Writing Tasty Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here at TKZ we love to talk about the nuances of the craft. These take the form of both things to do and things not to do. As Brother Gilstrap likes to remind us, these aren’t “rules.” They are, however, basics that work every time, and if you choose to ignore them, that’s your business. But if your business is also to make dough with your writing—which means connecting with a large slice of the reading public—you would be wise to attend to the fundamentals.

On the not side, there are what I call “speed bumps.” (Have a look at my post on that subject). These are the little things you can easily overlook, but which cause a jolt to what should be a smooth and emotive fictive ride. Too many of these bumps ruins the whole experience, and does not leave the reader anxious to purchase another of your books.

On the positive side, there are things you can do to help a reader feel more fully immersed in your story. And one of those things is the use of sensory description.

You’ll see a lot written about the sense of sight and sound. The visual and the audible. These are the twin pillars of show, don’t tell.

There’s also the underused but valuable sense of smell.

The other day it occurred to me that not much has been written about the sense of taste. I had that thought as I was reading a noir story by Joyce Carol Oates, “Faithless,” included in the collection The Best American Noir of the Century (eds. James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, 2010). Here’s the opening:

The last time my mother Cornelia Nissenbaum and her sister Constance saw their mother was the day before she vanished from their lives forever, April 11, 1923.

It was a rainy-misty morning. They’d been searching for their mother because something was wrong in the household; she hadn’t come downstairs to prepare breakfast so there wasn’t anything for them except what their father gave them, glutinous oatmeal from the previous morning hastily reheated on the stove, sticking to the bottom of the pan and tasting of scorch.

That word scorch jumped right into my mouth. Most of us think of that word as a verb. Here it’s used as a noun and as such packs a nice, unexpected punch. It deepens the tone of the scene and thrusts us into the experience of these girls. And as I mentioned in a recent post, putting the most expressive word at the end of a sentence can make all the difference. A lesser writer might have put: hastily reheated on the stove, sticking to the bottom of the pan and giving it a scorched taste.

So that’s one good use of taste—to set a tone consistent with the mood of the story.

Another use of taste is to intensify an emotional feeling. In Jodi Picoult’s The Book of Two Ways, the narrator tells us of the first kiss from a long, lost love. Earlier in the book, we are told this about Wyatt, the lover, an archeologist working in Egypt:

I remember how he smelled like the sun baked into his clothes and also butterscotch. How, weeks later I would learn that he kept sweets in his pocket, for himself and to give to the barefoot children who waited for him in the blistering heat at the entrance to the wadi as we left for the day. 

Then, some 75 pages later, after sharing a bottle of champagne:

“This,” Wyatt said, and he leaned forward and kissed me.

The night tightened around us, a noose. Wyatt’s hand slipped under my braid, curving around the nape of my neck. I tasted champagne and butterscotch and shock. Somehow, Wyatt was just as surprised as I was.

We recall the butterscotch, and we’ve just seen the champagne. But tasting shock? What an arresting way to work in this element of the experience (and, once again, at the end of the sentence).

In Hemingway’s story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” we are in the POV of a dying man, a writer on safari in Africa. He’s got gangrene in his leg and a rescue plane hasn’t shown up. He goes in and out of memories of his past, including the killing of Greek troops, shot by their own officers as they ran from Turkish soldiers:

That was the day he’d first seen dead men wearing white ballet skirts and upturned shoes with pompons on them. The Turks had come steadily and lumpily and he had seen the skirted men running and the officers shooting into them and running then themselves and he and the British observer had run too until his lungs ached and his mouth was full of the taste of pennies and they stopped behind some rocks and there were the Turks coming as lumpily as ever.

A coppery taste in the mouth is associated with fear. You’ll often see it put this way in stories: His mouth tasted like copper or The coppery taste of fear flooded his mouth. But Hemingway wrote it as the taste of pennies. Specific and vivid.

So:

  1. Use taste to deepen scenes of high emotion.
  2. Hunt for an unexpected word (scorch; pennies) to vivify the moment; readers glaze over what’s bland.
  3. See if you can put that word at the end of the sentence.

Okay, I’ve said a mouthful. Over to you:

Have you thought much about the sense of taste in your writing? Any examples you’d like to share?

