Senses Enrich the Story

Senses Enrich the StoryWe all know senses are important, right? Sight, scent, taste, sound, and touch are as important to our characters and stories as they are to us. Our senses allow us to take in the world around us, but they also help transport us into memories.  What does the smell of rain or the sound of a train mean to your character?

Senses enrich scenes

Just as beats help break up and give flesh to the bones of dialogue, senses give clues to atmosphere and the character’s state of mind. “Elsa perched on the edge of the chair as her hostess poured tea,” is clear enough. But “Elsa perched on the edge of the chair, hoping the proffered tea was pungent enough to mask the  medicinal smell of the sick room” gives us a completely different impression. Or “Elsa perched on the chair as her hostess poured tea, the scent of which brought her back to her grandmother’s kitchen.”

Other senses could work the same magic. Perhaps the hostess has tremors our character notes, or she’s wearing a floral dress that reminds our character of someone from her past. Is there a mantle clock that chimes or does the heated porcelain of the tea cup trigger a response?

Senses invoke memory

Some great flashback scenes begin with a sense that sweeps the character into a memory. “Tom remembered that day clearly” is a statement. “The heat from the asphalt rose through Tom’s oxfords and  produced a shimmer on the horizon, just as it had that day when…” Or “The hot pavement and heated air brought her face clearly to mind. “Let’s go swimming,” she had said.”

Scent is a major player in memory recall, but so is music. The right song or snatch of lyrics easily transports me to a moment in my past and does so for characters as well. A certain touch can also bring the past sharply into focus, especially if the memory is an unpleasant one.

Senses improve recall

Police and therapists use a technique called “the cognitive interview” to help victims and witnesses to access their memories with greater detail. In this type of interview, the person is put into the scene by recalling what their senses were registering at the time. Once the memory of time and place is firmly established, the recall of the interviewee is usually sharper and smaller details are more easily remembered. You can try this yourself by recalling what your senses told you in a particular memory before the main event happens. If your character is a witness, victim, or investigator, this is a tool you can use.

Other senses

I would argue that there are other senses important in the scheme of things. The sense that air pressure has changed could indicate a door or hatch has just been closed or opened. Temperature, air flow, gravity, motion, and others also affect your character. We are aware of more than we realize and adrenaline heightens that awareness.

Try to give a specific when using a sense. Rather than tar smelling hot, does it smell oily, burnt, or heavy? Tea can be delicate, flowery, herbal, pungent, earthy. Touch can be grazing, reassuring, frightening, directional, or emotional. A sound can be grating, grinding, soft, metallic, sighing, startling, or out of context/unexpected. Taste doesn’t only relate to something put on the tongue. Defeat can taste bitter. Fear might taste metallic. Lemonade could taste like childhood.

Sight is the sense we use most often with our characters since we are essentially reporting what they are seeing and doing. But sight is richer when not used alone, and how your character process what is seen is unique to them as well as mood dependent.

If you (or your character) had to lose one sense, which would you choose and why?

You Know You’re A Writer When…

You Know You're a Writer When...…you’ve spent the last forty minutes reading about the fire resistance of normal bedding to see if your character can use it to escape a burning building.

…you can’t remember the last thought you had that wasn’t immediately followed by “that would be a great line for X”.

…you’ve written the same line sixteen times because you can’t work out what the next one should be.

…you’re hoping that the seventeenth iteration will fire up the neurons.

…you get excited glancing at your word count because you’ve finished the day on a round number/just passed the exact half-way mark in your novel/realised your daily word count has been 666 for the last three days running and you’re considering calling in an exorcist.

…you see your total word count as a high score.

…you’ve just spotted that you’ve used the same sentence at least twenty times in your first draft.

…you name a walk-on character after the first thing on your right so as not to break your flow.

…you know you’ll change that name later so it won’t matter.

…you don’t change it because it has an exotic sound to it that fits the character.

…you start researching foreign languages because Mr Toaster sounds a bit weird but Monsieur le Grille-Pain could be a secret agent.

