Writing Reality: Sensory Seasoning

05/08/2013 at 19:53 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

There’s nothing I enjoy more when settling down to read, than coming across the sort of sensory delights that work to enhance a literary style; a welcome handshake between author and audience. An image will be passed via metaphor and juxtaposition, and it’s left up to the reader to follow the trend of themes, for heightened enjoyment. There’s no better feeling than making that connection; the “aha!” moment, and (for me anyway) smile of real pleasure, at having my mind expanded that little bit more.

More often than not, it’s a case of drawing the audience into a sensory mindscape; giving them word-images to pick over and enjoy en route. As someone who indulges far more in the abstract, in setting and concepts, such literary techniques as metaphor and juxtaposition help me to avoid boring myself to death when writing. I love splicing words and their relevant connotations together, to see what works.

Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors to employ these sensory-themes. Probable Future has an unnerving plot, to be sure, but for me the real focus lies in the sheer beauty of tasting her words, the images they evoke:

“Today there were huge cumulus clouds in the hazy sky, and Stella felt the sultry dampness in the air. Everything at Cake House was faintly wet, the blankets and the carpeting. All night long, Stella had heard the peepers on the shore and the whisper of reeds.” – page 87, Probable Future

The plot of Probable Future revolves around such themes as hasty actions, indecision, natural magic and real lives. Rather than tell the audience in bland sentences, Hoffman conveys the themes with references to spring fever, heat haze, the colours green and gold, as they are primaries of the month of March, in which the story is framed. The universality of March-madness is one a reader can grasp when taking on board the often erratic actions of the characters. Wild weather and water, act as conduits for the suspension of disbelief required in small acts of word-magic.

“Before long, there would be sheets of green rain of various different consistencies: fish rain, rose rain, daffodil rain, glorious rain, red clover rain, boot polish rain, swamp rain, the fearsome stone rain, all of it washing through the woods, feeding local streams and ponds.” – page 120

This is no place for referencing dusky desert heat, nor yet the hard blandness of a concrete setting. The settings of the novel, its references, fairly drip with mould and sultry-dark water; they filter quietly through descriptions of the furniture in Cake House, bubble away like an underwater stream beneath the lives of the characters.

With your own written work, try to keep to a steady flow of themes and relevant imagery. Don’t suddenly change tack because something sounds good in your head; if it doesn’t fit the context, it doesn’t belong. For example, looking at this picture, I’d describe it as a gunmetal sky in a modern context:

 photo a8c520d9-1375-4901-9361-2cabc5c03f04_zpsd0049c8f.jpg

But this wouldn’t be so fitting of a genre where firearms were nonexistent. It’d only throw the reader out of whack, a real fourth-wall breaker. Instead, when trying to depict something like this sky full of cumulus, in words:

 photo 98722d72-1ae8-400a-bd0f-4f141f659744_zps192bfb51.jpg

I’d use archaic language and imagery; “burnished shields”, springs to mind.

“Gunmetal sky” came about through an inherent wariness of nimbus clouds; as a permanent pedestrian, I know what they can unleash. There’s the element of danger in potential lightning strikes, tumultuous rain. There’re the darkly gleaming colours, reminiscent of a gun barrel. And of course, with reference to a firearm, the connotations of injury and death.

So, all of the above can be nicely sandwiched together in a couple of loaded words. This frees up my writing space, and a reader’s time; and hopefully, gives them a little *nudge-wink* into the bargain.

That being said, I know I’m a terrible metaphor fiend. With every first edit, I find myself wincing at the stumbling blocks of my own imagery, laid on far too thickly to establish a smooth read.
Through studying various authors, I’m learning to pare down my style towards something mimicking their own exotic simplicity.

In Capote’s own words, “…the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” He may not be an author to everyone’s taste or style, but I do believe his use of juxtaposition is second to none:

“It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs, upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.” – page one, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A universal truth, for anyone who’s used public transport before. No need for great detail in establishing the discomfort of the furniture. The one simple image-reference, is enough.

