises with all of the senses, and all of them are quite evocative and will have a profound effect on your own fiction writing. I plan to start working with these exercises myself at first opportunity!

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