Tuesday, February 5

Good Writing: Using The Senses

Good Writing: Using The Senses

My last post, Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel, was an info dump. Sorry about that! Today I'm just focusing on one thing: Making our prose clearer and more powerful.

I loved the way Dwight V. Swain talks about writing and structuring stories. Sure, at its core it's nothing we haven't heard before, but the way he put things together made a light-bulb go off for me. What I want to do today is talk about--in Emeral Lagasse's words--kicking our writing up to the next level.

We're going to look at two things: First, how to use Motivation-Reaction Units to make our writing clearer. Second, we're going to discuss how to make your readers feel. This last point goes, I think, to the very heart of what it is to tell a story: we want to entertain.

The Flow Of Narrative: Motivation-Reaction Units

What do we mean by "motivation-reaction unit"? It's simple. We're talking about cause and effect, stimulus and response. Mr. Swain writes:
Where your character is concerned, when you stick a pin in him he yells, "Ouch!" He doesn't yell "Ouch!" and then you stick in the pin.
Simple, right? But there is something more subtle going on here. Look at this example:
The wind had an icy edge to it. Eddy shivered and dug his hands deeper into his pockets. The wind kept right on chilling his hands so, still shivering, Eddy turned his back to it and headed for the house. Even as he did so, the lights went out.

Eddy stopped short.
Let's unpack Mr. Swain's example.
Motivation: The wind had an icy edge to it.
Reaction: Eddy shivered and dug his hands deeper into his pockets.

Motivation: The wind kept right on chilling his hands ...
Reaction: ... so, still shivering, Eddy turned his back to it and headed for the house.

Motivation: Even as he did so, the lights went out.
Reaction: Eddy stopped short
When I read this it was like a light went off for me. THIS sort of thing is what makes a piece of writing easy to read and understand.

If you're scratching your head wondering what I'm going on about think of it this way. Would it have seemed excessively peculiar if Mr. Swain had written:
Eddy shivered and dug his hands deeper into his pockets. The wind had an icy edge to it.
That seems to work, but it doesn't work as well. Or at least that's how it seems to me.

Help Your Readers Feel

Everyone writes for different reasons, but one reason common to many writers is the wish to entertain. That doesn't mean we have to turn our readers into human-shaped tear factories but it does mean we need to engage their emotions.

The 64 thousand dollar question: How can a writer make his, or her, readers feel things?

Dwight Swain gives four practical tips.

1. Use Action Verbs

Action verbs show something happening. For instance:

He turned
He sat down
He jumped
He whistled

2. Pictorial Nouns

Pictorial nouns are specific. Dwight V. Swain uses this general rule of thumb: The more specific the noun, the better off you are.

For instance (this is based on Mr. Swain's example), if you wrote, "The female sat," you haven't given your reader a lot of information. The subject could be a young girl, a teenager, a middle-aged woman, and so on. 

If you wrote, "A woman sat," you've communicated more information to your reader but the image formed is still vague. However, if you wrote, "An elderly woman with a lined face sat," then you would have given your reader a much clearer idea of what the subject looked like.

The more specific the noun, the more pictorial, and the more it paints a picture in your readers mind.

When your readers have a clear picture of what's going on in the story it's easier to generate narrative drive.

3. Use Sensory Language

Mr. Swain urges us to write in terms of what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. For instance:
Sight: bleary, colorless, faded, dim, glance, hazy, indistinct, shadowy, smudged, tarnished.

Sound: Bellow, cackle, grumble, howl, jabber, murmur, rant, screech, squawk, thud.

Touch: Balmy, chilly, dusty, feathery, gooey, hot, icy, moist, oily, prickly.

Taste: Bitter, creamy, gingery, nauseating, piquant, peppery, ripe, rotten, salty, sharp, tangy.

Smell: Acrid, fetid, odor, pungent, putrid, redolent, sweet, musty, waft, moldy.
Here is a list of sensory words (it's a .pdf file).

4. Use An Emotional Clock

I hadn't heard the term "emotional clock" before, but it makes a lot of sense.

Subjective vs Objective Time

Objective time is clock time. It's the time on your watch. Every second is the same.

Subjective time has to do with how each of us perceives time. We live by subjective time, by the excitement and tension of the moment.

Here's Dwight Swain's example: Einstein once said time passes quickly when you're talking to a pretty girl and slowly when you're sitting on a hot stove.

