Writing Tips - Description, Perception and Sensation

Our style and our story need to hold the readers, grip them, caress them, seduce them, intoxicate them and create a link such that they wouldn’t dare move away'

Why do we need Style?


Maya Angelou said that there is a no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. I think an even greater agony is giving birth to a story. The birthing of a story can be a quick process that grows in ease with experience. However, it can also be painful, traumatic and unpredictable for both new and experienced writers.

The narrative style is the medium of communicating our story. It is how we talk to our readers, coerce them into reading more. Stories need interest and interaction. They need to take hold, live in and breed like benevolent viruses in the reader’s mind.

So why is style so important?

A well told story captures and captivates instantly. The style propels the plot and lubricates the cogs that grind the mechanics. The results can be smooth and effortless. A good style that tells a good story can establish a connection between the writer and the reader that could be everlasting.

When we haven’t quite found our style the story arrives prematurely, gasping for breath. If we don’t pay attention to such matters it kills the connection. There are a million other writers and a million other stories the reader may want to move on to.

Our style and our story need to hold them, grip them, caress them, seduce them, intoxicate them and create a link such that they wouldn’t dare move away.

Style can make or break a story by enhancing or eradicating the reader experience.



Is Writing Style Something we are born with or something we learn?

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Should Writing Style be a Signature?

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Nature or Nurture?


When we talk about style, many questions pop into our collective heads ( at least they did in mine) . These are questions legions of readers and wannabe writers have been asking since writing began as an art form.


Is style our writing voice, something innate and natural, something we are born with?

Is it a product of our wide reading and influences ? Is it more often cultivated, reviewed and refined?

Can style be learnt? If so, why doesn't everyone learn it and write in a successful style?

Is style like a signature, should it be unique to a writer?

Or should a writer vary their style to suit the story - a mere vehicle to propel the plot in the most appropriate manner.

Do some stories succeed because of their style?

Equally are there stories which fail due to their style?

Style needs a sense of self awareness. Anyone who has strung together a series of words needs to re-read and reflect on what they have written. In order to reflect we need to tools of analysis, a sense of what style consists of. I prefer to split this into two : the mechanics and the aesthetics ( the science and the art, if you will)


There are the mechanics of style : things like the narrative mode, the point of view, the language use, structure and flow.

And then there is the aesthetics of style, the process of arrangement, the composition, the way we conduct our writing symphony.

The two are not mutually exclusive as one impacts the other. When listing the various aspects of style let’s talk about the appropriate aesthetics under each element.

As always these are merely my observations and I do not propound to be an expert in the matter. You are welcome to make your own judgements and opinions on my observations, wise reader.


Style needs a sense of self awareness. Anyone who has strung together a series of words needs to re-read and reflect on what they have written'

Exercise One


Take any piece of writing you have done and re-read with a critical eye. Look at the sentence structure, the pacing, the tone, the use of similes and metaphors, the voice, the point of view, vocabulary and the overall effect . Like tasting a fine wine, breath the aroma, keep it in your mouth and savor the flavors, roll your tongue and test the notes... does it have the taste of fine mellow vintage or does it taste acidic, sour like a cheap plonk?

The Aspects of Writing Style


There is no clear consensus on the mechanics of fiction writing, although many have tried to contain and describe it. There are many narrative modes and elements that have been described. In order to discuss the aesthetics of style and how to mould our fiction into a unique and rewarding experience, we need to understand the narrative modes and the basic elements of narrative.


The Narrative Modes can be :

Description

Sensation/Perception

Action

Exposition/Summarisation

Recollection

Emotion/ Introspection

Transition

 A sense of isolation can be easily brought about by a solitary rider in a broad, panoramic  vista
A sense of isolation can be easily brought about by a solitary rider in a broad, panoramic vista

I follow the usher into the courtroom. It is almost empty. A bored clerk sits in front of an ancient Remington typewriter. The liveried usher escorts me to the front where the Judge hunches over the table like a weathered gargoyle. The room is cooler with a tall ceiling. Electric fans creak as they rotate overhead. There is dust everywhere: on the walls, the wooden tables, on the fading portrait of Gandhi over the Judge’s head. Even the Judge looks dusty.

- The Family Tree by Mohan Kumar

DESCRIPTION


One of the main elements of writing modes is description. Authors have to constantly find fresh ways of describing a scene in order to bring it to life. Too much description can make the story feel laboured and chokes the reader’s imagination- too little and the scene feels blank and doesn’t enrich the story visually.

Description is difficult to pull off for the novice writer. I remember writing a lot of stories in my childhood started with describing the sky. It was always a ‘blue sky’ a ‘golden sky’ or a ‘dark sky’. Soon I wondered why I felt this dire need to keep describing the sky! I realised that rather than form my own descriptions I was attempting to emulate others.

