This week I’m talking about how to use and evoke senses within your story. As usual, this is personal opinion formed from experiences.
First, a very brief overview of the week’s topic. If you can set off a reader’s senses then you pull them deeper into your story. This will not happen with every reader because people are different. Yet, part of your goal with writing should be to trigger even a glimmer of a sensation. For example, writing about the aroma of coffee might get one reader to think they smell it. Yet, you do need a reader to have some prior knowledge for certain reactions.
Sight is one of the big ones because many people are visual. A common way to teach children is by example, which means they watch you do something before copying it. You pay attention through your eyes when driving, working, and relaxing. I know more people who are scared of becoming blind than deaf because they believe that it is easier to function that way. So you get the feeling that sight might even be the most important of the senses.
It’s also the hardest one to trigger because the reader is only looking at words. TV, comics, video games, and movies have the advantage here because they depend on sight. Books can win with the other senses, but this one is a challenge. If you describe too much then you’re accused of ‘telling instead of showing’. Keep in mind that every reader has a different ratio of showing to telling, so you’re bound to get this accusation at some point in your early career. Yet, it demonstrates that there is a major focus on the sense of sight. You don’t hear ‘smell, don’t tell’ because you want a reader to visualize the story before everything else. It’s simply how most of us are hardwired.
Some ideas on how to trigger sight:
- Do not forget colors. Try to make them more vibrant than red, blue, green, etc. Synonyms can help here. For example: ‘The gypsy with sapphire hair’ is more powerful than ‘the gypsy with blue hair’.
- When entering a new area or introducing a new person/object, take a little time to give them a visual presence. Hair color, build, eye color, physical ticks, scars, and whatever you can think of can be done for characters. These can be spread throughout their initial appearance instead of a big rush of information. The same can be done with a location where you do an initial description of a few lines then flush it out as the characters travel through.
- Describe the world through the eyes of the characters. They can say what they’re seeing if they’re a scout or you can use their inner thoughts to get an opinion on the area. This can be used to visualize other characters as well.
- In fantasy, you really need to put effort into giving a visual presence to monsters. This takes most of the senses, but it is easiest to start with a physical description and initial actions. Consider that most people have a specific idea of a dragon, so you have to work to alter that.
- Action scenes can be enhanced using all senses. Sight comes into play when a character sees someone get injured or is watching someone. Carefully craft these scenes to make the reader feel like they’re seeing this event unfold. You do have to be careful not to detail every move though. Describe the opening and the end, but never fear doing an overview in the middle like ‘minutes of back and forth ensue’.
Now, the level of visualization you’re aiming form can be determined by genre. In fantasy, I need to describe and evoke a lot because it is not Earth. I need to help guide a reader through a foreign land with only my words, so evoking sight first can help.
What tricks do you use to trigger sight in a reader?