ONLINE EXTRA: Writing exercises about touch and taste
Published: October 30, 2009
|To create a compelling story, the author can't rely only on dialogue and action—the sensory details are just as important. Here are some exercises designed to stretch your descriptive writing muscles, excerpted from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft.|
We sometimes neglect to use tactile descriptions in our writing, but we do touch—all the time. Shopping for clothes, shaking hands, playing with pets, shuffling cards, scrubbing pots, shooting baskets. Think of what it means to touch an odd, rare, or even holy object. Consider temperature (tepid, frigid), moisture content (arid, greasy, sticky, crisp), texture (crinkled, gritty, silky), and weight (ponderous, buoyant). All of these sensations provide us with great descriptive words. Use some of them and find others.
Describe the way an action or event feels—putting on a piece of clothing, engaging in an exercise, eating a tough or squishy item of food, dancing, moving across a crowded room, carrying groceries in from the car, kissing, waking up, washing the car, whatever. What impression does your description give? Does it prompt a scene? Can you make some characters talk while they're doing one of these activities?
There are four main types of taste and each has its own words—sweet (saccharine, sugary), sour (acidic, tart), bitter (acrid, biting), and salty (briny, brackish). There are also lots of objects that have familiar but distinctive tastes and so are useful in description (fish, lemons, onions, candy, chocolate, pickles, beer, coffee, and so on).
Take some characters out for dinner—Chinese or Greek, burgers or gourmet, it doesn't matter. Describe a particular course or even a whole meal. What impression does your description give? What do the characters have to say about their meal? How do they communicate with each other through their appreciation of food?
1. One way to test your skill in the use of concrete, significant detail is to create a reality that is convincing—and yet literally impossible. To begin, draft a three-to-five page story in which a single impossible event happens in the everyday world. (For example, a dog tells fortunes, a secret message appears on a pizza, the radio announcer speaks in an ex-husband's voice—supermarket tabloids can be a good source of ideas.) First, focus on using detail to create the reality of both the normal world and the impossible event—the more believable the reality is, the more seamlessly readers will accept the magic.
2. Imagine a crowded, overwhelming scene (a rock concert, a political rally, the mall, an accident, a big city emergency room, a theme park, a college town after their team won the championship, a Wall Street trading floor, etc.) Use sensory details to convey this particular experience. Don't tell how your character feels about this scene; instead, use significant details to suggest his emotional state. For example, your character is exhilarated by the music, ready to pass out from the heat, and afraid of being trampled by the frenzied fans. When writing your scene, consider reasons your character has an atypical response: for example, a paramedic who is either energized or bored by an accident scene.
3. Write about something familiar from the point of view of a stranger—a foreigner, a time-traveler from the past, a prisoner released after twenty years in jail, an orphan. Pick a situation that might seem commonplace to your readers and imagine how she would perceive it through all available senses.
Send the urbanite to a small town in the Midwest, introduce the time-traveler to his own future, have the ex-prisoner spend the evening in a karaoke bar, let the orphan be adopted by a previously childless couple. The goal is to make the every day seem strange and new again. Avoid using familiar words (your character won't know them). You might even try not to name the situation but let your reader figure out where the character is through your use of sensory detail.
Reprinted from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft with permission from Janet Burroway. Copyright © 2007 by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French.
To learn more about Janet Burroway, please visit www.janetburroway.com.
--Posted Oct. 30, 2009