Your High School Science Teacher was Wrong (and your writing instructor, too)

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Writers must think about description. A lot. We're told to paint an unforgettable picture in words, then we're told not to overdo it and bore the reader. We're told to write vivid prose, then we're reminded to remember pacing. It's drilled into us that three pages of scenery description worked in Victorian novels, but not today. But there's one piece of description-writing advice we hear above all: Remember the Five Senses.
What many writing instructors really mean by this is to get out of our knee-jerkism regarding visual descriptions and dip into those other big four: sound, smell, taste and touch. Many of us are diligent about it. Every meal in a novel becomes a sensual, olfactory, mouth watering experience or the opposite, the heroines are so down, even melted chocolate and fresh Turkish coffee cannot cheer them.
Turns out your high school science textbook and writing workshop advice needs a reboot and this is great news for your writing. There may be as many as seven or twenty-one human senses. There are whole worlds of senses to integrate into our descriptions, and no reason to recycle the same old five on every page.
Why harp on touch when you can go for itch? This is a completely distinct sensor system from touch. We read hundreds of pages in which characters 
might be itching to get out of a room, but are they so itchy, they can't think ?

What about incorporating equilibrioception (our sense of balance) into one of your characters? Magnetoception anyone? This is the ability to detect magnetic fields, which is truly handy when you don't know where you are. There are a myriad of ways these senses can be used in sci-fi, fantasy, horror or realism.

Is your character oblivious to time? Many of us have an unbelievably accurate sense of time passing. Something to consider in character description. Short and long passing of time probably come from two different parts of our brain. So who in your novel has which one? And what are the stakes? I remember one participant in my class writing an entire story based on this. The couple felt they had to leave their time-conscious American culture for Mexico because they just couldn't fit in. Ouch! Speaking of pain, pain receptors are separate from our overall sense of touch. How about a character with a very high or very low sense of pain?

Proprioception is the ability to distinguish our body parts from the rest of the world and move them. Consider a character who lacks this sense. She can't scratch her back because she can't find it. 

This doesn't mean you should ditch our old description companions, the five senses, but do expand your ways of thinking about them. 

Many of us were taught that humans have a relatively weak sense of smell (compared to dogs or elephants, for example). That's a myth and humans can smell over one trillion scents.
So, break out of the "my character can only pick up on overpowering smells like coffee and baked bread" and explore subtle scents your character can notice, without worrying that it's unrealistic or some sort of super power, if that's not 
where you want to go.
As for taste, ditch the incorrect notion that there's sweet, sour, salty and bitter. 
We have savory to add (cheese, meat) and maybe even fat and calcium. Scientists are split on that, but we don't have to be. 

Go ahead. Make your heroine bite into that sandwich and be disgusted or charmed by the fatty taste. It will make your story that much more fresh and delicious to read.   


The Forgotten Character in Story: Your Story World

The Forgotten Character in Story: Your Story World

By Gila Green

Setting is an often overlooked story element for many writers. 
I cannot tell you how many short fiction submissions I've received that take place No-where in No-time. When queried the most common answer I receive from writers is, "this story can take place in anywhere USA." Or, "It doesn't matter. They could be in any modern city."

If you've ever sat down to write fiction or non-fiction and used this approach to setting and location it's way past time to stop. This response couldn't be more wrong. There are several key points for you to remember about your story world. Today I will discuss one of them.

Remember this: no one has ever been to your story world except for you.

Consider the world you live in every day. Who inhabits that world? You do. Nobody else. You have a unique perspective on your world. Not sure? Don't think you're very different from anybody else? You're Abby Average, right?

Go to the beach, to a play, or to a restaurant with three other people (they don't even have to be different ages, nationalities and genders, but that would be even better) and ask them to write down a paragraph about their experience the next day. You will see immediately that you did not go to one beach, play, or restaurant, you went to four.

Your teenager might note the hot waiter in the tight shirt, your elderly mother might lament the lack of parking for the disabled, your husband might mention there was no wifi and he couldn't respond to his work messages, and you might have put the inadequate toilet paper and soap at the top of your list. Four worlds. Notice all of these comments are relevant because they all tell us something about the character inhabiting that very particular world. 

No one else has ever been to the world of your story but you. Moreover, you yourself discover new places in this world all the time. Every time you think you know this world inside and out, poof! You find another path, nook or cranny. You'd always thought yoga was for granola types until your new boss sponsored a meditation day and snap! You're a convert. The same things happen to your characters and you need to let your readers in for a front row seat.

Now that you've ditched the "anywhere approach" for good, consider your keyboard a highly specialized paint brush. The USA is a vast country teeming with varied climates, wildlife, flora fauna, sights, sounds and smells, not to mention a whole lot of variety in people, diction, local customs and on and on. But your details must be relevant. We do not need to know what every single person in the restaurant is wearing. A few details regarding the waiters (do they wear gloves, uniforms, ripped jeans, aprons, bikinis, roller blades?) will be enough to paint the picture you want. 

You must make your story come alive for the reader. The "Anywhere USA" approach means your story is dead on arrival and that's bad news for any writer.


Dear Gila....

I took one of your classes and, you may remember, the story (The Storm) I wrote? Anyway I entered it in a contest and placed third which pleased me.

Nancy Shelton
Springfield, MO