Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Artists -- and when I use the word here, I am not limiting it to painters, but also actors, writers, musicians, teachers, welders, carpenters, and anyone else who takes their craft up a notch -- tend to be watchers.

That is, they are able to observe the world around them, the people, places, things, and then use those observations to create something that others can use. Sometimes this is fanciful, other times practical; but a truly comfortable chair is certainly a work of art -- as is a gun-grip that perfectly fits your hand and gives you an instinctive point.

Different arts require different skills; a painter or a photographer is limited to the visual. An actor on a stage has sight, but also sound and gestures. An actor in a movie has those, plus the camera's tricks, that can include time and space. A writers has all these, plus the ability to read minds and reveal a character's innermost feelings. You can touch what a welder or a carpenter makes ...

As a writer, you have to get a feel for the things that readers want to know. And journalism opens the door. In any scene, you need to reveal as least some partial answers to the six classic questions: who-where-what-when-why-how.

Some of this isn't vital in the moment, so you don't have to go down a check list. Some of it can wait. Some of it can be revealed by giving the reader clues and allowing him or her to figure it out, but in the end, you have to address these. Who are these guys? What are they doing? Why?
And you can't just tell your reader, you need to show them. You do this with active voice, using sensory detail. Most of what we know about the world around us comes in through our eyes, and mostly, that's what you use, but you need those other senses. What does it sound like? Feel like to the touch? Smell like? Taste like?

These are the best-known, but there are other senses: nocieption (pain), equilibrioception (balance), proprioception (joint motion), kinesthesia (acceleration), thermoception (temperature), magnetoception (direction), and chronoception (a sense of time.)

And still more, if you get into the gut, swallowing, stretch receptors, bladder, bowels, and so on. Most of these small senses you can probably skip, but now an then, I have a character whose belly roils as if something alive is in it. Somebody who, when faced with imminent danger, needs to pee, or is nauseated.

Does an experience offer extrasensory perception? Like knowing that somebody is watching you, even though you cannot sense them with anything else? Ever "feel" somebody's gaze on your back, turn around and look, and spot somebody focused on you?

If you want your story to come alive, you need to give a reader more than one way to connect to it. Dean Wesley Smith says that you should use at least two senses on the first page, more if you have the skill to do it unobtrusively, and he's right. No, you don't want a catalog, by-the-numbers recitation of what everybody sees-hears-smells-feels-tastes every time you trot somebody on-stage, but you do need to consider that a palette has room for more than one color.

If a character in your story bites into a burrito, I don't want you to tell me that "it tasted good," and let it go at that. Why did it taste good? And what did it taste/smell/feel like?

(A total aside: Few years back, I was watching a cooking/travel show on the Food Network, starring Anthony Bourdain, A Cook's Tour. Bourdain, a chef who has lived hard and gotten around, wrote a tell-all book about the food industry, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, which, if you read it, will alter forever the way you eat out at restaurants.

Um. Anyway, in the show, Bourdain traveled around, sampling the local fare. In one epsiode, he was some place south of the border, and he ate, as I recall, an iguana taco. The camera was on him as he tasted it, and he smiled at the woman who made it, but his voice-over, done after the fact, was one of the funniest things I ever heard -- I may not get the quote exactly right, but the essence was:

"Worst thing I ever put in my mouth! I wanted to stick my head in a bucket of fire and jump off a cliff!"

That tells you how bad it was ...)


Scott said...

Yo, spidersilk boy:


Steve Perry said...

Of course. Though I assumed it would be cloned silk and not dragged out of the spiders by then.

Nataraj Hauser said...

I wonder about your two-word descriptor for proprioception (joint motion). As a contact improv dancer, I need this sense in abundance when in a crowded dance space. I prefer this wordier sentence from Wikipedia: "[Proprioception] is the sense that indicates whether the body is moving with required effort, as well as where the various parts of the body are located in relation to each other." [emphasis mine] My addendum is to stretch that to including awareness of where ones body parts are in relation to other obstacles (bodies at rest or in motion, or terrain features). This is no different than the skill needed when sparring.