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Exercise: Involving the senses (take 3)

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: January 5, 2003
Reposted on: February 8, 2004
Reposted on: January 9, 2005
Reposted on: February 12, 2006

(This is an expanded version of a previous "Involving the senses" exercise first posted on January 7, 2001, then again in a revised version on January 7, 2002. You should review those exercises, and the other "involving the senses" exercises, at http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/pwarchive/topics.shtml#senses - pay attention to the wrap-ups in particular.)

All writing, in the end, is about sharing an experience - real or fictional. And we all experience life first of all through our senses - all our senses.

However, in writing, people tend to focus on two senses: sight and hearing. Even more, these are often given as description and dialogue, with an occasional sound effect - showing the experience from the outside rather than sharing it with the point-of-view character. Think of what happens every time we step outside. A flood of sensations rushes in: we feel the air temperature, the breeze, the ground under our feet. We smell, perhaps, flowers and fresh-cut grass, or the exhaust from our neighbour's lawnmower. We see that the sun is out, even as we feel its warmth on our skin. We hear a car go by, a dog bark, our own footsteps. Instantly, we recognize the familiar setting, while noticing any changes.

When we ran the first "Involving the senses" exercise, I wrote in my wrap-up that we had only scratched the surface. In particular, there was still a tendency to tell rather than to describe what the character was experiencing - look out for words like "feel" or "sense". As well, before posting your exercise, review it to make sure you did involve all the senses.

Here is the exercise: in 400 words or less, describe a character entering a location (familiar or not) and experiencing that location through all the senses. Let us see what effect those sensations have on the character. Does the character feel welcome or like an intruder? Relaxed or worried? Pleased or displeased? (Remember - let the description of the sensations tell us that!)

Do not try to write a full story, just a single scene, to ensure that the focus remains on involving the senses, not on story-telling.

When critiquing a submission, highlight good uses of the senses (especially senses other than sight and hearing), and point out opportunities to add sensory information.

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: January 12, 2003

Another interesting week of submissions and critiques. Once again, the various submissions demonstrated the power, and the pitfalls, of involving the senses in our writing. Certainly, involving the senses can help a scene come to life, making the reader feel "there", involved in the scene.

Unfortunately, doing this correctly is not trivial. Too often, we use a descriptive word or phrase, like "hot" or "smooth glass", and think this is enough - but those are too generic, too vague. For example, saying a cup of coffee was hot isn't enough - how hot was it, how did the character experience that? Was it just hot enough, or dangerously, painfully hot? Did that first sip taste good, or burn the lining of the month and cause the drinker to spit the coffee out? There's no way just using the word "hot" can convey that - it doesn't evoke the experience.

I still believe one of the key assets of the successful writers (from Stephen King to Marcel Proust) is the ability to visualize the scene they are writing in great detail, to *live* that scene in their minds, then to put the important details down on the page to allow the reader to do the same. So keep working at this - when writing a scene, try to imagine exactly how thing seems, feel, smell, sound, to the characters involved. Then remember to put the most significant and evocative details down in writing (too often, we forget to write down what we are picturing, because of course, it's obvious to *us*!)

The submissions this week did a great job of trying (and often succeeding) to do this - even with the difficult constraint of having to fit all five senses into a few words (in our usual writing, we will ideally use all of the senses, but not necessarily all at once.) So, good work everyone!


Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: February 17, 2004

I always enjoy running the "Involving the senses" exercises, and this week was no exception.

As always, the submissions and critiques allowed us to learn more about the opportunities, benefits, and pitfalls of using all the senses. Well done, it adds richness to the text and increases the reader's involvement with the characters.

I did observe how much the success of involving the senses depended on how it was tied with the main character's point of view. As an example, we can't just add the smell of flowers out of the blue - this will only work if that smell is meaningful to the character(s). For example, think of the difference between a woman receiving roses from a lover, and a mother smelling the flowers at her child's funeral...

Great work everyone - I look forward to running more "Involving the senses" exercises soon!


Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Sun, 16 Jan 2005

This is always one of my favourite exercises to run, for a number of reasons, and it always yields interesting results.

One of the things I noticed this week is how hard it is to involve all the senses in a short piece and not coming up with something that looks like it was forced. In our regular writing, of course, we'll have more room and more freedom to introduce various senses - but the key point of the lesson, I hope, is to remind us not to forget to do so!

I think it's also in the nature of the exercise that some of the submissions overdid it. Some submissions were so full of sensory detail as to be overwhelming; others relied too heavily on adjectives or labels, diluting the impact. To me, the submissions that worked best were the ones that relied on one or two concrete words to achieve the effect. In particular, the most successful submissions were the ones that described how the character perceived the sensory input, rather than describing those directly.

Everyone did do well, though, in various degrees, and I hope we've all been reminded of how much sensory details can add to our writing.


Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.