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Writer's Tip: Painting with Sense

With this post I'm jumping into the 'show, don't tell' debate. A lot of young writers get this advice so I thought I'd describe how I accomplish this. I can honestly say, that my first draft rarely does. It's usually all 'tell'.

In my second draft, I focus on moving from 'tell' to 'show'. I think of my first draft as an outline. A sketch of events, scenes, moments in the story. By the second draft, I'm looking for places to add sensual detail. I also limit any scenic descriptions to 3 paragraphs and find ways to place any other visual descriptors in dialogue. Then I apply similar rules includes descriptions of 'inner landscapes', ie; character's emotions and internal dialogue. Using the senses in each scene brings the events on the page to life, and helps engage the reader with my story.


Visual

When filling in visual details, similies and metaphors are useful. It's also helpful to demonstrate a visual link. For example, with an artist heroine who's poorly circumstanced, perhaps all her still life works end up looking like rotted fruit, despite her best efforts. Perhaps she can only afford wasted food to paint. Describing the creation of a literal rotting-fruit image can serve as a larger symbol.

Scent:

Scents are one of the most effective ways to ground a reader within a scene. With our artist heroine, what do her paints smell like? Is there anything to the idea that she's painting overripe peaches because she feels 'on the shelf'? Does her studio smell like lush fruit past its prime? Perhaps this sparks a memory of an old attraction who wed another. The reader can know the sweet warmth of fruit that's lost its firmness.


Sound:

Sound is one of the most evocative senses for me in any novel. I embrace descriptors of the way my characters speak. The lustful whisper of a lover, the bellow of a bully, the quiet weeping of a jilted lady in a kirkyard...all excellent moments to paint with words.

A great deal of a character's emotional state can be shown (instead of told), by highlighting what's going on with their voice. A lady embarrassed by her sensual response to her hero, speaks breathlessly. Her speech lowers in register. If the hero is likewise affected, he replies in a murmur, his tone lower again. Each will notice this response in the other, hearing the siren's call of love and desire.

Taste:

This sense offers the writer such wonderful opportunities to add scene-specific details. Taste applies to food and drink of course (very useful in historical world-building), but it also describes the way a lover's lips feels on another lover's mouth. Warm, reminiscent of rich, red wine. Mixed, most likely, (as Regency wines so often were). I do take care to ensure my lovers' mouths reflect anything they've recently consumed. Coffee, or wine. Even fruit and tobacco (which, honestly, requires some imagination on my part). I am not a smoker and not a fan, but Regency England knew nothing of carcinogens and my characters are not 'me'.


Touch:

Describing my character's experience of touch is one of the favourite parts of any story I write. These scenes don't always have to be sexual, but they ought to be sensual. Running fingertips over the velvety petals of a rose, for example, shows a prelude to a reminiscence before reuniting with an old love. Of course, an ardent love scene relies on showcasing touch to make the scene work. There is the satin-softness of skin, or is it more like velvet? Her hair on his chest, his whiskers against her thigh...touch is beautifully evocative and lends itself to showing.

If you need a reference when you're writing, think back to the movie scene in 2005's Pride & Prejudice - Darcy's hand after assisting the girl he loves into a carriage. Yes, the lack of gloves is scandalous and inaccurate. The point is, there's touching and the viewer feels it. The hand flex afterwards, the loss of her touch, its absence, is powerfully evoked as well.


Which sense do you use most when you write your scenes? Which senses show the detail in your stories?

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