My current project is a rewrite of the second book of my epic-fantasy YA. I had high hopes for this one… and then got back my beta notes. Haha, suffice it to say that they were exactly the punch in the nose that I needed. This story was nowhere near ready. (And thanks again to my awesome beta readers for keeping me from embarrassing myself in public!)
One of the biggest complaints I got was that I had too many layers of psychic distance between the POV and the reader. (To read more about psychic distance, among other things, see my post Getting Your Ducks in a Row!) And those complaints were spot on. There was far too much “she felt” and “she heard” and “she thought” going on, and far too little feeling and hearing and experiencing.
As I set about righting this terrible wrong, I figured I could simply clip out the offending sentence intro. Unfortunately, my problems were deeper than that. Even after I axed every “she felt like” I could find, I still wasn’t getting deep enough into the characters’ heads.
So what was I missing?
As I dug further into the problem, it became clear that, although my characters were thinking and feeling and talking and doing, they weren’t sensing, at least not in a way the reader could pick up on. They were moving through the world, but not really in it. Rather, the imagery in the story came in large chunks plopped in at the opening of a scene or a lull in the conversation, like I’d paused the story to read from an encyclopedia about the geographic formations they were hiking through. And by and large, they were sights with the occasional sound- very few scents or feels, and almost never a taste.
After a lot of thought and reading and editing, I’ve come up with these four rules for imagery.
- Keep it short. Little snippets, sprinkled throughout the entire scene, are best. (To steal and modify one of my husband’s favorites: [Description] is like manure. Spread it around and it makes the grass grow. Lump it all together and it stinks.)
- Keep it active. Avoid freestanding imagery. Instead, incorporate your descriptions into the action. Really want to mention your character’s super-cool Metallica concert tee? Mention it when he’s putting it on. Or when his rival tears it in a fistfight. Use descriptive verbs- screaming, thrashing, cackling, ripping.
- Keep it realistic. Would you be thinking about the color of a flower as you’re running from a bear? No. And neither would your character. Only mention the things she would actually notice in that moment.
- Keep it varied. Don’t use the same sense over and over again. We’re sensory creatures, constantly receiving input from our world, whether or not we’re consciously aware of it. So use all the senses. Let your character wake up smelling cinnamon, then walk on bare feet across the cold floorboards toward the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. Let your character see Mom pulling the cinnamon rolls out of the oven, and then finally, taste that first bite of warm, gooey sweetness.
Another thing to keep in mind is that we have more than those five senses. These others (temperature, balance, etc) often get lumped under “feeling”, but shouldn’t be overlooked. Is your character accelerating? He would notice that! Not sure what these other senses are? Behold!
But maybe not this one…
Anyway! Those are my new sensory rules! Do you have any others that you use? Like I said, I’m still working through a new draft, and I’d be glad of any tips you were willing to share. Let me know in the comments! Thanks, and happy writing!