How To Improve Your Scenes With Sensory Writing
Improving with sensory writing can completely change your story and how your reader responds to it. It requires not only creativity but an ability to convey a character’s experiences realistically. Don’t let it daunt you; it’s worth learning just for the improvement in your writing.
This post is all about getting past just the writing visually and learning to open up and write with the rest of your senses. To be clear, this is not required in every scene you write. I feel like sensory writing is a balancing act. It’s about moving through some scenes from far away, then coming in for the close up—the close up being full of sensory experiences. Having an entire story of this type of writing could likely end up dragging on a bit as you go into far too much detail about walking to the front door to get the mail. But if a killer (or lets say raunchy pizza guy) is on the other side of that door, maybe you do want a bit of a close up as anticipation builds.
I’m from a musical theater background—and I write gay erotica, fucking shocker there. I’ve taken some dance, but I’m not very good at it. There’s something about PTSD and disassociation that makes it difficult for people in my situation to fully connect with our bodies. But I did take voice and was a cantor for years making money off of being a living musical instrument. These are all sensory occupations. Acting, dancing, singing—lets spread out to sports, walking and running, doing funny voices or making faces in the mirror.
You don’t have to have been a professional, just trying to get you to look at things you may have done and see where your body came into play. Anytime you had to stop, see what your body was doing, and correct it, you were forcing yourself to acknowledge a sensation through your body and analyze. You might not remember your first steps as a baby but you were doing it then as well. Try crab walking, or doing the electric slide or even just stretching intentionally. Feel your body in the world, its interaction with the floor, or seat, or the temperature of air around you—smells, sounds, phantom sensations that connect to emotions. This is what it means to be alive, in this moment. Now write about it.
I know a lot of erotica writers feel it’s just easier for the reader to get into a scene when they sit back and write from afar. By all means if they’re comfortable with that. It must be working because I come across plenty of successful writers that follow that mentality. But I don’t write just for a faceless reader, or so I can one day make a living, I write because a part of me wants to bring my fantasy to life.
If I were painting a picture (which I’ve been known to do) I don’t just make a superficial sketch of some fantasy being and then be done with it. I want to see that creature come alive. I had an idea in my head and I want it to be as close to breathing as possible.
I’m a visual person as my digital painting examples. This little guy does not exist in real life but after 30 plus hours of digital painting, drawing stupid little lines of feathery beauty and painting every damn shadow and highlight on every seed of those strawberries, cracks on the beak and dust on the floor, you might think he’s hiding out in your kitchen. This unfortunately is a reflection of my neuroticism as well as my love of realism, but you get the idea. With the right details your scenes can come alive, beautiful sparkling gems that make your reader pause, become absorbed and engaged, and hopefully return for more.
So back to acting. Acting is the imitation of life through the body. I’m sure there are more sophisticated definitions but that’s what I’m focusing on for this. Writing is the imitation of life through words. So even though you may not have experienced a threesome or been with a werewolf or had tentacles grab you and have their way with you, as a writer/actor you have the ability to still make it seem real for your reader.
I’ve never written a tentacle fic. I have dissected a squid in science class, it reeking of formaldehyde at the time. I’ve eaten both octopus and calamari, and when it’s overcooked it’s terribly rubbery and unchewable, and when it’s not it’s tender with a firm feel of flesh that slices into clean breaks when bit and makes my teeth itch to remember. Growing up by the ocean, I’ve seen a fair share of both, even had renters that cooked us up a beautiful batch of octopus when we visited once. Still haven’t seen a tentacle large enough to do the things these sorts of fics ask for.
Touch—felt as well as how it feels. Texture, temperature, level of firmness, moisture content, vibration, chemical reaction to the give of the material to your own flesh.
Taste—limited to direct contact with tongue and mouth.
Smell—although the nose is utilized, scent can sometimes be all encompassing depending on the strength of it until it’s filling the air or just a tickling tendril teasing past.
Sight—most writing is already focused on this, but sometimes to get more intimate you need to get behind your characters eyes and see exactly what they see from their own bangs limiting the view.
Sound—Every action has one, even the whisper of fingers scraping flesh.
Let’s go back to those giant tentacles. What does a mix of rubber and flesh feel like? Have you ever touched a dolphin? I feel like giant tentacles would feel like a dolphin’s skin, but I’ve never actually been near a dolphin. So you have to take the experiences you have had and creatively lie to create what you think that would feel like.
Sleek, smooth with sporadic bumps along the surface. Beneath the cool drip of the water sliding from it, the flesh feels warm, growing warmer the longer it’s exposed to the air and touching your flesh. Smells like ocean, taste like bitter salt water leaving a film of rough powder on your skin as it dries. What about those little suction cups? They’re rubbery, firm, maybe with a tickling ruffle around the edge right before they grip tight. What’s the emotional impact to that sensation? Frightening? Surprising? Not sure if you’re going to have a big red welt if you can pry the thing off?