Our description arrives from our observation. We need to open our eyes to the world around us, keen to take in every detail. This doesn't mean we need to capture the scene in photographic detail because the readers mind is perfectly capable of filling in the brush strokes and coloring it in. We need an outline, show the reader a unique viewpoint, a visual menagerie that makes up our descriptive style. We need to find innovative ways to capture the scene.

My observation changed with years of practice. I now describe (hopefully better) as I think I observe better. I look for those visual clues that strike me. It may be a sliver of light, a stain of a shadow, a strange reflection, the colours, the sense of space or lack of it.

I now describe the scene as a way of setting the mood. A sense of isolation can be easily brought about by a solitary rider in a broad vista. A sense of claustrophobia can be equally conveyed in a jostling market place or a narrow shaft through which one has to crawl.

I realised that describing a scene in a story is very much like an artist’s composition of a picture. It needs perspective and placement, use of light and shadows and just the right amount of ingenuity. It needs appropriate allusions and atmosphere.

Like the example on the right. I am trying to describe a deserted courtroom in a balmy afternoon. Hope this conveys the right level of describing without overwhelming the senses. Talking about senses, it is important to covey the perception of sensations too. As the scene needs to be set beyond mere visual imagery but has to invoke all the senses.


Aspects of Description

  • Create rich and varied detail
  • Show new ways of describing a familiar scene
  • Avoid Cliches
  • Show and Don't Tell
  • Describe specifics and not generics
  • Use figurative Language
  • Create a sensory experience


...describing a scene in a story is very much like an artist’s composition of a picture. It needs perspective and placement, use of light and shadows and just the right amount of ingenuity. It needs appropriate allusions and atmosphere...

Exercise Two


Describe a scene. Rather than go for the standard narrative techniques such as a cold, shivery,night scene for creating horror or a bright, summery scene for creating a cheery romance, try to play havoc with the preconceptions. Can you write a scary scene set in a bright sunny day. And a happy, romantic scene in a cold, dark night?

Allegory of the Five Senses (1668) Garard de Lairesse
Allegory of the Five Senses (1668) Garard de Lairesse


'She looked up at me, smiling. Her lips moved closer to mine, sweet breath teasing my nostrils. The butterflies flew around us, myriad little shadows flickering on our skins. I kissed her and ran my arms down her bare shoulders, drawing her closer. Her skin had a soft, powdery sediment. Like the pollen clinging on butterflies. Her mouth tasted of honey. I moved my hands on her back, hugging her closer. We stood there lost in time.'

- Butterfly Nymph by Mohan Kumar


Perception/ Sensation


In order to place your reader in the middle of the scene we need more than just visual cues. We need references to all the five senses. This sensory spectrum anchors the reader in the setting, creating a much more vivid experience. We should never lump all five senses into just one sensory perception. Each of the senses create a unique narrative memory. Sight, Sound,Taste, Smell, Touch all need to be evoked as appropriate to the story.

Without the sensations the narrative can be a barren experience.

What is the best way to evoke the senses in a descriptive narrative?

For one, we need to try and avoid using the actual words of sensation such as saw, tasted, heard, felt and smelled if we can.

' The bird fluttered across the room creating a dash of blue across the dull beige of the wallpaper' has more of an impact than ' Bob saw the bright blue bird fly across the room'

'The heady aroma of rose essence and spices wafted as he stepped into the market' is surely more assured than' Bob smelled rose essence and spices'?

The axiom, show don't tell, works well with describing the sensations. The more we show the characters reaction, perception and impact of the sensation, the more engaged the reader gets.

Sensation can also give some interesting character quirks. Like someone who gets turned on by fresh coffee aroma or one who has a phobia for the clangour of church bells!

Many writers tend to overwhelm with visual descriptors and scrimp on the other senses.It is worth cycling through the five to get a balance of detail.

Another problem with sensations and perceptions is the overuse of modifiers. These create an adjective and adverb overload.

A bright, yellow, burning sun is surely a sensory overload. The sickly, stinky, slimy smell is labouring the point.

It is also better to handle the modifiers with caution, avoiding as many -ly words as possible.

For example, 'John threw the plate across the room angrily' is unnecessary unless you think John is going to throw the plate across 'happily'! ( I am sure the smart aleks will point out that he could do that in a Greek feast!)


Each of the senses create a unique narrative memory. Sight, Sound,Taste, Smell, Touch all need to be evoked as appropriate to the story.

Exercise Three


Think of a scene. Describe it using as many senses as possible. Try and show rather than tell. Avoid cliches if you can. Think of new ways to describe the senses and use metaphors and similes if possible.

The Sixth Sense


Why stop with the five. We all get the sense of intuition in our lives. Capture that unexplained sense of unease or foreboding in your narrative too. It could be that 'feeling' you get that something is going to turn out right. It could be an uncanny sense that helps the character avoid danger or propels them into disaster. All this adds more variety to our narrative style.

In the next part we can look at Action. How to create dramatic sense of action in our narrative, full of gleaming active verbs. No passive telling - we'll show the reader how it happens.