“Leaves floated on the lake; on the shore, a parkman was fanning a bonfire of them, and the smoke, rising like Indian signals, was the only smudge on the quivering air.” – page 52, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

To quiver is, of course, a verb, and a sensual one at that. In this context, it delivers a lustrous personification of the air surrounding the scene. There’s an aura of romance, of the unknown; the future flickering into being, taking the characters through a curious enhancement of emotion, as they spend the afternoon together. They may well be rippling the folds of the world in their enjoyment of each other’s company.

It’s a technique I like to borrow when scene-setting. There’s no need to waffle on in reams of description, where a handful of simple, carefully chosen words might suffice. Where “quivering” and “bonfire” are raised concurrently, the nature of Holly Golightly is made manifest in wavering heat, the inability to grasp at anything solid. The audience feels the beauty, the fragility of the scene, through the narrator’s sensory perceptions.

And I really can’t advocate using these five senses enough, to frame your own writing. Draw upon the memories of your audience. Allow them to touch, taste, see, hear, smell all that your characters do; overlap senses, to create memorable images that will enhance their reading:

“Royal’s house was like a house of flowers; wistaria sheltered the roof, a curtain of vines shaded the windows, lilies bloomed at the door. From the windows one could see far, faint winkings of the sea… Inside, the house was always dark and cool, and the walls rustled with pasted pink and green newspapers.” – Capote, House of Flowers, page 9.

I don’t know about you, but that’s more than enough smooth imagery to paint the picture for me. The use of colour references is simple, yet the names of the flowers are exotic, to create a subtle blend; alliteration / onomatopoeia found in “far, faint winkings of the sea … the walls always rustled,” evokes a gentle rhythm, as of the distant tide and the breeze.

While reading Tim Gautreaux’s excellent short story anthology, Welding with Children, a particular paragraph leaped out at me as both vitally clever in asserting its imagery through sentence structure, and a real pain on the eyes to read:

“…a loose tarpaulin flying over the forty-foot trailer, wild as a witch’s cape… After one click of his blinker he would roll out like a fighter plane, road reflectors exploding under his tires like machine-gun bursts…the car would surge into the curves like electricity, Wesley pushing over the blacktop as if he were teaching the road a lesson.”

Wild as a … like a fighter plane … like machine gun … like electricity…

Real stumbling-block words. Far too much imagery, condensed into a paragraph. Oh don’t get me wrong, in terms of context – the driver zigzagging through a dusty panhandle landscape – it’s an effective way of depicting his erratic slalom-run of acceleration and sharp braking.
All the same, it requires a readjustment of gears in the reader’s mind, just to keep up. The imagery pounds on the mind, each one different from the last, charged with its own electricity. I was left a little overwhelmed; as is often the case when reading back over my own freshly written work.

Learn to pare down your style, to use only the choicest and most contextual references and words. Don’t bombard your audience with imagery; lull them along, interspersing it with good stock words and simple phraseology. They won’t think you’re daft for it, that you’re not trying hard enough. Overblown words, sentences and imagery, will only make them squirm, as though you’d upended a salt shaker on their bowl.


  1. helenmidgley said,

    I’m a sucker for a great piece of descriptive text. Great read 🙂

    • celenagaia33 said,

      Me too; probably too much for the good of my somewhat neglected characters and dialogue 😉 But it’s write what you know, strength to strength. Thanks for reading it 🙂 really glad it hit home.

  2. Bianca’s Weekly Wonder List 10.08.13 | B.G. Bowers said,

    […] Writing Reality: Sensory Seasoning  by https://celenagaia.wordpress.com […]

  3. Writing Reality: Connotation and Denotation (AKA was that Really what you meant?) | celenagaia said,

    […] alongside words of equal power and direct meaning. This is particularly important when it comes to paring down your figurative language and imagery, for a smoother reading-experience and more succinct […]

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