That’s the second step to sensory and just as important. The emotional/physical reaction. You created a sensory experience but it doesn’t fully matter if you don’t have someone there to feel the sensations and react. Otherwise you’re playing with dolls. Some people might like to watch dolls do things, but I think the experience is better served with people for a more intimate feel.
You might not know what it’s like to suddenly have a giant tentacle grab you around the waist while you’re hiking past a shore—pretty sure no one really knows what that’s like unless they’re like two inches tall with some aggressive octopus chasing after them. But you can still create a realistic experience by using the sensations you record every day around you.
Don’t remember what rubber feels like? Go to the mall, find a toy store and get some molded plastic figurines, some that wiggle, some that don’t. Touch them, analyze what the sensation is, and try and write it.
Don’t know how you’d feel about being grabbed by a tentacle monster? Remember a time when a friend or older sibling or parent grabbed you around the waist as you were running by, strong enough to lift you off your feet. That feel of breathlessness for a minute, maybe a twisting pain in the stomach as it was pushed down too hard, the slight thrill of leaving the ground. Maybe you were laughing hysterically at the time, or really angry at being pulled from what you were doing. It wasn’t a tentacle monster but it was an experience you can pick apart for real life sensations and emotional reactions that can then be altered for your story.
I’ll be truthful, outside of high school I have never taken a writing course beside English lit. No creative writing or anything like that. Did a lot of argumentative essays and a thesis or two and that’s about it on an academic level. I read books about the craft of writing, read in general writers that I enjoyed. I was so shocked when I came across Dean Koontz for the first time. I’m not big on being scared shitless, but he was the first author I had read that had a casual flare to his writing that I had just been starting to embrace. That said, I remember back in middle school being asked to write an essay about the description of an orange to a blind person.
It took the visual of the fruit out of the mix completely. No eyes, pure sensory. And in eating an orange with my eyes closed to get an idea of the flavor and smell, I noticed immediately those little emotional responses to the sensory input.
Another one that would be good? What’s it really feel like to be cold? Really? Stick your hand in the freezer and hold onto a tub of ice cream (if you’re so lucky to have some in there) and let your hand freeze up. You read plenty of scenes where someone is cold, but are they mentioning the way their breath turns to vapor, their nose dripping while the little nose hairs prickle as they freeze the water vapor of your breath, the numbness of your upper lip and how you clench it over your teeth to keep them from feeling like they’re going to crack? How your fingers don’t want to curl fully anymore, feeling stiff, the nails turning purple, feeling half numb, half swollen but looking so thin and white? Ears burning cold. Ass feeling numb, thighs chaffing and raw with each step scraping with your jeans. The shivers that shake your body, the odd sensation of heat where your hair covers your neck and how it’s almost uncomfortable because you’re growing used to the cold and feeling heat somehow makes it all worse? Are you legs connected anymore? When you finally get home are your feet going to be dark and frozen solid because even though you know, you know it shouldn’t be the case because it hasn’t been that long, part of you is certain your feet are about to fall off, it’s that fucking cold.
You don’t need to be an actor, you just need to pay attention to your body. And beyond that, sensation might be experienced in the body, but it’s analyzed and understood in the brain. The same place your writing is being analyzed. When you feed the brain enough information, it can do a reverse, feeling things through the body. Which is why our heart rate increases during those scenes of suspense, or our chest feels tight when characters are having a violent argument. When we start crying because something in a book just hit us and we weren’t expecting it to. We’re having a physical response to written stimuli. So why not utilize it for a better erotic experience as well?
Seriously, why not? You might be really shy. It might be too much to have to feel those sensations and then write them out and share them with complete strangers. It’s okay, it’s up to you. But for your own personal writing, you might find it worthwhile. Getting in the body and feeling is the quickest way to remember you’re alive and on this planet and worth something. You don’t have to share that experience if you feel too vulnerable, but there’s nothing wrong with feeling vulnerable alone.
Or so I say. I have a guy in my life that can’t hula hoop even alone because he feels too self conscious. No one is there but he just can’t do it. I’m a crazy person that sometimes goes completely numb and can’t handle the thought of feeling any sort of sensation because of stuff that happened to me before I was old enough to walk. Personally I think the best way to get over these sorts of anxiety things is to acknowledge the uncomfortable and go and do it anyways. You learn to laugh at yourself, to let go and chill and just experience life. Nothing wrong with realizing you’re not going to die if you feel something new. Especially if you get something beneficial out of it, like writing better or just shaking your hips all sexy like. But it’s a personal thing. Maybe start with the orange. Or just eat that tub of ice cream. I could totally go for some ice cream.