The Earthling, which released wayyyy back in 1980, is one of the greatest, but most underrated movies I’ve ever seen. Three quarters of the way through the film, Patrick Foley, (William Holden) is in conversation with a traumatized six-year-old Shawn Daley (Ricky Schroeder), and delivers one of the most inspiring observations in movie history.
Dying of cancer in the Australian wilderness, Foley is trying to teach the youngster enough skills to survive in the Blue Mountains before he passes away. Recently orphaned and traumatized, Shawn is self-absorbed and spends too much time complaining, according to Foley.
Desperate, Foley finally breaks and attempts to jolt the child into understanding. “You’re not only a whining kid that wastes his time; you’re also deaf and half blind. Sure you can hear me now. But do you listen to that water? Can you hear those birds back there? Can you hear the insects – the wind and the trees creakin’ and rubbin’? You’re deaf to those frogs down there and the sun pingin’ off of these rocks. You’re deaf to your own heartbeat and me comin’ up behind you. My God, boy, there’s a whole symphony goin’ on here and you can’t hear a thing.”
And then later, he distills it down even further for Shawn, and gave me a line I used with my girls when they were growing up. “You hear, but you don’t listen.”
In writing novels, we should know who the characters are, and what drives them, and what they’re wearing (and I hope you didn’t spend two paragraphs of an info dump telling us more than we want know about their clothes).
That can be achieved by a line or two as the story progresses.
The symphony Foley is talking about, are the senses we take for granted, especially sounds and smells that are often difficult for some to integrate into the manuscript. However, writers don’t need to tell readers how something sounds. Showing is much better.
“The sound of thunder reached his ears.”
Or, “She room smelled musky.”
We don’t need to say, “Thunder outside of the musky room and the spider’s prickly legs tickled the hairs on his arm, creeped Herschel out.”
At this writing, I’m alone in our Northeast Texas cabin with the windows open to catch the fresh breeze flowing through the screens like an invisible river. Closed up for nearly three years, the dusty interior was stale and thick when we first bought the place, but now it’s fresh as line-dried sheets.
The soft spring breeze will soon be replaced by furious winds whipped up from a line of thunderstorms roaring down on the cabin from the west. I’m looking forward to the hail that’s sure to rattle on the tin roof sparking childhood memories of similar storms and rainy days playing in the hay barn.
It’s a rustic place that reminds me of those old-school cabins up in the Adirondacks. The rough cedar exterior of the 2,000 square foot retreat fits perfectly in the hardwoods that make up the entire 48.5-acre parcel. A pool wraps around three sides of the house and waves slap against the shore. Here in East Texas we call them pools, farther out in Deep East Texas they’re ponds or stock ponds, and out west, they’re called tanks.
The interior is honey-colored cedar, some commercially milled, but the rest hand-cut in a home sawmill, sanded smooth by a welder-turned-carpenter, and coated with a sealer that brings out the rich, warm colors only cedar can provide.
Thunder rumbles close enough to rattle the glass in an antique bookcase in the other room, creating an evening just like those movie makers use to dispatch promiscuous teenagers, but there are no serial killers or ax murderers creeping up to the front porch, as far as I know.
Besides, this isn’t a place full of partygoers (though I’ve been told the cabin once reeked of spilled beer and whiskey after a number of rambunctious parties thrown by the former owner), and there isn’t one young lady running around in her underwear. I’m sure, because I checked before coming in for the night.
The breeze occasionally brings another burst of air perfumed by the distinctive gin-and pencil-shavings fragrance of evergreen branchlets rubbing together in the wind.
A bat flutters past on dry, leathery wings that might creep some folks out, but I love the little guys who suck up mosquitos like vacuum cleaners. Unseen tree frogs of all sizes lend three-note voices to the symphony outside. Some chatter with a high pitch, like maddened amphibians laughing at the deeper croaking of heavy bullfrogs, who add bottom to the chorus.
Crickets under the window add their own backbeat as an owl hoots in the distance and a whippoorwill repeats a distinctively sad call over and over again, asking who whipped poor Will. Will’s name ends on a high note, reminiscent of a construction worker’s wolf whistle.
Pucker up and whistle that last note and you’ll understand what I mean.
But that’s not all. The night is never silent, even without the oncoming storm, nor are the woods. Wild hogs grunt and fight less than hundred yards away. At one point, a smaller, indignant pig squeals long and loud, and goes silent.
We’re not in the wilderness. High overhead, the hiss of a distant, passing jet seems out of place, as much as car tires sizzling down the oil road before hitting a hole. The whole vehicle rattles like it’s coming apart before passing.
The house pops as it cools, and the only other noise is the tapping on my fingers on the keyboard. Ice rattles in the glass after a sip of chilly Bombay Sapphire and tonic, the cool liquid refreshing as the evening.
Now, there it is. The screen is dusty and the damp wind across my makeshift desk brings the scent of petrichor, the familiar odor the odor of rain falling on dry ground.
Offer these senses in your work, letting the reader become part of the story, instead of hitting them between the eyes with “he heard,” or “she smelled,” or “they saw.” Spin your story in a way that the reader is there with your characters, using the recollections of their own senses.
That’s what Patrick Foley was talking about, that symphony around us that I’ve hopefully shown without telling. Add in an ax murderer and some teenagers in their underwear, and you have a thrilling scene.