Wait. What? Readers are supposed to conspire with writers? What kinda rubbish is that?
The clever kind. The sneaky kind. The think-ahead kind. It’s a strategy any writer can use to enlist the reader’s aid in creating settings that resonate in the only place that really counts–deep within the reader’s brain.
We are all products of our own experience. If someone mentions a “rustic cabin” but adds no additional description, we’re left to conjure an image based on our own familiarity (or lack thereof) with log dwellings. I’ve seen a variety of such places, from the sumptuous to the squalid. Readers need more than that, obviously, but good writers will resist the temptation to rely on visual imagery alone. We have to give them more, and the best way to do that is to tap into what they already know.
The problem is, we don’t all have the exact same experience. We do, however, have roughly the same sensory powers. So, after specifying the general size and condition of our hypothetical cabin, we can switch to other forms of sensory input to complete the picture.
One of the quickest pathways to the brain is through the nose. It’s a short distance after all, and the effects of smell–whether encountered or recalled–can be dramatic. All we need to do is push the Replay button in our reader’s memory. The neat thing is, readers are eager to help us. Words like “musty,” “sour,” “rank,” or “aromatic” evoke memories that can be applied to other settings. But the power of recall can be greatly enhanced by specifics. Who doesn’t remember the odor of a kid’s clothing left to marinade under a bed or in a corner? How about the sudden, sharp essence of hot sauce, the drool-inducing fragrance of freshly baked cookies, or the vile stink of a backed up toilet?
Has the wallpaper sprouted mold or fungus? Have rodents left their mark on the sofa? Did something die in the chimney?
Couple any such smells with your cabin, and the reader will fill in the details. The window dressing, the furniture, the fireplace–all of it will become crystal clear in the reader’s head without you having to do anything else. You just set the stage and add enough sensory detail to enable the reader to finish the picture. Best of all, they won’t hold you responsible for discrepancies; they’ll assume the blame!
The other senses offer powerful inducements to this collaboration as well. Touch, especially, works well. Ask anyone who has experienced the feel of a cat’s tongue, or who has been outside in shirtsleeves on a winter night in snow country. Sounds, too, can do amazing work. Countless movies have used such ploys. Consider:
Little Maizie is feeling her way down the basement stairs in the dark. She reaches out, her hand lightly touching the wall in search of the switch. She finds it, and flicks the tiny lever, but nothing happens. The resulting click echos in the dark. Still, she must keep going. The danger behind her is worse than that ahead, or so she thinks. Each step brings the soft shuffle of slippers on bare wood.
Until a new sound grabs her. It’s a low sound, guttural and coarse. She strains to see something–anything–in the gloom. And then she hears it again.
Closer. And louder.
And all she can think of are the tales of the blue-skinned boojums her daddy used to tell. How they lived in the dark. How they ate little girls. How they growled, soft and low, just before they attacked.
Sensory words. Put ’em to work!
Next up: Writing in chunks.