Description: Sensory Impressions

We want our scenes to be immersive and believable. But sometimes description feels flat and lifeless. A common weakness is not using sensory impressions effectively. Often, there is too much focus on the visual. We don’t just see the world -we experience it through smells, sounds, temperature, and many other senses (not just five). Writing should capture these other kinds of experiences.

It’s not just about using multiple senses -it’s also about choosing the right details to construct an immersive and psychologically convincing sensory experience.

In order to make our writing more immersive and believable, we should practice engaging multiple sensory modalities, and learn how we can effectively use various sensory details to construct vivid and immersive scenes.

This post is about developing the ability to use sense impressions and details effectively. There will be a few concepts discussed, and lots of exercises for practice.

Learning Goals

Understand the meaning and importance of sensory density; Develop range across sensory modalities, and awareness of options for increasing sensory density; Practice writing with high sensory density; Understand how distancing language reduces immersion; Practice avoiding distancing language; Understand salient details and telling details; practice using salient details and telling details.

Sensory Density

Sensory Density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. A passage that only has visual sense impressions has low sensory density. A passage that engages multiple sensory modalities has high sensory density.

I could describe a walk through part of the city by showing the reader discarded shoes hanging from power-lines, old payphones caked with grime, a boarded up house on the corner, potholes. You’re beginning to see what kind of a place this is. But it’s not immersive description -not as immersive as it could have been if I also mentioned urine fumes from the sidewalk, the hacking coughs of old men, clouds of cigarette smoke -things that impinge on different senses.

A common rule of thumb is to engage three different senses to make a scene feel real.

The following lines of poetry have a very high sensory density:

All through the night the dead

crunch pieces of ice from the moon. (Yannis Ritsos)

This line of surreal poetry, though not aiming to be believable, is vivid and evocative. Part of its strength comes from the density of sensory impressions. We have sight, sound, taste, temperature, passage of time, all engaged in the space of one sentence. It conveys a creepy sense of weary, dissatisfied restlessness, and maybe dread or existential angst. I don’t know what it looks like for the dead to crunch pieces of ice from the moon -and I’m not sure you could find pieces of moon-ice big enough to crunch, or how the dead might get those pieces, or how they would crunch them- but the surreal line comes to life because of the evocative sensory imagery.

Here is another example of high sensory density.

“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde)

We can say that a passage conveys a sense impression to the extent that the reader is able to answer questions about the passage related to that sense. For the passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray, we could test what was conveyed by asking such questions:

  • Could you say what temperature the wind was?

  • How frequently it was blowing?

  • The sound it made?

  • The smell(s)?

  • What the studio looked like inside?

  • What it looked like outside, through the open door?

The passage manages to paint a vivid picture across several senses (and all of that from one sentence that is, grammatically, just about the smell). That’s sensory density.

Exercise – Sense Modalities

There’s way more than five senses. The point of this exercise is practicing with senses we might not normally consider, in order to expand our range with different sensory experiences. Some of these exercises will require you to really flex your descriptive and creative muscles.

There’s a table below with a series of different senses listed in the left hand column. For each one, your job is to come up with a description that uses that sense (write out a chart like this on a sheet of paper). Use your imagination to come up with any scene, setting, action, or object you want to describe. Or use any of the following prompts: piece of fruit, visiting a planet, magic spell, meeting an alien, fist fight, explosion, losing consciousness, stepping through a portal, skiing, falling asleep on a couch.

For example, in the “sight” row, you might choose to describe an apple using sight. For the “temperature” row, you might describe a cup of coffee. Use only one sentence per description. The purpose of this exercise is just to expand awareness of available sensory modalities, and to practice making descriptions using these different senses.

sense modality description that uses that sense
sight
sound
smell
taste
touch
proprioception
temperature
balance
familiarity/recognition
chronoception
interoception (your choice)
electroception

Exercises: Sensory Density

The point of these exercises is to practice sensory density. For each of the following prompts, write a description that engages three(3) or more senses. The main goal of this exercise is to practice coming up with different sensory impressions for the same scene. It is up to you to rely on your creativity to fill in the sensory details.

