by Robert W. Walker
Amid the clamor of writing, the sounds fill our heads—voices of characters, often clear, distinct and speaking in complete sentences or yelping in pain; then the clang of bells, the whisper of grasshoppers, the feel of a half-wild breeze and her slap to the face, all amid the odors of early spring or late winter, the heat, the cold wrapping us, enthralling us; these are the vivid five senses that overlay every scene and chapter we writers toil at. The easier of the senses, we work hard to triangulate in each and every scene.
Certainly, this was the case with my most recent addition to my longest running series, my Instinct Series #16 entitled DEAD ON INSTINCT; the same can be said for my CITY of LIES. Two extremely different series titles, as one is in present day America and the other in the late 18th Century Chicago and crossing into early 1900. However, as different as these two recently completed novels are in time and place, the Inspector Alastair Ransom Chicago Series being a hystery title – a mystery out of history – Dr. Jessica Coran FBI ME Series is set in the here and now and travels the nation and the globe as a modern day forensics caper series. Still, the way I weave a complicated tale, the two series have much in common.
The two main characters do sift their worlds through their five senses in much the same manner, but Alastair is a streetwise detective who hasn’t anything approximating modern forensics at his disposal, whereas Jessica has it all—that is all known police science and forensic skills at her disposal, and Jess sometimes stretches her imagination out to possible future forensic tricks and tests, as well as theories on how men come into being as monsters.
My point is that in all scenes and chapters, depending upon one’s main character in that moment, a writer reaches a reader through the use of details, and details that are sifted through the fingertips, the ears, the eyes, the nose and the tongue of an Alastair Ransom or a Jessica Coran, unless, that is, the chapter calls for a separate point of view, say the fire marshal or the villain or a victim about to be clobbered. Even so, these other multiple viewpoint characters then must take on the task of ‘sifting’ this fictional Chicago or London or Quantico through their five senses.
Whenever one is rushing and plowing through a scene, even yours truly despite all the novels and short stories I’ve penned, the brain does a lazy thing in allowing the narrator of the tale to describe the necessary setting, props, and the five senses s/he dictates outright. It can be done and done well as in James Hanley’s short story The Butterfly wherein the reader is told what to think of each character or that kind of thing can be turned over to the character(s) telling the story and living the story as in Richard Matheson’s brilliant short called Born of Man and Woman.
Narratively speaking, Hanley’s Butterfly put against Matheson’s tale of dysfunction proves that narrative alone lessens the impact and power of the storytelling. And so often I am having to rewrite narrative scenes that do what Hanley does, stacking up a thesaurus of descriptive words as the main tool for the storytelling, as opposed to allowing the POV character to do the heavy lifting. So often nowadays, as I work a scene, it dawns on me that I have lost track of the point of view character with whom I should be inside of, feel her down to each itch and sneeze, to remind myself whose scene is it, the character’s or the narrator’s? Just whose five senses are being impacted and reacting to this setting, this prop, the expressions of others in the here and now.
These lapses, these failures of losing sight of a character’s senses in mid scene, while banging out a scene, occur all the time. The lazy side of our brains, after all, wants ‘be done with it, to move on, to take the easy way out’! Just let the narrator sing, like the chorus in a Greek play, to explain things for the audience—no! Nada, not in a novel or story once you keep reminding yourself of one question: Whose story is it anyway? Whose scene is this one, who gets that one, and how does he feel about his setting, and how does she tactilely react to that prop or dog or cat or clue or expression on another’s face? It must come through from the mind at the center of the scene, and from a fully realized character.
In writing my novels, using multiple viewpoint ala third person, one surefire way to flesh out a fully realized character is close attention to the details brought on by the five senses, and, once in a great while, that sixth spiritual sense lifts out of somewhere like a siren song. To this end, I do my best to use the character’s innermost feelings and experience with the world around him—down to Alastair’s love affair with his blue-burnished steel eight-shooter from Smith & Wesson, and Jessica’s love for the gift her father bestowed when she completed studies to become an ME—a golden scalpel. Alastair uses a wolf’s head cane after a near death experience at the infamous Haymarket Riot, while Jessica is gifted a cane by a wiseman in Hawaii who insists she will need it. Both characters’ lives were saved by those props. And both have a relationship with their canes. For him it is by now another limb, but for her it is a nuisance and a crutch that she must challenge and overcome.
