Again, this was originally written with the National Novel Writing Month audience in mind, but the technique is important. In fact, I’d argue depth is the most important trick every fiction writer must learn. Learn how to add depth, and your fiction will become more vibrant and colorful.
Churning out 1,667 words a day is always tricky business. A gazillion techniques have been developed by wrimos to attain this goal. Today, I’ll demonstrate a technique that will not only beef up your word count, but also allow you to get deeper inside your character’s head and flesh out the setting in greater detail.
Writing with depth is a powerful tool that, once you’ve practiced long enough, will bring your story to life and even help you write cleaner first drafts.
How to begin? Let’s start with a simple sentence, boring as dirt:
Karen walked into the diner. (5 words)
The above sentence is nothing but fake details. We know nothing about Karen, how she’s walking, or what the diner is like. The character could be any female in any diner, anywhere in the world.
How do writers make characters and settings come alive? The technique is simple and difficult to pull off at the same time.
Use all five senses from the character’s point of view. Sight, smell, sound, taste, touch.
To demonstrate this, let’s rewrite the scene about Karen, but add in sight only.
Karen walked into the diner. Happy people ate at the shiny chrome-top bar. Karen wanted to turn around and leave.
Children ran amok. Frumpy middle aged parents sat in the ugly red vinyl booths. No family sat within ten feet of another, as if to keep the little ones safe from the other brats.
Just another Tuesday at Ned’s Greasy Spoon Family Diner. Could’ve been Wednesday or Thursday. Each day, except for the crazy weekend, was inter-changeable.
Karen squinted behind her wrap-around mirror shades. The diner was always too bright, even with the yellowed venetian blinds in the over-sized picture windows.
She clutched last week’s paycheck—fifty dollars short this time—and crossed her arms. The potted cactus next to the point-of-service terminal was dying. When Karen first started, the cactus was bright green with bright yellow blooms. Now it was a shriveled beauty, brown as the pot it used to live in. The blooms fell off, dead on the cracked grey dirt. (169 words)
So now we have a little more about Karen and the diner, but the writing feels thin and dry. I’m not terribly proud of my scene, actually. Karen still isn’t a flesh and blood woman. As far we know, she’s naked except for her sunglasses. This diner is slightly clearer, but not by much. We also have some hint to Karen as a character, and her attitudes and opinions.
At least this time around, I have more words. One-tenth of the way to my Nano goal of 1,667 words!
So let’s try to add in all five senses, and see what happens.
The smells of grilled burgers and greasy French fries made Karen sick to the stomach. The stench seemed to seep all the way through her black jeans and white tank top, to her underwear and into her skin. Add to that, the happy schmuks eating at the shiny chrome-top bar—each person drinking either a watered down diet soda or vanilla milkshakes—and Karen wanted to turn around and leave.
She might’ve. But her swollen feet hurt too damn much.
Children ran amok, screaming at the top of their lungs. Frumpy middle aged parents sat in the ugly red vinyl booths, yelling at their children and pretending to maintain a semblance of normality. No family sat within ten feet of another, as if to keep the little ones safe from the other brats.
Just another Tuesday at Ned’s Greasy Spoon Family Diner. Could’ve been Wednesday or Thursday. Each day, except for the crazy weekend, was interchangeable.
Karen squinted behind her wrap-around mirror shades. The diner was always too bright, even with the yellowed venetian blinds in the over-sized picture windows drawn tighter than her former boss’s fist clamped around a wad of cash.
She clutched last week’s paycheck—fifty dollars short this time—and crossed her arms, her black leather jacket creaking. With a steel-toed boot, she kicked the potted cactus next to the point-of-service terminal. The POS station. When Karen first started, the cactus was bright green with bright yellow blooms. Now, it was a shriveled beauty, brown as the pot it used to live in. The blooms fell off, dead on the cracked grey dirt. (274 words)
Here we have all five senses: sight (the bar, the booths), smell (the burgers and fries cooking), touch (her swollen feet count), taste (could’ve done better, but we know Karen hates diet soda and vanilla milkshakes), and sound (screaming kids).
Now, we are much deeper inside Karen’s head. I’ve given you a sense of how I see the character and her attitudes. The diner is better described, though I still feel like I could’ve gone further. I’ve also hinted at a problem for Karen to solve. If I were a better writer, I could layer in even more from her five senses, and really make this scene shine. On another pass I might add some more sensory detail—the after-taste of her menthol cigarettes, for example.
Adding sensory detail helps with word count issues during Nano. Stuck on a tricky passage? Dive into the character’s head and describe the world as she senses it. You can never be too rich and thick with the five senses.
Beyond the word count, sensory details also help you develop your characters. By dropping into Karen’s head and seeing the world through her eyes, I developed her as a character. I never fill out character sheets or do sketches before starting a story. Instead, I write an opening like I did in example #3, and go with the flow.
Writing with depth takes practice. So the homework here is to make sure you add five senses every 500 words of your novel.
Copyright ©2017 David Anthony Brown
Image at the top: Copyright ©2017 Anna Langova/PublicDomainPictures.net
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