Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Appeal to the Senses — and Emotions

by Jodie Renner

Often, in my editing of fiction, I see dialogue on the page, but with no indication of where the characters are, what they’re doing, what they’re seeing or sensing, and how they’re feeling. In order for your story and characters to come to life, your reader needs to be able see what the viewpoint character is seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and smell, taste or feel along with him.

And we need to see/feel their reactions and thoughts, too. Readers won't empathize with or bond with a character if they don’t even know how she’s feeling and reacting. As Jack M. Bickham says, “Dialogue without any sense impressions, thoughts or feelings of the viewpoint character gets totally abstract; it stops making sense; the reader gets lost.”
So if you’ve written a page or more of almost all dialogue, or a page of exposition/description, here’s a list of what your reader needs to know, sense and feel to get involved and absorbed in your novel.

To bring your scene and characters to life, the reader needs to:
·         See what’s happening – but only what your viewpoint character can see – physical impressions of the scene. And best to just include relevant information – we don’t usually need a detailed description of everything in a room, for example.

·         Hear sounds around – anything your POV character can hear.

·         Smell anything that might be pertinent (bread baking, bacon frying, a dead body decomposing).

·         Taste (in general, or occasionally) some of the things the character is consuming, or know their reaction to what they’re eating or drinking.

·         Touch  – feel any possible tactile sensations of the viewpoint character.

·         Know any thoughts the protagonist or POV character might be having

·         Feel any emotions of the viewpoint character, to help assess and respond to what’s going on in the scene

·         Be aware of the scene goal and intentions of the viewpoint character, so we know his reactions to what’s going on, and why he’s acting as he is, or saying what he’s saying.
(Adapted from a list by Jack M. Bickham)

So if you want to write compelling fiction (and who doesn't?), don’t have your readers stumbling around in the dark, wearing ear plugs. Provide them with varied sense impressions of your viewpoint characters, and show them what the characters are thinking and feeling, too – their reactions to what’s going on around them. Then your readers will empathize with and care about your protagonist, and be truly engaged in his plight, worrying about him and cheering him on.
Resource: The 38 Most Common Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham.
Copyright © Jodie Renner, January 2012

For more info, see "Show Those Feelings -- and Reactions!", Jan. 15.

  Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook and Twitter


  1. A very helpful post, Jodie.

    Senses are so important, but even more so, is how they can impact a character's emotional state. Associations can take it yet a step further. In The Lion, the Lamb, the Hunted, my character, Patrick, is talking to his old high school love interest. He states: "She moved past me, and for a split second, I caught her scent. Something linen mixed with something floral, and in that instant, it was high school all over again." Something like this can draw the reader deeper into the character's frame of mind.

  2. Excellent advice as usual, Jodie. I have a collection of your posts that I refer to often as I'm writing. It's too easy to get caught up in the action/dialogue and forget the senses/emotions. I often add these details on the rewrite.

  3. Drew, I love your imagery! I was right there! You really know how to capture a scene and a mood. Sigh..

    LJ - that's great advice, to go back and enrich the sensory imagery and emotional responses after the first draft, to ramp up the vividness of the scene and bring the characters more to life.

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  5. A great list (as usual) Ms. Renner.

    I call what you're talking about "grounding." And there are all kinds of places where you can ground the reader. Setting, senses, emotions—all can help a reader feel "in the moment."

    Sometimes, when I'm in a hurry, I'll write a scene very much like a script: a lot of floating dialogue. Talking heads. I love it when I can leisurely return and layer the action with elements that create deeper meaning.

    Huzzah, Jodie!

  6. "Grounding" - Good one, Peg! Making it real. Sucking the readers into your story world.

    And great idea about just starting with the talking heads to get it all down, then going back in and adding the sensory details and emotions and reactions, etc. Can't wait to see your novel!


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