Both these so different characters feel the darkness crowding in and making for wakeful nights, and in Jessica’s case her loneliness and inability to keep a man or have children brings readers to tears until the demon within her appears, and there’s no time for pity and tears as swift action and perhaps a sure shot is required. Alastair, too, is haunted by bad nights as the Mara visits, that succubus of old. These are complex characters who got that way, yes, over a long series of tales and adventures, but they also became so rounded by the five to six senses they share, and how they share their six senses with my readers.
I almost constantly am thinking of the readers when I do a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a scene and a chapter. Keeping one’s readers in mind keeps the author on his/her toes. If you find yourself ignoring the readers, you do it at the peril of the story and the peril is the sterile—sterile story that is; what I call a flatline story that has no depth or forward moving dynamo, and as narrative can fall into being a treatise chockful of passive and helping verbs and qualifying words. Dead writing, sleep inducing writing (which I see more often published than not)
Even in a talking heads scene, there are ways to captivate and enthrall readers, and most certainly two characters in an 1893 Chicago Irish Pub can fascinate readers if they are cautiously plotting the murder of a third character, who as well has been given full life. It is really all in the process, the method, the devil or angel in the details, or flatly stated, the execution. There is the meat and potatoes on the plate, but there is also presentation of the meal, and I submit again that the author’s best execution and presentation involves sound effects, lots of them in and around the talking heads, and props, lots, and odors the same, as with taste and touch, and if that Pub is a cathedral or not for Alastair Ransom, then the execution might reach the level of the sixth sense for author and reader.
Many an author has brayed this line: “I am my first reader and the only reader I have to satisfy” and there’s some truth in that but not much, and okay, it works if your first reader is both you and others in your head as well, others you respect—like your teachers, mentors, living and dead authors you have learned from—the writer’s writer you mimic. As with artists, the best writers learned from those before them, and some look over our shoulders. Twain for instance taught me great lessons and still looks over my shoulder while I work. Spooky? No, smart as I take his direction and admonishments: “When in doubt, strike it out.”
When writing for the first reader—oneself—I go with sound and sense. Like a poetic line. If it sounds good/great and doesn’t grate, and it makes clear holy sense, sound and sense, go with it. Clarity of line and purpose is #1 in the ten deadly sins people commit in writing. So, first be clear, and if it sounds good in how you are being clear, go with that 1st reader that you are, your first editor and critic as well as reader, but never totally ignore the fact that you are reaching out to a larger and larger audience as well. In considering audience proper, you’re much more likely then to consider their ears, eyes, noses, fingertips and tongues, and thus more likely in the execution of a given scene to avoid those moments when your narrative storyteller steals the scene from the walking and talking characters, thus losing sight of props and all the six senses.
In allowing the ensemble of actors in one’s story the work of speaking and acting out, we arrive at active drama and avoid passive description. We arrive at the sixth sense of a scene, which reallyjust might be that ability to truly shake the neck of the reader and put a shiver through his/her spine. And always remember what a character says and does is who s/he is, so we needn’t be told by a narrator to like or dislike, to trust or not to trust a character. It is then unnecessary for the narrator to dictate to the readers the characteristics in the protagonist or the antagonist. That sort of narrative interjection went out with the 17th Century novel if I’m not mistaken, a novel like Moll Flanders.
As a teacher of this stuff, I always end my lectures with that which will be chiseled on my tombstone: Does it make sense? Of course, I hope so—that it makes good, solid sense—and I hope this brief touching on my two longest running series, save for my Bloodscreams Horror Series has helped those seeking any guidance in writing. To get into the nitty-gritty of writing my class in a book form is DEAD on Writing – a how-to for the dysfunctional writer in us all.This is an ebook as well as an audible title. For a browse through my 80 books visit www.robertwalkerbooks.com and I have a presence on Twitter and Facebook. See ya around and work out those six senses!