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I am a writer, editor, reviewer and dance teacher based in Perth, Western Australia.

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The first novel of my trilogy, The Talismans, is available as e-books from Smashwords, Amazon and other online sellers. I do have paperbacks of The Dagger of Dresnia at the low price of $AU25 including postage within Australia. I also have a short story, 'La Belle Dame', in print - see Mythic Resonance below. Book two of the trilogy, The Cloak of Challiver, will be available again shortly. The best way to contact me is via Facebook!

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Want a copy? Contact me at satimafn(at)gmail.com

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The Cloak of Challiver
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Sunday, 21 October 2007

The Importance of Sensory Detail

This time last week I was feeling really despondent about the critiques I've been getting. For years, people have been telling me that my characters need more depth; build-up needs more tension; narrative needs more showing, less telling - and the one I forgot, which has actually turned out to be the really essential one - I don't use enough sensory description.

In despair I uploaded a new chapter to OWW with a plea that critters would not just tell me these things, but show me exactly where and how to include them. Now most critters balk at this. Re-writing another's work looks arrogant. No sensitive critter will do it. But why not, just now and then, put a practical spin on the adage we keep passing around like a mantra "show, don't tell"? In this case, it turned out to be the final ray of light that illuminated the room where my book lives.

Here's what happened: by (unwillingly, I might add) actually rewriting two sentences of my WIP, crit buddy Ursula demonstrated what people have been telling me for at least five years. Her review lifted me from down-in-the-dumpiness to up-in-the-cloudsness in the time it took me to read her advice. Look at the difference between these ways of writing the same thing.

My original version:
Her visitor strode across the room, swung his pack from his back to the floor and bent to kiss her cheek before taking the seat opposite hers.

Nothing wrong with that. It gets across what happened in a few succinct words. But look at Ursula's rewrite:
He brought a draught of cold air with him as he strode across the room. Shrugging free of his pack he tossed it to the floor and caught her in a hug. His skin was chill against hers as he bent to kiss her cheek.

In that brief passage Ursula caught the essence of what people have been trying to tell me all these years. All those criticisms were saying the same thing, as if my critters were coming into my story-room through four different doors; doors labelled Depth of Characterisation; Tension Building; Sensory Description and the old chestnut, Show, Don't Tell. At last, I've realised these are just four doors into the same place.

Adding sensory detail makes it easier for the reader to see the character close up. To walk a mile in another person's shoes we have to feel those shoes pinching. If we don't feel the sensation, we won't understand what s/he's going through. In experiencing what the character is feeling on the physical level, we more readily feel the tension not just in the character's body but in the situation s/he is in. And through that feeling and experiencing we are being shown, not being told.

To think of all the times I've been reminded to do these things and not understood what was needed! Dear critters, you must have been thinking that I was either dense or stubborn. Perhaps I am both, but most of all, I am obviously a slow learner. But now, please rejoice with me, for reading that passage Ursula re-wrote made me see that all my problems boil down to one: the need for More Sensory Detail.

So although I've written one and a half chapters this week I've actually spent more time editing; playing with the interconnectedness of those four persistent criticisms. Thank you, Ursula, for your kind help, and thank you all the people who were probably dying to re-write my stuff but hesitated because I never thought of asking you to. At last your patience has paid off, and hopefully you'll start to see an improvement in the functioning of all four of those doors into my story!

9 comments:

Patty said...

Satima,

It's all to do with immersion in the POV, seeing things through their eyes, not from a distance. I'm now reading a second novel by C.J. Cherryh. Highly recommended for this type of writing. Her immersion in the POV is absolutely stunning.

It's about feeling with the characters, feeling not only their emotions, but their discomfort, little insignificant things, such as being cold/tired/hot/needing to go to the toilet during an important meeting. This is what makes all the difference.

Satima Flavell said...

Finding the words without telling is what I think is hard. It's easy enough to say, "he shivered", but getting the sensation of cold across in a more personal way is more difficult.

Patty said...

I think you have to think on a slightly larger scale than that. It's more about what you describe than the actual words you use to do it.

In everyday situations, we hardly ever have only one concern on our minds. There are always things to distract us. The weather, some appointment we're keen to make, the choice or chance of the location where an interaction between characters takes place. Can someone else overhear? Is the location uncomfortable for one party? Has perhaps the other party meant something by choosing that location to have that discussion? Adding details like that makes it real. Letting the character wonder 'did I turn off the iron?' when sitting in an important court session, or wonder why it's so hot in the room, or why the opposing party has positioned the tables such that the character is looking into the light.

Satima Flavell said...

Hmm - starting to get into stream-of-consciousness territory!

Ruv Draba said...

Redirected here from your not real blog, just to check out your insight.

Yep, sensoria's important but I think that character perception is equally important.

If sensoria is about the individual sensations, perception is about how the characters understand and react to them.

My concern with the sensorial paragraph you cited is that the main character is in neutral while this guy arrives. Her eyes and skin are responding - her mind isn't.

Because this is an entrance and greeting scene the audience naturally wonders what she'd be thinking about him.

I seldom notice an entrance without welcoming or resenting it. I've never had someone kiss my cheek without having a visceral reaction to it. I might welcome it, tolerate it, or spurn it.

So to get her involved I'd prefer a passage like this:

Her remniscences vanished as the door burst open.

He brought a draught of cold air with him as strode across the room. Shrugging free of his pack he tossed it to the floor and caught her in a hug. Laughing, she threw her arms around the rough dewy wool. She tilted her cheek up to his as he bent to kiss her, suppressing a shudder at the sudden chill contact.


Congrats, Satima! Good luck!

Patty said...

I think Ruv illustrates what I mean really well. I would not advocate stream-of-consciousness at all (that is really one extreme of the thing I'm talking about). You need involvement of the character with the events. Not only what the character does or sees or smells, but what the character thinks about while this happens, and depending on the scene, the character can choose to engage or disengage with it, but that the character feels something about it is important.

Satima Flavell said...

Saving your lordship's grace, Ruv, I'm not actually getting anything on the character's thoughts or mental perceptions from your added words. Apart from having her reminiscenses chased away, she is still reacting on a purely physical level. Would you care to elaborate?

Anonymous said...

I'm not Ruv, but I can see what he's added...

"Laughing, she threw her arms around the rough dewy wool. She tilted her cheek up to his as he bent to kiss her" - she's welcoming him, she's glad to see him, she knows him probably intimately & loves and trusts him.

Sensory description isn't something I've understood before... but Ursula's example makes so much sense. Thanks for sharing :)

Satima Flavell said...

Aha! I see what you mean, Nonny-Mouse! Ruv's addition makes her an active part of the interaction and we see more fully her reactions to his embrace. Many thanks.

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