Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Senses and Emotional Intensity: Expert advice from the Romance genre

Today I'd like to welcome a special guest blogger to TalkToYoUniverse. Lillian Csernica is an active member of SFWA and author of the historical (pirate!) romance novel Ship of Dreams by Elaine LeClaire. She's been kind enough to put together a terrific piece for us, informed by her years of experience writing fantasy and horror as well as romance. I think this piece is particularly timely because it is relevant to the question of narrative distance, and in particular, to the question of how to make your narration feel close to your point of view character.

The Senses and Emotional Intensity: Expert advice from the Romance genre
Lillian Csernica

Romance writing is all about stirring up the feelings of the reader and appealing to the five senses. One might even say romance writers stir up those feelings through appealing to the five senses. The more we as writers can get the reader involved on a sensory level with our characters and their actions, the more vivid, the more real, our stories will become.

It's simple enough to come up with a sentence that deals with each of the five senses individually. Depending on where your main character is in relation to the other character(s) in the scene, both in terms of social footing and proximity, you may have only one, two, or possibly even three out of the five senses available to you. You want to get the most out of them, especially if this is the first encounter between your characters. Here's a good example of multiple sensory input from SINGLE WHITE VAMPIRE by Lynsay Sands:

"Kate C. Leever was about his mother's height, which made her relatively tall for a woman, perhaps 5'10". She was also slim and shapely, with long blonde hair. She appeared pretty from the distance presently separating them. In a pale blue business suit, Kate C. Leever resembled a cool glass of ice water. The image was pleasing on this unseasonably warm September evening."

Just five sentences, but look at all the information packed into them, all the sensory detail. The viewpoint character is Lucern Argeneau, hero and vampire. How appropriate that he should process his first meeting with Kate in terms of sight and taste! We now know what Kate looks like, along with Lucern's first impression of her and his emotional reaction to that impression. What's more, the author provides us with subtext of Kate bringing relief to the heat Lucern feels. That heat will continue to grow between them in true romance novel style.

Miranda Jarrett's GIFT OF THE HEART shows heroine Rachel Lindsey first meeting hero Jaime Ryder when she finds him lying unconscious in her barn:

"The rifle in her hands was much finer, too, with a cherrywood barrel inlaid with stars and elegant engraving on the plate. German made, she guessed, or maybe Philadelphia, but too valuable for most of the men in this part of New York....His skin was as hot as the snow in the fields was cold, and though she now knew he lived, she wondered for how much longer, burning with a fever like this."

Sight and touch tell Rachel the man lying before her is probably some kind of soldier, and that he's in danger of dying. Her knowledge of the rifle's worth tells the reader how intelligent and knowledgeable she is, and her willingness to take Jaime into her house speaks of her compassionate nature.

In my own historical romance, SHIP OF DREAMS, Lady Rosalind Hanshaw is captured by the dreaded French pirate L'Ange Noir, the Black Angel, and spends some informative time in his brig:

"Rosalind sank down until she could wedge herself into the corner at an angle that allowed her to doze. The roll of the ship was soothing. The cell was warm enough, despite her soggy petticoats and shoes. The brig smelled of nothing worse than salt air, damp canvas, and a hint of beer.

Ding-ding! Ding-ding! Ding-ding! Ding-ding!

Four bells. Time for the ship's dog watch, the short span between four and six in the evening. The fading gold of sunset threw long shadows down the hatch, leaving Rosalind in almost total darkness."

Rosalind's senses of smell and hearing tell her a lot about the ship she's now aboard. It's cleaner than most, and it's run according to the orderly system of watches. This tells the reader that Rosalind is more familiar with the running of a ship than most women of her time, and that she knows the differences between an honest vessel and a pirate ship. All this adds to the mystery of who the Black Angel really is and what he wants with Rosalind. If your main characters are observant and aware, both of themselves and the people and places around them, they're going to be livelier, more interesting people.

There might also come a time when your main character is so preoccupied with something that he or she is not capable of being as observant and aware as usual. That could open up story possibilities. Enhance your characterization by focusing on the one sense that will provide the most telling detail. This has been done effectively in other genres as well as romance.

Science fiction:

In "The Murasaki Doctrine" by Jay Lake, the heroine's sense of touch and her motor skills in general become compromised because of how long she spends outside a space station in a spacesuit. She sustains these injuries in pursuit of her mission, which makes her that much more heroic and sympathetic in the mind of the reader.


In Terry Pratchett's GOING POSTAL, Moist Von Lipwig's sense of hearing plays a key role in discovering what's really been going on in his newly refurbished post office.


The sense of smell can be a powerful element here. More than once in Agatha Christie's mysteries, the scent of bitter almonds helped Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot identify the presence of hydrocyanic acid, or cyanide.

Writing that includes as many senses as possible can:

  • Create a more vivid reality for the reader
  • Render greater emotional depth in the main character
  • Intensify relationships between the major characters

The ways in which your main character can act and react within such a vital, dynamic environment will bring more immediacy to your writing.

What is "immediacy"?

1. The condition or quality of being immediate.

2. Lack of an intervening or mediating agency; (from the Free Online Dictionary.)

One thing that will put "an intervening or mediating agency" between your action and your reader is the word "felt." Consider the difference between these sentences:

Susan felt the breakers wash over her feet.

The breakers splashed around Susan's ankles, the chill seawater a refreshing contrast to the sun's heat.

Which sentence is more vivid, more immediate, and conveys more concrete sensory detail? The second one, of course. The word "felt" filters the action through the main character's own sensory apparatus, which puts one more unnecessary step between the reader and what the main character is experiencing. Direct experience, immediate sensory input, makes for more effective writing.

Here are some exercises if you want to try it yourself.

Exercise #1:

Write a scene where the main character has to make a pivotal, life-changing statement. He or she is either going to be hyperalert, on edge, feeling things more keenly, or so focused on the matter at hand that nothing extraneous is getting through. Here are some possible scenarios:

1. Saying "I love you" for the first time.

2. Telling a relative or close friend "You're dying. You have 3 months to live."

3. Being the one who has to tell the leader of the expedition "The volcano god wants a virgin sacrifice or we're all dead meat."

Exercise #2:

Go to the supermarket newsstand and buy a romance novel. Mark up one passage according to each sense that appears. Go read two pages of your own work and mark it up the same way. Now compare yours to the romance novel passage. See the difference? Decide which senses you could add to your scene to improve its immediacy and rewrite it accordingly. Do the comparison again with a fresh passage from that same romance novel. Once you get the hang of writing with as many senses as you can reasonably include, your writing will really come to life.

The techniques of enriched language and sensory detail borrowed from the romance genre will enhance your writing, improve your characterizations, and ultimately bring your reader deeper into your story.

Isn't that what we're all aiming for?

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