Additional instructions:

  • 2 to 3 sentences in length per exercise
  • 3rd person, past tense
  • The POV character is your choice

Prompts: (for each one, use three or more senses!)

  1. Going to the dentist.
  2. Playing hockey outside.
  3. Trench warfare.
  4. Shopping at a large mall.
  5. Dumpster diving.
  6. Casting a magic spell.

Exercises: Sensory Density part 2 – specific challenges

For each of the following, render the given scene/action/object by using the specified sense(s). Some of these are super challenging. Some might require a little bit of research.

Additional instructions:

  • 4 to 6 sentences in length per exercise.
  • 3rd person, past tense.
  • When a specific sense is asked for, come up with a descriptive detail that makes that sense relevant. For example, if you are asked to use smell, you will have to invent some detail in your scene that can be smelled; if you are asked to use nociception, you will have to invent some reason why the POV character is in pain.

Exercises:

  1. Render: dumpster diving, from the POV of a blind raccoon, using touch, smell, taste, and sound. Don’t use vision.
  2. Render: hunting shrimp, from the POV of a narwhal, using any combination of senses, but including salinity detection.
  3. Render: being abducted by aliens, from the POV of a farmer, using any combination of senses, but including sense of gravity, proprioception, chronoception, balance, and interoception (your choice). Make it weird.
  4. Render: running from the police, from the POV of a burglar, using any combination of senses, but including nociception and cardioception.
  5. Render: sick on a rollercoaster, from the POV of someone who ate too much cotton candy, using any combination of senses, but including taste, smell, and at least three different forms of interoception.

 Salient Impressions

Salient impressions are the most powerful sensory impressions in a given scene or setting. They are the things that stand out to the viewpoint character.

Try to render salient sensory impressions for any scene or setting. Imagine yourself in place of the viewpoint character -or rely on a memory of something similar- and capture what draws your attention: in an outhouse, that might be the smell; in a subway, that might be the feeling of cramped bodies invading your personal space, or the jerk-and-stutter of the train while you search for something to hold for balance; if you step outside in winter, the salient impression might be the cold.

Because salient impressions are the ones that draw our attention, it makes sense for them to be included in your descriptions, not just because it helps render the scene, but because it increases psychological fidelity. Your prose will better match psychological reality if you focus on the sensory impressions that are more plausibly drawing the attention of the viewpoint character. And, conversely, immersion can be ruined by focusing on low-salience details when a high-salience detail is available (imagine reading a passage where the POV character is set on fire, and they describe the smell and the colours of the flame: immersion is guaranteed to be broken; the focus in this case should be on the heat and the pain, because of their salience).

Telling Details

The smell of flowers coming through an open window is a “telling detail”, because it also helps to illustrate a larger picture -we can picture the garden even though we are only given the scent.

Telling details are descriptions of smaller parts of the scene that help to paint a bigger picture. Unlike salient details, they are not necessarily the strongest sensory impressions. But telling details give an indication or suggestion of the larger scene, allowing the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. For example:

  • The ascending-and-descending pitch of a race-car’s engine as it whooshes by. This detail is just about the characteristic sound. But it helps render the larger scene. We can picture the race-car. Maybe we can also feel the wind.

  • A single pair of sneakers squeaking on the basketball court, and the rhythmic bouncing of the ball. Again, this detail is just about the sound. But we can imagine someone practicing basketball by themselves on an empty -probably indoor- basketball court. We can picture their motions. The sound gives an indication of a larger scene.

  • Broken bottles and cigarette butts littering an apartment hallway. I don’t need to explicitly tell you that this is a dirty and run-down apartment. The telling detail informs you of the larger scene. If I asked you whether any of the lights are broken or burnt out, your imagination can probably supply the answer.