…your wife/girlfriend demands to know who “Alyssa” and “Victoria” are.

…you go back and check every word in the list to make sure it’s correctly spelled.

…you know someone will spot the one word you missed and it’ll really bug you.

…your first 250 words come so slow it’s like watching paint dry but the next 1000 pass in seconds.

…you still pause briefly to consider if “Who” actually begins with a “H”.

…you analyse every situation you encounter with “what would X do if they were here now?”

…your first action upon witnessing something horrific/funny/terrifying/weird is to reach for a notebook and pen.

…you spend hours editing descriptions of murder victims so that they don’t sound too much like that aunt everyone hates but would be instantly recognised by that mole on her face.

…you can recall the dates of your characters’ birthdays more readily than those of family members.

…you threaten unspeakable evil when you discover someone else has used your intended book cover.

…you’re only leaving the house for twenty minutes but your bag still contains a pen (plus one spare because, well, you never know), a pencil (in case both pens run out of ink), a pencil sharpener (in case the pencil breaks), a notebook, and a spare notebook (in case of aliens).

…despite carrying all of the above, you record all the ideas you get on that note-taking app you have on your phone.

…you struggle with dialogue when sitting down to write but the instant your head hits the pillow, you’re suddenly Martin Luther King Jr.

…the realisation hits that nothing you make up is crazier than the world outside of your head.

…you compose stupid lists like this instead of actually writing.

Lets keep this going by adding your own in the comments.

Developing Personal Characteristics for Your Character

What's In Your Character's Wallet?Some characters are shy or too private to get to know easily. One way to get to know your character and develop their personal characteristics is to use what I call the “What’s In” technique. Just ask the following questions. Think about the answers and take notes.

What is in his/her closet? What kinds, styles, and colors of clothing hang there? Any memorabilia stored on the shelves? Is the closet organized or chaotic? Wire, plastic, or wooden hangers? Are there dry cleaning bags? Anything kept hidden at the back? What about dresser drawers? What is kept beneath socks or winter sweaters? What sort of undergarments and sleepwear do you find? In what colors and fabrics? What do these spaces and clothing tell you about your character?

What is in his/her purse or wallet? Look in every pocket. Are there photos? Phone numbers? Ticket stubs? How many credit cards? What are their limits and balances? What membership cards do you see? Stores, restaurants, gym? Is there a library card? Security access passes? How used or worn are any of the cards? Did you find anything unusual? Is the wallet/purse always on your character’s person or casually stored? What is the quality of the wallet or style of handbag? What do these things tell you?

What is in his/her car? Start with make, model, and year. What color is the car? What color is the upholstery? Is it cloth, leather, or vinyl? Is the car messy or fully detailed? What’s in the glove box? The console? Which radio stations are programmed? Are there luxury add-ons like GPS, Onstar, satellite radio? What’s on the floor on the passenger side? In the back seat? How does your character feel about the car? Is it a tool or is it a status symbol? Are they regular about maintenance? Does the car have any mechanical or electrical issues? How common is the make and model in the same town? What can you learn with this information?

What is in his/her desk drawers at work? (If the character doesn’t have a job, substitute a junk drawer). Are there any office supplies your character hoards such as paper clips, pens, or staples? Where are personal items kept? What sort? What sort of snacks are in the drawers and how fresh? Is the desk shared or used only by your character? Is it organized or messy? Sit at the desk and describe all you see. Open each drawer. Look in each cubby. Examine the desk top and every item on it. What does your character reveal about personality and attitude about the job?

If you like, extend questions like these to other areas of your character’s life such as medicine cabinets, bedside tables, pockets, lockers, backpacks, whatever you can think of that might contain personal, professional, and hobby items belonging to your character.

What is the most unusual item in your wallet or purse? What does it say about you?

Write or Robots will take over the World: An Evening with Chuck Wendig

(c) Amanda Headlee

(c) Amanda Headlee

At the time of this writing, it is 9:09 pm EDT on August 17, 2015. My brain is fueled by espresso and California Tortilla’s Chips & Queso (that shit is liquid gold). I just spent the evening listening to Chuck Wendig talk about his amazing new novel, Zeroes. So let it be known that it’s about to get all crazy up in here!