Very true.

We need to write to an emotional clock

So, what does an emotional clock have to do with writing?

Here's the idea:  you measure the amount of copy you put down according to the tension and excitement of what's happening.

For instance, if you're writing about lunch at a greasy spoon you're not going to give that a lot of space. You could probably tell rather than show.

On the other hand, if you're writing about the villain holding a gun on you and his finger going white on the trigger and the knowledge you're going to be blown away in the next minute, you stretch that out. You make the character suffer. How? By writing in terms of motivation and reaction. When you do this you slow down the pace and show. 

(This post has been based on Dwight Swain's Master Writing Teacher CDs, especially the first two.)
Do you have any tips for how to kick one's writing up a notch? Any tips or tricks you'd like to share?

Other articles you might like:

- Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel
- Michael Hauge On How To Summarize Your Novel
- Six Things Writers Can Learn From Television

Photo credit: "Harry" by kevin dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Great post as always, Karen. The Motivation/Reaction units are fantastic, as is the help of the sensory language. I try to use all five senses, but I feel like I've been repetitive from time to time so this is very helpful. Just ended up downloading Swain's CD set on Audible, so thanks for the recommendation.

    1. Thanks Robert! I've been going through the books I'm reading looking for the motivation-response pairs. It's like I have a new way to think about writing/reading. It's great! :-)

      They're great tapes, I know I'll listen to them many times in the years to come.

      On a completely unrelated note, I think digital downloads are the best thing since ... well, since the internet! So much more convenient than CDs.

  2. interesting. All good advice for writing students;

  3. Hi Karen!
    Welcome back! How's the arm?
    Just so you know, I'm doing a blog post inspired by your arm. Yep. It’s going to be 500 words on ergonomics, talking about how when I started to get serious about my writing last year, within two weeks of my first m/s my wrist and forearm started killing me and how I fixed it. Writers with gimpy hands are like golfers with arthritis- it really hurts your game.

    What do I do to get the emotional content up? Okay- as I mentioned, I’m new at this, and my genre is romance and comedy. In affairs of the heart, emotions can run strong- sadness, joy, anger, grief and so on.

    What I have done, and it worked for me, was take a page from Anthony Robbins’ book “Awaken The Giant Within” in which he postulates ‘Motion can breed Emotion’. And it gets the juices flowing, especially if I’m trying to write a scene where emotions are high, but my typing is flat.

    I’ve done it twice, and it worked. For example, there’s a scene I’ve written where the guy in the story has backed off from the main character, and I’m trying to explain why. The reason is that all his life he’s suffered loss of love from people he counted on- parents, a sibling, and then his best friend who died in an accident. I wanted to capture the dilemma of him falling in love with the main character, but also the fear and dread of losing love again.

    I’m not sure how good it turned out, but what made the final draft was the result of an exercise of me literally standing and acting physically what I thought the actions of a person in such a state would be. It worked out well for me, and I got past a chunk of writing that previously had me stymied.

    1. Hi Desmond! My arm is getting better, thanks for asking. I think I'll need to visit a physiotherapist but I'm hopeful I can get the full use of my arm back.

      I look forward to reading your blog post, that's the sort of information I need!

      And thanks for your writing tips!
      - Motion can breed emotion (I like it!)
      - Physically act out the scene before writing it

      I'll confess to acting out scenes, especially action scenes, where I'm not sure if something is physically doable. but I love the idea of acting out other kinds of events to bring out the emotions involved.

      Great tips! :-)

  4. The "emotional clock" is another way of stating pacing and emphasis. Readers see anything you spend greater time on as important, and so you can use this to emphasize a moment or idea. It also allows important moments to seem as important as they should be. If the heroine's dad is getting gunned down, you can't say, "Suddenly, a bullet went through the side of dad's head. I held his body and cried for hours, then stood and, swearing for revenge, left to find his killer." Even if you make the death abrupt for the shock factor, you have to give the moment enough attention lest it seem ridiculously rushed.

    We manipulate time constantly when we write. Scene changes and narrative let us skip over the characters relieving their bladders and doing their taxes. Using an emotional clock signals what the story is about. Screwing up the first two makes the story boring. Screwing up the latter makes the story meaningless.

    1. Hi JA, thanks for the comment. Love the cover of God of Metal and Blood.


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