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Smell Your Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was nosing around for the subject of today’s post, and sniffed out the sense of smell. It is under utilized in fiction. We rightly concentrate on sight and sound, because those are the most immediate and pervasive senses, necessary for the telling of a story. But touch, taste, and smell should be used judiciously to enhance the narrative.

Today, let’s take a whiff of some ways you can use smell in your fiction.

Create a Tone

At some point in the beginning of a scene, use smell to help set the tone. In Michael Connelly’s The Narrows, FBI agent Rachel Walling arrives at a desert crime scene, the work of the notorious serial killer, The Poet:

As they got close to the tents Rachel Walling began to smell the scene. The unmistakable odor of decaying flesh was carried on the wind as it worked through the encampment, billowed the tents and moved out again. She switched her breathing to her mouth, haunted by knowledge she wished she didn’t have, that the sensation of smell occurred when tiny particles struck the sensory receptors in the nasal passages. It meant if you smelled decaying flesh that was because you were breathing decaying flesh.

Boom. I’m there.

Reveal a Theme

In Jordan Dane’s No One Heard Her Scream, San Antonio detective Rebecca Montgomery is ordered into her lieutenant’s office:

Lieutenant Santiago’s office smelled of coffee and stale smoke, a by-product of the old homicide division, before anti-smoking legislation. Central Station had been smoke-free for quite a while, but the stench lingered from years past, infused into the walls. No amount of renovation had ever managed to eliminate the odor.

Not only does this give us an added descriptor of the scene, but it also signifies the conflict between the younger detective and the old-school guard of the department.

Make a Comment

Travis McGee, the creation of John D. MacDonald, is a houseboat-dwelling “salvage expert” who gets dragged into various mysteries. One of the marks of a McGee is when he riffs on some contemporary issue, or makes a generalization that tells us about his view of life. In Nightmare in Pink, McGee is waiting on a bench at a police station, watching “the flow of business.”

It is about as dramatic as sitting in a post office, and there are the same institutional smells of flesh, sweat, disinfectants and mimeo ink. Two percent of police work is involved with blood. All the rest of it is a slow, querulous, intricate involvement with small rules and procedures, violations of numbered ordinances, complaints made out of spite and ignorance, all the little abrasions and irritations of too many people living in too small a space. The standard police attitude is one of tired, kindly, patronizing exasperation.

Now we know why McGee prefers to live on a houseboat, and goes around the cops when he’s on the job.

Show the Inner Life of a Character

McGee again. After the slings and arrows of the mystery in The Turquoise Lament, we have an epilogue. McGee is on his boat, The Busted Flush, with his friend Meyer. They’re playing chess.

I had Meyer crushed until he got cute and found a way to put me in perpetual check with a knight and a bishop. We turned off all the lights and all the servomechanisms that click and queak and we went up to the sun deck to enjoy the September night, enjoy the half moon roving through cloud layers, enjoy a smell of rain on the winds.

I love that smell, too, which carries with it both a sense of peace (which McGee needs) and a portent of coming storms—setting up the next McGee adventure. Nicely done, John D.*

So remember, it never stinks to use the sense of smell in your stories. Does that make scents?

*NOTE: The word queak in the last clip is in the print version I own. I wonder if JDM made a typo and then decided it sounded good, even though it’s not in the dictionary.

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Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details

by Jodie Renner, editor and author  

How often do you hear — or feel — about a rejected novel, “I just couldn’t get into it”? A story might have a great premise and plot, but if we “just can’t get into it,” we’ll put it down and look for another one.

What are some aspects of a novel that make you yawn, go “meh,” or start thinking about what else you could be doing? I would bet that most times it’s because the author hasn’t succeeded in engaging you emotionally, in effectively sucking you into their story world, making you feel like you’re right there with the characters.

I read for entertainment and escapism, so I want to lose myself in a novel, not be a detached observer of the characters and events. Don’t you?

In my editing of fiction, I sometimes see too much general, factual exposition (“info dumps”); or neutral, mostly visual description; or a page or more of straight dialogue (“talking heads”), with little or no indication of where the characters are, what they’re doing, what they’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting, or how they’re feeling/reacting to others and their environment.

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” ~ E. L. Doctorow

In order for your story and characters to come to life on the page, your readers need to be able see what the main character is seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and smell, taste and feel along with him.

And to empathize with and bond with the character, readers also need to see/feel her reactions and thoughts.