First off, if you don’t know Chuck Wendig, stop reading this now and go to his website, Terribleminds. You’re welcome.

Now that we have established that and you are more privy to his world of writing, let me start by saying his book launch of Zeroes at the Doylestown Bookshop was Earth shattering. Not only was the night filled with an except reading from his latest novel along with a Q&A session, but he discussed his writing process, the imminent possibility of A.I.s taking over the world, and terrifying realities of the interconnectivity to EVERYTHING via the Internet. Needless to say, the little story minions in my head started conjuring up ideas and I had to poke them with a sharp stick to get them to shut up so that I could hear Chuck speak.


His views on the horror genre closely resemble mine, and to hear that validation was something that I am very thankful for. As I have said in other articles on the topic, “horror” is not necessarily a genre, but an emotion. It can transverse all genres and rear its ugly head when least expected. A tactic, that when properly used, will keep a reader fully engaged with the story and embed a scary memory in their brain. It is the most primal emotion that humans feel:

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. — H.P. Lovecraft

A strong tool that all writers should equip in their arsenal for world domination via books. Chuck is one who wields horror like a young, charming psychopath who found a shiny, new machete in his daddy’s dresser drawer and has a vendetta against his hometown. He meticulously plans out the invocation of fear in his stories. All actions of “horror” are precisely placed to generate the most explosive experience of terror in the reader. Using horror in his work is like “turning the volume from 0 to 10”. The fear tactic is expertly played.

Authenticity vs. Fact

Chuck indicated that research is tricky, and while important (especially when writing on a topic that you are not a subject matter expert), with fiction there is an allowable amount of leeway. In most cases, authenticity is favored more than cold hard facts. True accuracy is not always riveting. Case in point, his novel Zeroes delves into realm of hacking. Hacking itself, for an observer, can be rather boring. Hacking in the real world is someone sitting at a computer screen for hours upon end stringing together lines of code. Chuck equated this to an author being observed writing a novel. Watching paint dry is more exciting — unless you spying on a writing Harlan Ellison sitting in a certain 5th Avenue bookstore window. TV shows, like the CSI types, tend to play up the suspense and make hacking look like a quick push of a button to blow up a helicopter or cut the electric grid in a major metro area. Unrealistic portrayals. Scenes like these are where authenticity is favored over factual content. The authenticity is more exciting than reality.

One is writing fiction, after all. So some fictitious license is acceptable. Just as long as your creative spin is believable.

The Thunderdome

How do you come up with your ideas? Chuck’s response, “How do you get them to stop?”. The plague that most writers experience: over influx of ideas that traumatizes the brain because we can’t find the time / energy / finger strength to write down every tidbit. Chuck alluded to his selection process for choosing an idea as if his brain were the Thunderdome. Whichever idea survives the odds against the others (the idea that resurfaces) is the victor and tends to be the one worthy for a story. A good analogy for any writer who struggles to pinpoint one concept to follow through on: choose the idea that resurfaces over and over again. That may be your brain’s subliminal way of saying, “Hey dummy, pay attention to this one. It’s some good stuff!”

Evolve your Writing Process

Towards the end of the evening, Chuck made a rather keen remark about the writing process that all writers (nonfiction, fiction, business, etc.) need to heed:

Writers should always modify their writing process

As writers, we are continually evolving and adapting to the world around us. Thus, our writing process should grow along with our evolution. The writer we are today is not the same writer we were 10 years ago nor will become 10 years in the future. Your writing process must be agile and reflect your growth. A dormant, unchanging writing process will never lead to success. There is nothing learned or gained from stagnation. The biggest take away from Chuck’s discussion is to allow your writing process to be fluid. It should be adaptable and agile, morphing into a form that differs year to year to reflect the amazing writer that you are evolving into.

This is his best piece of advice from the evening.


I lied. The best piece of advice is: “Don’t kick the robots. They remember.”