February Feature Article
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A New Sensation: Keys to Sensual Writing
by Julie Anne Parks

Readers deserve to be treated well--rewarded--when they pick up your book.  How can writers meet that expectation?  We do it by writing fresh; by writing words that excite readers; by writing rich characterization and plots; and by encompassing sensory perception into prose so our readers don't end up with one-dimensional stories.

Our senses often get ignored in fiction.  Ninety percent of written sensory input is visual, with an occasional mention of how something sounds.

Engross your readers in your story so he's miffed if the phone rings, or she stays awake wondering what happens next.  Much depends on plot, but more depends on how riveting readers find your story.  Sure, suspense helps.  But readers must "experience" your story on a personal level.  This is what produces the emotional intensity that qualifies a book as a page-turner. 

Translation: your reader has to BE there.

If all of your reader's senses are engaged, he's there.  He's participating.  He hears the distant door slam, feels your protagonist's clammy palms, or smells the spicy aroma of geraniums.

Involve your reader's senses in unobtrusive ways.  Refer to tastes, smells, textures and sounds readers can relate to.  Will women readers relate to: "The water had the slick smell of WD-40"?  Probably not.  Use common life experiences to employ your reader's imagination.

For example, perhaps your novel is set on the Virginia coast, but your reader is John Jones from Des Moines, who's never left Iowa, and perhaps never will.  He's never walked a beach and heard the waves crashing against the shore or the squawk of seagulls.  He's never felt air so thick it can choke a man.

You might describe the scene like this:

"Frank walked past beach houses squeezed together like birds on a telephone line.  Wind chimes tinkled from an unseen porch, and the air was rich with the scents of salt spray, Coppertone lotion, and hot asphalt."

Readers everywhere see birds lined up on power lines.  Most people have heard wind chimes, and even if they haven't smelled sea air, they've probably smelled hot asphalt and Coppertone suntan lotion.  You've presented readers with perceptions they can identify with.  You've set up your scene by involving three of your reader's senses (sound, smell, and sight).

Involving sensory perceptions in your scene setups requires careful work. There are dangers in sensory overload: 

If your writing is too heavy-handed, you draw attention to your method.  That's never good.  Describing what a character sees, hears, smells, touches or tastes also risks telling rather than showing.  You've all heard the rule before: show; don't tell.  Show your character's experiences through that character's actions.

Have you ever written a sentence similar to: "He wore a blue shirt with a button-down collar and a pair of khakis"?

Yawn.

You're characterizing your protagonist as a conservative fellow.  But you're also telling us using only visual imagery.

Try, " He ran his finger beneath the collar of his button-down shirt, as if to let in some air, then pinched the crease in his khakis to keep it crisp.  He hoped the stale locker room scent came from another candidate."

Now what have you said?  We still see he dresses conservatively; but we also "see" he's so nervous he's sweating; he's self-conscious; and he's not alone.  Using the senses of sight, smell, and touch, and describing the scene using common, everyday words, you've plunged your reader into this character's mood--in just two sentences.