Friday, March 1, 2019

Making Sense Out Of Sense

This weird thing always overcomes me when I catch one of those winter illnesses so popular here in the Midwest: my senses lose control. My hands and feet feel wrapped in sweaty boxing gloves and I can feel things crawling under my skin. My sense of smell finds confusing odors like rotting gingerbread and moldy juniper. Everything tastes like salty, sticky wax coating my mouth and sounds echo about like I am listening to ghosts calling to me while I sit in the bottom of a deep well. Oh - and those fever dreams are none too fun.

Now, as a writer, I should always treat these things as opportunities to grow. This experience and ones like it give me the capacity to write vivid, detailed experiences about someone boiling with fever. However, I am going to go a different direction with it this time, and talk about framing a scene with the senses.

Re-read my fever experience above. The sensations from my hands and feet might be something a reader can identify with immediately, maybe not. However, I put in a few words that would contribute an uncomfortable feeling. "Sweaty boxing gloves" might not be familiar to everyone, but "sweaty" has its own detail that makes everything a little awkward. Feeling things on my skin is one way to describe those delusional sensations, but the reader identifies closer with crawling things, and once those things are crawling under the skin, the reader is feeling them too.

What does rotting gingerbread smell like? Moldy juniper? Honestly, I don't know. However, rot and mold are very deliberate word choices because they trigger negative responses. Lots of rot has no odor, and some molds have a nice smell - ask someone at a cheese counter. When used in describing this feverish feeling, I take advantage of their worst stereotype to ruin otherwise nice things like gingerbread and juniper. The reader now knows that the smell was something nice that is now ruined by those nasty words.

The sound and taste descriptors also use this way of cheating our way to better sensory presentation. I'm sure we've all had that waxy sensation in our mouth after being sick, or hungover, or whatever. Was it also salty? Maybe. Did it taste sticky? Well, sticky isn't a taste. However, it is a tactile sensation that we can include to bring another facet to our waxy-mouthed state. And as for the hearing thing, well, anyone who has enjoyed the quiet hell of an ear blockage knows that echoing sound that mutes out your world. Making it into ghost calls puts on a layer that allows people with healthy ears to participate in the discomfort of the moment.

(Side note: Some of these examples borrow from a condition known as synesthesia, where one sense stimulates other senses in response. More about this next week.)

Sensory description gives us much more than the opportunity to fill in those aspects of our world. The word choice can also expand into mood and the story's thematic elements, and place a lot of information into the reader's mind. Even just one sense can fill in an entire scene, establish a complete setting, and create an atmosphere that will carry the whole chapter.

My only advice of what not to do - don't get one of those good old Midwestern illnesses to really feel how wild your senses can get. No matter how much you want to grow as a writer, the sickness isn't worth it.


2 comments:

  1. Too late. I started with illness in December and still have all the "yuckiness" that goes with them. I'm looking forward to learning about synesthesia as it relates to writing.

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    1. I hope you take all that yuckiness and turn it into writing

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