Hello, lovely ladies and classy gents!
I’m excited to share the first part of what is sure to be my richest series of posts to date. I’ll be taking a look at how writers can use the five senses to engage the reader. Today, we begin with sight. I’ve selected excerpts from the works of fellow bloggers (with their permission) to show examples of each sense used effectively, as well as excerpts from my novel-in-the-works (with my permission) to show examples of my attempts to use each sense effectively. Buckle up for some sensory stimulation, grab a cold bottle of Coca-Cola, and enjoy!
Storytelling is a visual art. If I tell you, “Upon hearing Kylie’s absurd Starbucks order, the angsty barista rolled his eyes and began preparing the meticulous drink,” you’re not likely to smell the coffee smell characteristic of Starbucks. You’re not likely to hear the indie-acoustic music characteristic of Starbucks. You’re not likely the taste the poorly prepared coffee characteristic of Starbucks. Instead, you’re likely imagining the situation as it is presented to you: visually. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sight is the foremost human sense, after all. Telling what we see is the default means of storytelling. If we were bats, we would put more weight in auditory description, but we aren’t (well, not all of us. I, for one, am the Batman). Because we tell stories this way (visually), it’s crucial that writers spice up their visual description. One can go about merely describing what a setting looks like, and at times, a functional description is all that is needed, but “functional” isn’t what I’m looking to ponder today. Stimulating is! I want to investigate how a writer can flood a reader’s mind with vivid images that vibrate pleasantly.
Stimulating sight through nuance:
To start, let’s take a look at an excerpt that Gordon Ramsay might call, “RAW!” Raw in a good way, that is. In the following passage from fellow blogger A.Z. Anthony’s short story, Kiss of the White Mistress Part 1, Anthony evokes a handful of powerful images by writing with nuance.
The stew settled into a calm heat, steam rising in thick curtains as Jao took a steadying breath and stared down into it. A shadowy silhouette stared back up at him. His face, he realized, but different. A ghastly mockery of what it once had been. This was not the face of the man his father had raised. Not the face of the man his little brother had grown up knowing. But it was his face now, like it or not. His confinement here had changed him, bent and hammered him into a fouler and crueler man. Soon, his captors would learn just how foul, and just how cruel. It was almost a blessing, Jao thought, that his companions were not here to see it. –A.Z. Anthony, Kiss of the White Mistress Part 1
Stunning, right? Stunning, but not flashy! This passage resonated with me the first time I read it because Anthony’s words conveyed the situation at hand so clearly. My mind produced a full image of what was occurring (Of course, the image was bolstered by the preceding and following paragraphs not included here). A deeper look reveals why this passage painted such a clear picture. Did you catch how Anthony relaxes his prose prior to Jao’s reflection? He uses the phrases, “stew settled,” “calm heat,” and “steadying breath” to lower the passage’s heart rate, so to speak. Then, he darkens the passage’s tone and introduces the reader to backstory regarding Jao’s haunting past. Jao witnesses his “shadowy silhouette” and begins to reflect. We see the words, “confinement,” “bent,” “hammered,” “fouler,” and “crueler,” all of which stand in stark contrast to the initial, relaxed details.
Anthony only described a man looming over a pot of stew, yet the muscles he added to the scene made the scenario engaging. It made it appealing to “look at.”
Stimulating sight through scale:
Likewise, a reader’s sense of sight can also be stimulated by vivid, sweeping images. Take this passage from my novel-in-the-works as an example.
From bow to stern, port to starboard, the Ping Dong was surrounded by boundless blue water. She was a moving island of red sails and black softwood cutting into the sea with an arrow’s intent. Her spread sails were shaped like dragon’s wings, or perhaps carp’s fins. In any case, her sails bore an unmistakable Chinese aesthetic. Even the Ping Dong’s hull was cut much like a sleek fish, curving like a bowl and paneled with red squares which seemed scales when laid atop the black planks that comprised the ship’s hulking hull. Creaking and groaning as she bobbed up and down swelling waves, the Ping Dong flew eastward in a forward manner, never slowing in the face of wind or tide.
Hopefully, this passage communicates a living image which you can visualize in great detail. This sort of method is fitting when one intends to introduce the reader to a new setting or a transition to a new time. One wouldn’t be wise to apply description this heavy to every page, but precise application can provide for grand results!
Stimulating sight through acute attention to one particular detail:
Have you ever read a story where the narrator attributes a name to a character who is unknown to him/her based upon a glaring physical attribute (ex: Katniss Everdeen naming an opposing tribute, “Foxface”)? This technique serves a writer well in that it helps him/her to identify a character shorthand, yet it also expedites the reader’s ability to form an image in his/her mind of said character. Think about it. If my character is about to fight five men, I could certainly take it upon myself to describe each opponent, but the description is likely to dissolve soon as the action starts. Furthermore, asking the reader to remember what is in all likelihood frivolous information simply isn’t cool. Labeling a character by a distinct feature clarifies what he/she is like. To me, “Foxface” characterizes far more than the tribute’s face. I perceive the character as being nimble and red-headed. The name sums up her demeanor as much as it does her face.
Final Point: One can stimulate the reader’s sense of sight by weaving subtle description, by painting broad illustrations, and by applying acute attention to small details. A healthy mix of these techniques can yield exciting results. Note, there are a plethora of other ways to play with sight. This post highlights only a few fine techniques.
What do you think? Did any of these methods/examples strike you as effective? Fellow writers, how do you go about stimulating a reader’s sense of sight? I love hearing from you!
As always, stay classy.