Thursday, January 20, 2011

Engaging the Senses

How do you make your stories come alive for readers? One important factor is your ability to engage their senses. When you give readers some idea of how your fictional world smells, sounds, tastes, and feels, their vicarious experience becomes more vivid and compelling. (I left the sense of vision off the list above because most authors already describe how things look.) In erotica and erotic romance, of course, sensory details become even more critical, because sex is such an intensely physical activity and because arousal depends so much on non-visual stimuli such as touch and smell.

Personally, I find it quite difficult to come up with effective sensory descriptions. All too often, I sit there at my computer, a scene playing out in my mind, knowing how it would feel, smell and taste, but finding myself at a loss as to how to convey those impressions in language.

The fact is, words can never adequately capture the nuances of sensory perception. Actually, all you can hope to do is trigger the recollection of sensation on the part of your reader. Your words must act as cues that evoke a kind of recognition. Ah, yes, you want your reader to think, I know how my nipples feel when I'm turned on - like I'll die if someone doesn't touch me. I remember how my husband smells when we've been working out in the yard all day and he hasn't showered. I can call up the slightly bitter taste of semen, the salt-and-iron flavor of blood. I know the crinkly sound a condom packaging opening and the gasp of lube spurting into a palm. Actually, of course, conscious thought isn't what's going on. Descriptions evoke emotion via memory or imagination.

Starting this post (without really knowing where I was going) led me to consider what strategies we have at our disposal to work this little trick. It seems to me that there are three basic methods for engaging the senses: adjectives, metaphors, and mirroring.

Adjectives, of course, exist to describe. The trouble is, the most obvious adjectives are frequently overused. Again and again, I find myself describing skin as "smooth", voices as "low","rich" and "melodious", the scent of arousal as "musky", the taste of muscular flesh as "salty". Bring out the thesaurus, I can hear you say, and I do. However, it's not necessarily a better solution to use some other term that is less frequent in the language (and thus more difficult to understand) or perhaps not exactly right for the sensation I'm trying to convey.

Let's try "smooth", as an example. When I dig out my trusty Roget, I find three inches of entries in the index under "smooth". I guess "smooth-textured" is the closest to my meaning when I'm writing (for example) about the feel of a man's erect organ in one's hand or mouth. I flip to entry 287.9 (287 as a whole is "smoothness") and find the following:

sleek, slick, glossy, shiny, gleaming; silky, silken, satiny, velvety; polished, burnished, furbished; buffed, rubbed, finished; varnished, lacquered, shellacked, glazed; glassy.

Aside from silky, silken, satiny, and velvety, which are metaphoric, which of the above adjectives would be a better description for my hero's penis than "smooth"? It might be "slick", but only if I've already dispensed the lube (or I have a ménage going on). "Sleek" seems to me to have a different meaning, and also to be a strange description for part of a man (though you might talk about sleek hair). "Gleaming", "shiny" and so on refer to the sense of sight, not touch. I would imagine that my hypothetical penis would be "rubbed", but not in the sense mean here! I rather like the notion of a "laquered" penis, but that would have to be a sex toy, not the real thing!

So in fact, my hackneyed adjective "smooth" may be the best choice, at least among the options here. Sigh. (I'd be interested in hearing other suggestions.)

Metaphors work by explicitly stating or implying a comparison between the sensation being described and some other well-known or prototypical sensory experience. (Actually, an explicit comparison is called a simile, but the effect is the same.) "Silky", "satiny" and "velvety" are all metaphorical when used to describe skin. They refer to three different textures, associated with different types of fabric. I've used all three of them - a lot. In general, I rely on metaphor for the bulk of my sensory descriptions. Excitement is likened to electricity or fire. Pleasure is described as melting or boiling, compared to slow-pouring honey or breath-stealing race cars.

Metaphors offer a far wider variety of options for sensory description. First, one can draw on the full range of natural and artificial phenomena as potential sources of metaphor. Second, we already understand and describe our experiences in metaphorical terms. We talk about "burning" pain, a "heavy" heart, "biting" sarcasm or a "bitter" argument. Strictly speaking, these are all metaphors.

But metaphor can be overdone, too. I know, because this is one of my weaknesses. Over-reliance on metaphor to describe physical sensations can end up distancing the reader from your character, rather than bringing her closer. This is particularly true if the metaphor is "strained" (a metaphor in itself) - if basis of the implied comparison is not immediately obvious or possibly inappropriate. Overuse of metaphor can also make writing sound overly precious and "literary".