A trick for rapidly establishing a scene is to use one broad description, just to situate the reader’s imagination, and then supplement that broad description with one telling detail. The formula is: broad description plus telling detail.

Dave Chappelle used this technique with comedic effect (successful comedians are master story-tellers). He wanted to describe a particularly bad ghetto. This is how he set the scene:

We pulled up to an old rickety building[…]

That’s the broad description. Then comes a telling detail (which Dave Chappelle calls one of “the familiar symptoms of a project”):

A [expletive] crackhead ran this way [skittering noise][…] And then another one jumped out a tree [skittering noise][…].

You could think of “telling details” as “familiar symptoms” if you prefer Dave Chappelle’s terminology. He continues the routine by adding additional telling details to further colour the scene:

I look out the window. Remember, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. […] I look out the window. There was a [expletive] baby standing on the corner. And the baby -the baby didn’t even look scared. He was just standing there.

It’s a funny picture, but it proves the point. When you want to describe a scene, give the broad description, and then colour it with “telling details” (or “familiar symptoms”).

Don’t over-describe. It is often better to let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting. Give them a telling detail and let their mind fill in the blanks.

Exercises: Telling Details

Your goal with these exercises is to rapidly establish a scene by using one broad description, and one or two telling details. You are practicing coming up with evocative details. They should be small details that help paint a bigger picture. Try to create as vivid a scene as you can by using small, suggestive details that create an impression of the larger scene.

Additional instructions:

  • 1 to 2 sentences in length per exercise. Don’t cheat by using really long sentences. Part of the exercise is condensing your descriptions. Deliver a powerful punch by using telling details.
  • 3rd person, past tense.
  • POV character is up to you.

Exercises:

  1. Render: a medieval battlefield after a gruesome battle.
  2. Render: the lobby of a fancy hotel.
  3. Render: an island paradise.
  4. Render: a maniacal gang leader.
  5. Render: a bookish and nerdy university student.
  6. Render: a magical kingdom.
  7. Render: an evil kingdom of a dark lord.
  8. Render: a goblin with a heart of gold.
  9. Render: a prison with a bad reputation full of violent criminals.
  10. Render: the class clown.

Distancing Language (also called “filter words”)

Avoid using language like “he saw” or “she smelled” or “Billy heard” in your descriptions, and instead show the sensations directly. When you present a sensory impression by indicating that a particular character is the one sensing it, you place that character as a barrier between the reader and the experience. This distances the reader from the experience. This is called using “distancing language” or “filter words”. It makes the reader experience less immediate and less immersive.

When you are editing your prose, look for distancing language and get rid of it. When rendering a sensory detail, you don’t need to indicate which sense is being engaged, or who is doing the experiencing. I don’t need to say “the smell of urine fuming from the sidewalk” -by mentioning “urine fumes” the sense modality is implied; I don’t need to say “Billy smelled urine fumes” -if Billy is the point of view character, it is implicit that it is Billy who is experiencing those fumes. By indicating either of these things explicitly, you distance the reader from the experience, putting an additional layer between them and the experience.

Avoid distancing language whenever possible. Don’t say, “Billy saw a goat standing there.” Just show the goat. Leave Billy out of it.

 Exercises: Avoiding Distancing Language

Fix each of the following passages by eliminating the distancing language. They are not good passages, and they need some revision. For some of them, you will have to be creative and invent your own details about the scene (eliminating distancing language is not always a simple matter of cutting words). Feel free to add or delete words as necessary, or completely rework the passage (as long as the gist is the same). Your primary goal is to make the passage feel more immersive by eliminating distancing language -but that will sometimes require inventing details.