“If you write abstractions or judgements, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let us use our senses and form our own interpretations, we will be involved as participants in a real way.”  ~ Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction

So if you’ve written a half-page or more of nonstop dialogue, neutral information-sharing, or description that’s mainly visual, it’s time for some revisions.

To bring your scene and characters to life and engage the readers, evoke all or most of the five senses in almost every scene.

~ SIGHTS. Readers need to see what your viewpoint character sees: pertinent visual impressions of the scene and people around him. And best to include only relevant information, the things that character would actually notice in that scene. We don’t need a detailed description of everything in a room, for example — they’re usually too busy acting and reacting to study the room thoroughly.

Zoom in on some telling details, like smudges on a mirror, sweat on a brow, condensation on a glass, steam from a coffee cup, fists clenched, hands shaking, shoulders hunched, etc.

A small sampling of visual descriptors: glaring, faded, dim, bright, dingy, flashing, dazzling, blurred, sparkling, brilliant, flashy, radiant, shadowy, smudged, streaked, glistening, shiny, gaudy, gleaming, glittering, gloomy, glowing, hazy, misty, shimmering, streaked, twinkling, tarnished

Example of effective visual description:

“…people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.”
Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

~ SOUNDS. We need to hear anything your POV character can hear, including tone of voice.

Some sound verbs: swish, rattle, crash, whack, crackle, gulp, slam, hoot, clatter, crunch, fizz, grind, gurgle, blare, chime, slap, chirp, chortle, thud, chuckle, clash, croak, rumble, croon, drone,  groan, howl, jangle, knock, ping, jingle, plop, roar, rustle, sizzle, slurp, thunk, tinkle, twang, whine, whistle

Example of sounds:

“…the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. … a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire.”
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

~ SCENTS – anything that might be pertinent or bring the scene to life —fresh coffee, an apple pie baking, bacon frying, a suspicious chemical smell, fresh-cut grass, the stench of a dead body decomposing, etc.

Some possible descriptors for scent: musty, damp, stuffy, sweet, sickly, rank, spicy, acidic, perfumed, fetid, musky, suffocating, putrid, tantalizing, mouth-watering, noxious, sharp, foul, rancid, stinky, funky, pungent, piney

Example of smells:

“…they were crammed in a tiny apartment that smelled of burning rubber and foot odor.”
~  Holes by Louis Sachar

~ TOUCH . We should feel any relevant tactile sensations of the viewpoint character.

Some tactile sensations to consider: sticky, fuzzy, slimy, clammy, hairy, silky, smooth, rough, soft, hard, rigid, fluffy, starchy, crisp, corrugated, rippled, abrasive, cracked, tough, bristly, burning, cold, cottony, damp, dry, feathery, furry, gnarled, hot, knobbed, knotted, leathery, limp, lumpy, oily, puffy, ribbed, rubbery, sandy, sharp, smooth, velvety, wet

Example of touch:

“On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy.”
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

~ TASTE.  Let us vicariously taste some of the things the character is eating or drinking.
Some descriptors for tastes: sour, bitter, oily, salty, acidic, spicy, fiery, sweet, rich, buttery, sugary, revolting, biting, fruity, full-bodied, gamy, gross, juicy, sharp, succulent, syrupy, tangy, tart, zesty, zingy

Example of taste:

“Slimy water that tasted like blenderized fishsticks slid down my throat.”
Crown Me! by Kathryn Lay

So if you want to write riveting fiction (and who doesn’t?), don’t keep your readers at a distance, impassively reading the words on the page. Suck them right into your story world, your fictive dream, by making them feel like they’re right there with your character, like they are your character. Evoke sights, sounds, smells, and tastes from the readers’ own memory banks, which will trigger emotions. Scents especially bring back feelings and memories, which readers can draw upon to be active participants in your story.

And show us what the characters are thinking and feeling, too — their inner and outer reactions to what’s going on around them. All of this enhances the readers’ experience and deepens their emotional investment with your story.

Check out these related posts by Jodie: “Show Those Character Reactions” and Phrasing for Immediacy and Power State Cause before Effect, Action before Reaction, Stimulus before Response. And see James Scott Bell’s excellent post yesterday on drawing on your own memory bank of emotions to enhance your fiction.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter.
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