Saturday, 7 February 2009

senses working overtime

Sense memory is a powerful tool in setting a scene as it provides imaginative cues for someone experiencing the scene and this can provide intensity and versimilitude. As such it's something that's worth exploring and like all ingredients, discretion is useful and too much detail can drown the message you're trying to get across. Consider the palatte of colours you intend to use and see what speaks to you.

- The most obvious sense. The one that conveys colour, height, width and depth as well as light and shadow. Obscuring that sense is a trope, whether it's the presence of fog or a protagonist who can't see properly (or at all). Playing games with the sense is an alternative, bathing a scene in red light conveys a different perspective to plunging it into darkness; there are several kinds of trompe d'oeil that can be used to this effect up to non-Euclidean geometry.

- This blog post was inspired by Uncle Bear who describes the chaos of battle in purely auditory terms leading to visual references for those audible cues. I've stood in a shieldwall and heard the hush before your enemies come roaring towards you and your adrenaline kicks in; Shakespeare wrote about sound and fury and he wasn't kidding. Equally, silence (rare today) is notable. Walking on a pine needle carpet at night makes anyone stealthy.

- A striking example of how this builds a scene is in the Poppy Z. Brite story Calcutta, Lord of Nerves where she described the smell of sweat as onions and lemon. People can smell perfume, flowers, musk, cooking meat, cigarette smoke, dust, sweat, hot metal or stale water. Is it any wonder people advocate deodorant or scent given the range of smells that the human body is capable of? Ask any new father...

Touch - Tactile sensation is something often overlooked in writing outside of romance, erotica or horror. The feel of smooth or rough, hard or gentle, soft or unyielding is another dimension to consider when dealing with the unfamiliar. Add the weight of armour, the slipperiness of silk or the greasy, scratchy softness of freshly shorn sheeps-wool. Touch fills in gaps from a first person perspective and something no computer game will be able to express without text or add-ons.

- An intimate sense unless you're dealing with a particularly pungent smell. The world of taste is something that is experienced during meals or other mouth-based activity (brushing your teeth for example) though the phenomena of sweet, salty, bitter or sour can be experienced by smell to a lesser extent. Protagonists who experience taste have usually let their guard down unless they are food tasters for royalty or the paranoid.

Other senses - The human body is capable of other senses. Balance, temperature, pain and spatial awareness (propioception) that allows you to put your finger on your nose with your eyes shut can help fill out the blank areas. If you're dealing with less human characters there may be expansions beyond this (e.g. heat sensitivity in pit vipers) or refinements (low-light vision) of existing senses. These may reveal perspectives that offer something new.

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