  1. Billy walked in to the barn. He could smell that the goat had left something for him.

  2. Gertrude jumped out of the plane. She felt the wind, and she saw the ground far below, but growing slowly larger.

  3. He felt a pull on his hand, like a magnet, sticking his hand to the rune-symbol on the wall.

  4. She walked outside. The temperature was very low, and the wind felt very cold on her face. (For this one, please also get rid of the word “very” both times it appears).

  5. X89’s cyber-sensors picked up the reading of an electromagnetic field. He could feel the buzzing of the field. The device must be nearby.

Review

Sensory density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. Prose with a high sensory density will feel more real and immersive than prose with a low sensory density. A rule of thumb is to aim for three different senses.

Try to give salient sensory impressions. In addition to helping to render the scene, this increases psychological fidelity. Conversely, a passage that neglects a high-salience impression to focus on a low-salience one risks breaking reader immersion.

Avoid distancing language (filter words) like “he saw” or “she smelled” and instead show the sensations directly.

Use broad details to set the scene, and telling details to add colour to the scene. Don’t over-describe. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the scene based on your telling details.

In our exercises, we practiced eliminating distancing language, rewriting to increase sensory density, rendering a scene with high sensory density, using salient details, and using telling details.

Final Words

I hope you liked this post on sensory impressions. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, etc. in the comment section.

This site is updated at least once a week with new content. Come back soon for more posts on writing craft or related topics.

If you want updates on articles like this one, join my mailing list.

Psychic Distance

Writers need to be able to control how close they are to the mind of their viewpoint character. They need to be able to zoom-in or pull-back depending on the passage.

This aspect of narrative style is called “psychic distance” -how close the narration is to the mind of the viewpoint character. If you want a book for this and other topics on the craft of fiction, check out John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction”.

Learning Goals

Our learning goals are to understand the importance of psychic distance, and its relation to emotional writing; to understand the effect of psychic distance on reader experience; to be able to recognize four different levels of psychic distance; and, to be able to modulate psychic distance in our writing.

Four Levels of Psychic Distance

Consider the following passage:

There was a pie on the windowsill. Billy was hungry, and he thought the pie smelled delicious. I’m going for it, Billy thought. Yum! Blueberry!

This passage goes through four distinct levels of psychic distance, beginning at the most psychically distant -facts outside of Billy’s head- to the most psychically proximal -inside Billy’s head, experiencing what he does directly, without the interference of a narrator.

The closer we move inside Bill’y head, the more we experience his world as our own. Psychically proximal writing is more emotional and more immediate.

The following chart summarizes the levels of psychic distance:

psychic distance explanation example
objective outside of character’s head; facts/observations about world There was a pie on the windowsill
reporting; indirect thought inside character’s head, summarized/amended by narrator Billy was hungry, and he thought the pie smelled delicious
transcribing; direct thought inside character’s head,
passed directly by narrator
I’m going for it, Billy thought.
stream of consciousness deepest inside character’s head,
unmediated by narrator
Yum! Blueberry!

We could rewrite the Billy passage to illustrate by contrast the effect of psychic distance.

A pie, right on the windowsill! That pie smells delicious, Billy thought. He decided he was going to eat the pie. And he did.

Here, the psychic distance goes from closest to furthest. It is not as good when written this way. There is something unsatisfying about pulling away from the experience as the action progresses. Really, we want to be emotionally proximal at the close of the passage, where the action is (eating the pie).

As a general rule, action and tension should increase as a passage progresses. Maybe as a related principle we could say that psychic distance should be drawn closer as a paragraph progresses -establish the necessary facts, then shrink the psychic distance, and show us the experience.

How close or far should the psychic distance generally be? I don’t think it is possible to answer this question. It is an issue of style and the type of story you are telling. The important thing is that you, as a writer, are able to control psychic distance in order to achieve the effect on the reader that you’re aiming for. You need to be able to skillfully modulate psychic distance to serve your narrative purposes.

The following exercises are designed to develop skill with psychic distance.

Exercises

For each of the following exercises, we’ll use third person limited, past tense.