We can also talk about Exposition and Summarisation. Do we need to avoid them at all costs or are they necessary evils that help bridge narrative gaps.

Hope you found my reflections on style and narrative modes useful,. Do come again and visit the other related hubs on writing.


'The Five Senses' by Agnes Toth
'The Five Senses' by Agnes Toth | Source

© 2012 Mohan Kumar

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Comments 18 comments

xstatic profile image

xstatic 4 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

Up all the way across on this one! This is textbook writing instruction, but (where are my italics) Interesting writing instruction, step by step how to do it right! I may print this since we can no longer bookmark Hubs. I had many ideas come to mind as I read it. Doc, this is a great one! You are a writer!


Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia

Voted up and interesting. Thank you for this useful and thought provoking information. I am keeping for future reference and passing it on.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Thank you, Docmo, for sharing your descriptive ideas for writers. They are indeed jewels from a master storyteller. My introduction to your masterpieces still lingers in my mind in your story "The Family Tree". I go back to read it periodically and still cry. You have captured the ability to create surface interest that generates a deep, telling subterranium of life beyond what is straightforward. When done with your skill, it is magic.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi xstatic,you are very kind. I am delighted there are some useful ideas for you to take from here. I am always wary of 'instructing' others as I don't claim to be an accomplished writer but merely sharing my own personal reflections on writing.Thank you very much!


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Gypsy Rose, thank you for your visit and comments. I ma glad you found this thought provoking and am delighted you will consider this a reference. Do let me know what you think of the other chapters in this series.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

Thank you Amy. You do flatter me as I don't consider myself a 'master storyteller' by any means. That doesn't stop me from experiencing a warm glow of satisfaction that a writer of your calibre, someone who wields language with such verve, ( a deep telling subterranium- love that phrase!) considers me worthy of such accolade. I am smiling widely with happiness.thank you!


drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

There are so many interesting and valuable thoughts here, Docmo, I am saving this hub to reread again and again. With your help I may be able to move forward from 'twas a dark amd stormy night ...'

Voted Up, m'dear.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

Oh I wish i had your flair for words. I tend to write, The blue bird flew across the room, not the beautiful way you described it. Thank you so much. I learn so much from your articles...


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 4 years ago from New York

The only button I didn't push was funny. I just realized you had written this series and I now want to read every word...and then read it again! You talk about style...your style is just what the doctor ordered (pardon the pun). You are certainly an artist!!!


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 4 years ago from Deep South, USA

I don't know how I overlooked this series before now, but, after reading this marvelous installment, I will definitely read the others.

Your own writing is eloquent, your metaphors soar, your suggestions for evoking sensation powerful....

Voted Up and all the way across (except funny). I really wish HP would include a SUPERB attribute in the feedback selections!

Jaye


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

drbj and Ruby - thank you for your comments and continued support. I am always grateful when I see your names .. many have come and gone. I am so blessed to have two such hub friends who appreciate what I do and always let me know that they do. This is something I do and will always treasure!


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

Mary- there are many 'fairweather' hubbers who visit a hub, scribble a few lines and show their appreciation. I am appreciative of their intention and support.

And then there are few others, who show their enjoyment and appreciation of my writing consistently and eloquently that it spurs me towards getting better, doing more, and working hard. You truly are, my friend, one of them. With every comment you make me smile, erase my frown lines from a hard days work and get on to the writing business . I'm so glad you found me and vice versa. I can't thank you enough for your support. hugs.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK Author

Jaye, thank you so much for your kind, appreciative and generous comments. I am so glad you found this series which is one of my 'passion' projects. I crave no awards or distinctions but merely the feeling that I have created something that people enjoy, find useful and memorable. Thanks for letting me know that I do this.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Docmo.....I bow to your brilliance, Oh wise one and I absorb your masterful teachings, for which I am most grateful.....Your writing is sheer pleasure to read and You never fail to teach me something very worthwhile. THIS is why I love it here so much! My hunger for knowledge is fed by gifted and talented individuals like you, Docmo!!

All this and enteratinment & friendships as well Peace, my friend!


KDuBarry03 4 years ago

These are definitely important exercises to use. I generally think of these exercises like a pianist preparing to play piano: first he must warm up his hands, take a deep breath, and concentrate. These exercises you gave are definitely though-provoking activities to get the writer more stimulated.

Well written, Docmo! Voted up and across the board!


Tennicut profile image

Tennicut 4 years ago

Docmo, excellent points across the board. Sensation can be powerful, but can also be overdone. And in my writing classes, my professors often wondered why novelists felt the need to start their books with a weather report.


vocalcoach profile image

vocalcoach 4 years ago from Nashville Tn.

The insight I gain from this hub is startling. I'm bookmarking for further reading. I'm so grateful to you for sharing your vast talent for writing. All I can say is thank you and will share with others.


nanderson500 profile image

nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

This is a great hub about writing. It has lots of good tips. I will plan on reading some of your stories sometime. Writing fiction is tough - I know from experience - but these tips definitely can help.

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