Do You Feel What I Feel?
The last few bits and bobs from The 25 have dealt with creating an experience beyond the words of a story. It’s the difference between standing in line at the DMV and standing in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal Studios — they both get you from Point A to Point B, but the latter immerses you in an experience while you get there. (Granted, going to the DMV can be an experience as well, but not one that makes you want to go back and do it again. I think that’s why in Maryland our registration is good for two years.)
The next in line is this:
20. Evoking Emotion
Hemingway spoke of a story’s “sequence of motion and fact.” James M. Cain discussed “the algebra of storytelling: a + b + c + d = x.” What they meant was a sequence of incidents in a story that, if arranged correctly and dramatized vividly, will create a stimulus that compels the reader to feel the emotion the author is trying to create. Talking about emotions won’t compel a reader to feel them. “He felt sad” won’t make a reader feel sad. Instead, the reader must be made to feel the situations in the story, to experience what the characters experience; as a result, just as a sequence creates emotion in the characters, it will do the same in the reader. This is a case of stimulus-response.
Writers can achieve this effect if they take the sense of sight for granted and emphasize the other senses, thus crafting multidimensional descriptions and scenes. Details of sight alone almost always create a flat effect, so when revising, take a few minutes to make sure that each scene has at least one other sense detail. In this way, the reader becomes immersed in the story, feeling it rather than being told about it.
This is exactly what I was talking about in my post earlier this week — in good writing, the words disappear. The way to get your readers to care about your characters is to layer flesh on their bones and sinews, to fill them with thoughts and feelings that readers connect to. Writing is the ultimate 4-D experience because it allows you to do literally anything. You can take your readers anywhere in the universe, create new worlds, or show them another side of this one. The trick to that, as Morrell says, is to take the sense of sight for granted and focus on the other ones.
Close your eyes for a moment. What do you hear? I hear the whir of cars on the main road outside of my apartment building. I hear an insistent tapping inside one of the living room walls that never seems to go away. I hear the buzz of our air purifier and the click of the button on my husbands jeans in the dryer. All these little noises add texture to the scene, even a mundane scene. The tapping in my wall is most likely not a ghost or a gremlin or some other supernatural critter (if it is, it’s a friendly one saying hello). These are just noises. Silence is extinct in this world, or at the very least on the endangered species list alongside my beloved tigers.
If two of your characters are having an awkward conversation, show that with the little noises of the world around them between dialogue points. Talk about awkward — you can build the tension of an uncomfortable conversation if you use their other senses.
What do you feel with your eyes closed? I feel a light stirring of air from the ceiling fan in the dining room, which my husband always leaves on. Say your characters are fighting, and he storms out of the house. She sits in the quiet, empty room with only the breeze from that fan as a reminder he was ever there.
What do you smell? I smell a whiff of fabric softener, a touch of sugar cookie from my tea, a little cinnamon from our air freshener, and the earthy, sheepy scent of wool from my blanket. Maybe your character catches a tiny whiff of stale sweat, or the scent of perfume so soft it’s almost a memory. Scent is powerful — it can evoke as much in writing as it can in life.
Taste also doesn’t have to be neglected. The chalky, dry mouth that accompanies terror, the herbal, almost tingling taste of horehound lozenges that remind you of grandma — taste can bring your story to life as well.
Anyone can tell you that the sky is blue, but if you lull your readers into your story with the singing of the crickets, the cool grass beneath your back as the horizon darkens into twilight and the thermos of hot cider that warms your insides with a sweet tang — do that and you’ll keep them coming back for more.