  1. Write four sentences, each at a different psychic distance, about someone running through a red light.
  2. Write four sentences, each at a different psychic distance, about someone being chased by a dog.
  3. Write four sentences, each at a different psychic distance, about someone passing a lemonade stand on a hot day.
  4. Write a passage about one continuous play in soccer or hockey, involving some combination of passing, movement, shooting, etc, where there the final sentence is a goal scored; the psychic distance of the sentences, in order, will be 4(2/3)4(2/3)4321, with 4 representing the furthest psychic distance and 1 the closest (and numbers separated by a slash are a choice).
    • What emotional effect did the changing psychic distance have on the writing?
    • What did you like or not like about the passage you wrote?
    • What change(s) to the pattern of psychic distance could be made to improve the passage (by changing existing sentences or by adding new ones)? Make those changes.
  5. Write a passage about a soldier in a war-zone; the psychic distance of the sentences, in order, will be 44(2/3)111(2/3)44, with 4 representing the furthest psychic distance and 1 the closest (and numbers separated by a slash are a choice).
    • What emotional effect did the changing psychic distance have on the writing?
    • What did you like or not like about the passage you wrote?
    • What change(s) to the pattern of psychic distance could be made to improve the passage (by changing existing sentences or by adding new ones)? Make those changes.

Recap

Psychic distance is how close the narration is to the mind of the viewpoint character. The psychic distance that is appropriate depends on the effect the writer is trying to achieve. Writers need to be able to modulate psychic distance.

We practiced writing at different levels of psychic distance; we reflected on the effect of psychic distance on reader experience; we practiced modulating psychic distance, and experimented with patterns of psychic distance as they might appear in a passage.

Final Words

I hope you liked this article on Psychic Distance. This site is updated at least once a week with articles about writing.

David

Description: Narrative Lensing

Writers don’t describe. That’s a painter’s job. Writers render experiences by filtering them through a narrative lens.

Is the cigar smoke “coiled around her neck” or “draped over her shoulders”? Nothing in the physical scene determines this.

“How do you describe a werewolf?” is the wrong question; “How does the protagonist see a werewolf?” is the question. The answer is: it depends on whether they are a werewolf-hunter or someone trying to run away.

A sad person might see the gray clouds, and a happy person might see the bright sun, looking up at the same sky. Our mindset and personality shapes what we perceive, so it should shape your narrative.

A scene cannot be described without knowing who is telling the story, or what kind of story it is meant to be. To properly render a scene, you need to use a narrative lens.

The Narrative Lens

The narrative lens comprises all the high-level, structural considerations that can be brought to bear on word choice when rendering a scene. The most important considerations are about your point of view character: what sort of things do they notice; what kind of language do they use; do they have habits of thought; are they in a particular mood; etc. The narrative lens also includes other high-level considerations that might be on the author’s mind (as opposed to the viewpoint character’s mind): establishing tone, developing theme or motif, foreshadowing. However, these should be secondary to considerations of the point of view character; theme, motif, and foreshadowing should emerge organically, as much as possible, from the narration, which strives primarily for psychological fidelity and believability.

Narrative lensing is the practice of rendering details by using a narrative lens. You cannot properly render a scene or describe something in a story unless you figure out the narrative lens for that story.

Learning Goal

Developing an appreciation of the utility of narrative lensing; developing an understanding of the dimensions of narrative lensing; developing the ability to apply narrative lensing to render a scene.

Exercises

These exercises are meant to practice the skill of narrative lensing. Some of these you will find easier than others. Some of them will seem very strange, and some will seem unduly challenging. Between the whole set, they cover a wide variety of different sources of narrative lensing: tone, emotional context, psychological disposition, expertise, diction, etc.

For each of the following exercises, there is a scene to describe, and a narrative lens. Your job is use the narrative lens to render the scene. Don’t take too long on these; it’s mostly about picking a few details, and choosing how to present them. Remember: the whole point is in seeing how the narrative lens shapes the description.