Mirroring is the third alternative for engaging the senses. Don't go looking up this strategy in your writing text books; I just came up with this name, though I'm sure many of you use this technique, consciously or unconsciously. What do I mean by mirroring? Instead of describing the sensations themselves, you describe the character's thoughts and/or reactions to those sensations.

Here's a short excerpt from my BDSM story "The Understudy". It uses all three techniques, but relies quite heavily on mirroring. I've highlighted in red the sentences where I'm using the character's reactions or thoughts to imply sensation.

Geoffrey positioned himself between my splayed thighs. “Remember, Sarah,” he said. “Be still.” Then he rammed his cock all the way into my cunt in one fierce stroke.

The force drove the breath from my lungs. The fullness made me suck the air back in. If I hadn’t been so wet, he would have torn me apart, but as it was my flesh parted for him as though sliced open.

My pussy clenched reflexively around his invading bulk, but otherwise I managed to avoid moving. His eyes, locked with mine, told me he approved. His hardness pressed against my engorged clit. A climax loomed, then faded away as he kept me there, motionless, pinned to the bed.

He pulled mostly out. My hungry cunt fluttered, empty for an instant. He drove back into me, harder than before. I strained against the bars, struggling not to jerk and writhe as his cock plunged in and out of my cunt like a pile-driver.

God, it felt good! His roughness somehow heightened the pleasure. I was his, to use and abuse. His fuck toy, as he had said. At that moment, that was all I wanted to be.

I am not holding my own writing up as a model here. I'm merely trying to illustrate what I mean my mirroring. There's very little direct description of sensation in this passage but I hope that it evokes the intensity of this experience for my heroine.

I don't know if this analysis is any help. It's still agony to come up with vivid, original sensory descriptions. I remember recently, for instance, I was trying to describe the smell of freshly brewed coffee. How would you convey that unique sensation? You recognize it in an instant, but what are the characteristics of the smell?

Warm. Rich. Dark. Earthy. Sweet? Stimulating. Mouth-watering (that's mirroring, really). Complex. Chocolatey (a metaphor). Roasted (but can you really smell that)?

I'm getting nowhere here. Maybe you'd like to give it a try. Maybe you'll be more successful that I am. And I'd love to know what techniques you use to engage your readers' senses!


Nina Pierce said...

Lisabet - I think you hit the proverbial nail when you said the author's job is to trigger the sensory memory in the reader, pulling them into the story. There really are only so many words for the feeling of skin or the flavor of a man. I like the passage you included above. Sometimes the "sense" is what's happening in the character's head.

Nice post.

Roseanne Dowell said...

I agree with Nina. You did an excellent job dscribing the scene and bringing the reader into the story. I don't writer (and seldom read) erotic/erotica, but no matter what we write, we need to use the senses. And describing certain elements, no matter how hard we try to do it differently, there's only so many ways to do it, as you proved with your description of freshly brewed coffee. Thanks for sharing.

Bianca Sommerland said...

Okay, give me a minute, I'm still thinking...

It's hard to really pick my work apart and say how I do it-although I know I do, quite deliberately at times. Sometimes I just sit there and put myself in the place of the character and try to relate their perceptions of what's going on around them. And sometimes I try to find an original way to do it.

Problem is, rarely does that 'original way' make it through my revisions. If I describe something in a new way no one can relate to, then the reader gets thrown out of the story.

You do a great job with the beautiful words you use though, Lisabet. I started reading Raw Silk and it's entrancing.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, all,

Thank you for your comments and compliments - I wish I felt as sanguine as you do.

I read some books that make everything so vivid and concrete. My own work seems wooden and cliched by comparison.

I know what you mean, though, Bianca. I don't really analyze these things while I'm writing. This tri-partite discussion was completely after the fact.

Word Actress said...

Hi Lisabet - happy 2011 pretty girl! I like the mirroring technique.
I really felt like I was there with her and it sure felt fun! I remember a writing instructor telling us to remember the senses, especially sound, which she said very few writers use or use well.

You can go inside on the page. Have your characters wish for something. Those are my two cents tips added!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Thanks for dropping by, Mary!

You're right. Sound is frequently forgotten.


J said...

Hi, Lisabet! I've enjoyed your blog so much that I've given you a Stylish Blogger award. Check out the details and grab your award here:

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