A Sensory Awakening Game By Wyatt G. Bessing
Welcome back to our monthly columnist, Wyatt Bessing. A writing coach, teacher and author, as he shares with us “A Sensory Awakening Game.” Enjoy!
“…the bearded merchants in furred robes conversing quietly as they picked their way along the slimy stones above the water, the fishermen unloading their catch, coopers pounding and shipmakers hammering and clamsellers singing and shipmasters bellowing, and beyond all the silent, shining bay.”
Near the beginning of one of my favorite novels, The Wizard of Earthsea, by Usula K. LeGuin, we find this description of the port city as the young wizard Ged sees it for the first time. In a single sentence, LeGuin weaves a whole world for us. We fall into it – eyes, ears, entire body immersed in the world.
How does LeGuin do it? Sensory details. We hear the hammering, pounding and singing. We feel those “slimy stones.” The final image – the visual and auditory detail of the “silent, shining bay” – provides a wonderful contrast to the chaos and noise of human activity. LeGuin’s long sentence comes close to overwhelming the reader with so many details. After all, as writers we must parcel out our images judiciously, deploying only the best to create the strongest impact. But because Ged, our protagonist, is also overwhelmed on this, his first trip out of his small town in the mountains, the density of sensory detail works here. We feel his overwhelm.
This month I offer you a game to awaken your readers’ senses. When readers imagine sounds or tactile sensations within your words, you connect with them at an emotional, sensual level. And you draw them into your world.
First, list the senses:
I’ve included the sixth sense of intuition; it’s a fascinating one to play with in writing. Allow your characters to perceive an inexplicable attraction or be repelled or frightened by unseen forces. Perhaps your character feels a twinge in the stomach, or an urge to flee, and must work to understand these feelings.
To play this game, roll a die and record the number. This is the number of senses you’ll be developing in your scene. Roll the die again that number of times, writing down each sense as you roll.
I roll a 2. I’ll put two new senses into this scene. And they will be… (rolling twice more, a 3 and 2)… touch and hear.
Now find a scene in your work-in-progress that feels a little flat, a bit dull. What is the conflict in this scene?
It looks like my protagonist’s neighbor’s apartment is about to get a makeover and become more real. My protagonist really doesn’t want to go out at all, but he feels obligated to take care of this old, lonely neighbor. I want to heighten both the discomfort he feels and the neighbor’s loneliness.
Next, brainstorm sensory details for the numbers you rolled for this setting and character. Set a timer for three minutes, listing as many examples as you can imagine that fit the senses you rolled.
whooshing air conditioner
TV news blaring in the background
floorboards creaking under him
hard, cold dominoes
squishy pizza box
cold air from ac
Finally, choose some of your brainstormed imagery and write a revision or a whole new scene. Here is a bit of my revised passage:
Pat keeps the TV news on for company, and the chipper weather lady gesticulates at air current maps as she drones on in a high buzz about the heat wave coming tomorrow. Pat motions to a decrepit La-Z-Boy for Ryan to sit, but Ryan has to first remove an oily pizza box from the seat. The box collapses in his grasp as he searches for a trash bin, then takes it into the kitchen to find debris overflowing around the garbage can by the back door.
“Can I take this out for you?” he asks Pat, who’s followed him, leaving the chatty weather lady reporting to the empty living room. Ryan has the feeling the TV is always on, keeping the old man company.
Remember: Don’t simply throw in superfluous sensory details, no matter how beautiful or precious they seem. They must somehow relate to the conflict. In my scene, the weather reporter and pizza box both represent the lonely life the old man leads and further develop Ryan’s conflict, making him uncomfortable as he reaches out to help.
With the sparing use of apt sensory details, you will immerse your readers. Chill them, thrill them, make them sing along with your characters. As you guide readers to feel, taste, hear, smell, and see your worlds, you will leave them breathless and excited for more.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wyatt Bessing is a writer, writing coach, and learning specialist. His stories and essays have appeared in Bedtime-Story.com, Outsider Ink, national educational assessment materials, and in the anthology Dance, Human Rights, and Social Justice. Through his workshops, website, and blog at wyattgbessing.com, he guides new and experienced writers in crafting more effective, expressive, and striking work. During the day, he works at Star Academy in San Rafael, teaching reading and comprehension skills to students with learning differences in elementary through high school. He lives in Santa Rosa, CA with his wonderful fiancee and co-creator, Sarah Laugtug.