Further instructions/requirements:

  • use third person limited, past tense

  • use 2 to 5 sentences per description exercise

  • focus on description of sensory details (no internal monologuing allowed; thoughts are only allowed in the form of direct perception of sensory details and immediate reaction to those sensory details)

  • try to hit three different senses

Exercises

  1. Describe a pub, from the POV of a trained assassin who suspects someone is trying to kill him. Describe a pub, from the POV of a recovering alcoholic who is there to meet an old friend.

  2. Describe a ballroom, from the POV of an undercover agent who is posing as a wealthy investor as part of an investigation.

  3. Describe a grocery store, from the POV of a shopper whose family has recently died in a plane crash. Describe a grocery store, from the POV of someone who has recently won the lottery.

  4. Describe a fist fight, witnessed from the POV of a music teacher who has never been in a fight. Describe a fist fight, witnessed from the POV of a retired boxer.

  5. Describe the steps to the courthouse, from the POV of a paraplegic ex-marine.

  6. Describe a sky-dive, from the POV of someone obsessed with collecting marbles.

  7. Describe a presidential speech, from the POV of a child who wants ice cream. Describe a presidential speech, from the POV of someone with blackmail material against the president. Describe a presidential speech, from the POV of an alien who has come to Earth in human form to investigate our society.

  8. Describe an old/malfunctioning starship engine from the POV of an expert starship mechanic. Describe an old/malfunctioning car engine from the point of view of an expert mechanic.

  9. Describe a scroll of spells that was recently discovered, from the POV of an expert wizard. Describe a wall of hieroglyphics that was recently discovered, from the POV of an expert archaeologist.

  10. Describe a delivery van, in an early scene in a horror story about a gang that kills people to sell body parts.

  11. Describe a funeral home, in a scene during the second act of a comedy about college students experimenting with drugs for their blog.

  12. Describe a train station, from the POV of a blind person.
  13. Describe an airport, using a third-person omniscient POV, in a story about how people around the world are affected by the world coming to an end because of a climate catastrophe.
  14. Describe the planet Jupiter, using a third-person omniscient POV, in a story about the pioneers and scientists involved in humankind’s colonization of other planets.

Reflection

  1. Which exercises did you find easy, and which were hard? Why?

  2. What different skills were required for different exercises?

Recap

We looked at Narrative lensing -the practice of rendering details by using a narrative lens. The narrative lens comprises all the high-level, structural considerations that can be brought to bear on word choice when rendering a scene, such as tone, emotional context, psychological disposition, expertise, diction, etc. We did a series of exercises in order to develop an appreciation of the utility of narrative lensing, to develop an understanding of the dimensions of narrative lensing, and to develop the ability to apply narrative lensing to render a scene.

Bottom-line: Writers don’t describe. That’s a painter’s job. Writers render experiences by filtering them through a narrative lens. You cannot properly render the details of a scene until you figure out the narrative lens for that story.

Final Comments

I hope you liked this article on Narrative Lensing. This site is updated at least once a week with articles about writing.

If you want updates on articles like this one, join my mailing list.

David

Edit

Someone asked me for an example of a werewolf described from the point of view of a werewolf hunter.

Its hunched form lumbered across the treeline, snapping through dry brush. Now and then it stopped, thrusting its snout towards the moon to sniff furiously, searching for a scent. It was big. Not the biggest Kaja had ever seen, but big enough to quicken her heart, to make her own breathing seem louder, to make her second-guess the wind. She breathed in. The creature’s musk was there, like a wet dog. As long as she could smell it, it couldn’t smell her.

Kaja closed the distance carefully, matching her footsteps with the beast. Its strides were long, but hers were quick, and she gained half a pace with each burst. She would just have to get close enough before the winds changed.

Kaja raised her crossbow and readied a silver bolt.

Sonic Texture – Sound and Sense

What’s sharper, a rock or a stone?

