Monday, March 4, 2019

Sensory Blending in Writing

In my last post, "Making Sense Out Of Sense," I talked about how to use sensory cues to drive emotional responses. When we offer our reader descriptions that do more than just fill in the scene, we bring them closer to the story; we engage them on another level. At that point, we have offered more than a complete sensory picture; we have created a full emotional picture. Who doesn't like that?

Writing is full of sensory overlap 
As we practice this technique and read about how other authors use it for effect, we will notice how some sensory cues don't quite fit. They work, but they work against the natural sensory matches. Music can be described with any number of sound descriptions - loud, gentle, off-key, rhythmic, etc. But what happens when we start describing sounds with other senses: Hot? Smooth? Sweet? Can a sound really have a temperature, texture, or flavor? No. Do those descriptors work? Definitely.

There is a medical phenomenon called synesthesia, where one form of stimulus triggers responses in another area of the brain. Sounds trigger physical sensations, numbers connect with colors, emotions show through other senses. Some say that everyone has some degree of sensory overlap, if they take the time to notice in. Ever been so mad that you "saw red," or so sad that you actually felt the color blue? That's a hint. And anyone who has had migraines knows that the pain literally looks like lightning shooting through their brain.

The important part of this discussion is that a good writer should look not only for how these descriptions show up everywhere, but look for what that evokes within the reader. Some things work, others do not, even though there is no natural connection. The term, "Smooth jazz" feels natural, but do other senses create a similar effect? Can jazz be velvet? Spicy? Bright? Aromatic? I am sure these sound like stretches, and yes they are, but they each do something to the subject.

Interesting note about synesthesia - mismatches can create intense confusion. For people who associate numbers with colors, math is very natural. However, if an addition problem is shown with colored numbers, and the numerical answer is a different color than the addition of the colors, these people get very confused. That may be a difficult idea to grasp, but let's look at it from a reading point of view.

If I write about a night at an R&B lounge, I can fill in plenty of details: the air heavy with cigar smoke, that malty mist of countless pitchers of beer being tapped, the mix of every kind of aftershave and cologne filling the room on a Friday night. Then the band steps up and breaks into a garlicky version of the Commodores' Nightshift.

Garlicky?

At that point, I am sure every reader stopped, backed up, re-read the line, then tried to think about how Nightshift even remotely related to garlic. At that point, I have lost the reader, and it doesn't matter what their opinion is about either garlic or the song.

As a writer, you might know exactly what it means, but if it doesn't have a natural move for the reader, it fails. Other taste cues might work just fine - sweet, spicy, etc. Even tasty might work, though it would be a stretch. However, it is a very sensitive area. Merging sensory cues can bring the reader fully into the scene, but one slip and they fall away from the world you are writing about.

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