Sense of sense

What is the first sense that comes to your mind when you wake up? When I wake up in an unknown place (like staying in a hotel, camping or anywhere I’m not traditionally), the first thing that pops into my mind are the sounds and smells. Usually sound is first unless the smell is very strong. Fortunately, seaside air has that irresistible salty smell that I simply cannot ignore.

Visual description of a scene is usually something rational and informative, good for basic information: someone came into the room, something was happening on screen, etc. As a reader, you don’t need to be reminded that you’re getting visual information.

However, when trying to evoke an emotionally more intense experience for the reader, I always go for other senses. For instance, instead of seeing the person coming into the room, I would use the smell of a perfume or something similar to annouce someone’s arrival. So much more evoking not to see the person but knowing he/she’s there.

One of the hard rules of writing they try to drill into a newbie writer is ‘use more than one sense’. Nobody tells you that using several senses considerably slows down the reading pace. The reader must mentally switch from one sense to another and that doesn’t come as quickly as that. Our brain processes different stimulations and different speeds and in different ways.

If I’m going for a slow paced scene, I will give the reader the luxury of exploring the scene with as many senses as possible. But a fast paced scene simply doesn’t have room for them. When running for dear life, would you notice the smell of that nearby cherry tree?

Sometimes our senses work faster than our rational mind. That is why I will write “My hand moved to block the incoming blow.” At that time, it really acts on its own. It’s called instinct for a reason. In a tense situation, emotions run wild and they block rational thinking. That’s when the instinct of training comes in.

Flower arranging… or is it?

Lately, I’ve been having thoughts on creating a setting for a story. Thought I should share.

The story I’m working on at the moment was my first finished story written in English. Alas, it was a fan fiction story and I could never publish it.

Or could I? The only thing I truly borrowed was the setting because I’m so terrible with creating settings of my own. So if I could replace the setting with another, original, and replace a few names, it could be my story after all. I could publish it.

The first step was ripping the story out of its borrowed setting and try to fit it with the setting I’ve been developing for years. It was a painful process. I had to discard so many bits and pieces that belonged to the borrowed setting. So many little things that gave the story that special something. And after it was torn out by the root and plucked into the new setting, I realized it didn’t fit. The setting and the story were too different to work together.

What I did was turn the clock forward a few thousand years and thus modified my new setting so that it could accept the story. And it worked because I adapted the setting to the story, not simply dump it in there, hoping for the impossible. With more time and effort, the new setting had grown around the story, accepting it as its own, both becoming dependant of the other.

Strange that I’m using a planting metaphor, because I’ve never been one for flower arranging. But yes, a setting of a book is very much like a plant, growing around a piece of architecture that is the story.

There’s two ways of forming the decor. You can either place the pots with the plants neatly around it, creating a pleasant but dull scenery. But that setting is weak. A strong setting is like an ivy plant, winding its way around the entire house, a house that is the story. A weak setting can easily be picked away from the story, just like you can easily remove a few pot flowers, leaving the architecture barren. But can you remove the ivy plant that has grown around the house? You can’t, not unless you tear out half the bricks in the building.

I always thought a setting is like a backdrop in a drama play. I thought the story can work without the setting. I was wrong. It would be like trying to strip a living body of its veins. But that’s another metaphor…