The words mean roughly the same thing, but one of them intuitively feels sharper, somehow, and the other feels smooth. This is a feature of language worth noticing. The ‘k’ sound in ‘rock’ just feels kind of sharp, and the ‘n’ sound on ‘stone’ feels soft, smoothing off the word.

What’s pointier, a bauble or a trinket?

Again, the words mean roughly the same thing, but one of them feels pointier, the other rounder. ‘Bauble’ is a round word, somehow, whereas ‘trinket’ is full of sharp edges. Our corresponding mental picture will naturally map on to the shape of these sounds. Probably, a trinket is pictured as something like a little pointy item, maybe star-shaped, whereas a bauble is a round-edged thing.

What’s heavier, a bauble or a trinket?

The weight of a word depends in part on the vowel sounds. To me, it feels as though higher-pitched vowels are lighter (like in ‘tip’), and deeper-pitched vowels are heavier (like in ‘toop’). The felt weight of a word also depends on whether the consonant is voiced or unvoiced; in the following pairs, the first item will feel heavier, because its consonant is voiced: ba/pa, da/ta, ga/ka, za/sa.

Probably, you feel like a trinket is lighter than a bauble, almost weightless, and the bauble you might imagine to have a little bit of weight in the palm of your hand. This is because ‘trinket’ has higher pitched vowels and unvoiced consonants, whereas ‘bauble’ has lower pitched vowels and voiced consonants.

These things have to be sensed, and not everyone is going to feel them exactly the same way. But the point is that sounds have a kind of texture that corresponds to the mental image they create. We can call this the “sonic texture”: the mental impression created by a series of sounds (irrespective of or in addition the semantic meaning of the words they comprise).

Probably the best example of this phenomenon is the poem Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll. In this poem, a strange landscape with alien plants and creatures comes to life in the mind of the reader, all through the use of nonsense words that have been engineered to create a sonic texture:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Lewis Carroll was playing with sonic texture when he made Jabberwocky. Carroll was acutely aware of the “shape” of sounds, and how they invoked images in the mind of the reader. He exploited this feature of our language to create a rich landscape out of the sonic texture of his made-up words. He used simple grammatical structures so that we can understand where the nouns and verbs and adjectives were, and used a basic plot so we can follow the story easily, but the sensory content of the poem is built from the sonic texture of nonsense words. Even though they are made-up words, the poem succeeds in creating vivid mental images.

Learning Goal

Writers should develop sensitivity to the shape of sounds. It will improve their ability to convey the mental image that they are striving for. If a word doesn’t feel quite right, it might be because the sonic texture is not contributing to the desired tone or image.

The following exercises are meant to develop an awareness of the sonic texture of the various sounds -the phonemes- of the English language. If you want to do these exercises, you should probably get a few sheets of paper and something to write with. It’s better for learning.

English Phonemes

Phonemes are the sounds of a language.

Vowels

Our written language doesn’t correspond exactly to all the sounds of our language. We have five written vowels. We have three times as many spoken vowels.

One of the important features of our vowels is that they can be arranged in a pitch-scale.

Exercises for Vowels: learning the vowels and the pitch-scale

  1. Write out all the vowels in a column, arranged into the pitch-scale
  2. Think of two example words for each vowel in the scale

Vowels: Pitch-profile

Any string of syllables will have a pitch-profile: how the pitch of the vowels rises or falls. If the profile goes from high to low, it will contribute to a sense of a mood getting worse; if it goes from low to high, it will contribute to a sense of a mood improving.

Consider the following line from The Princess Bride:

“On the high seas your ship attacked, and the dread pirate Roberts never takes prisoners.”

This sentence has an overall decline in pitch, contributing to the sense that something bad has happened. Moreover, if we break it into its three constitutive peaks, each of them has a descending profile: “on the high seas your ship attacked”; “the dread pirate Roberts”; “never takes prisoners” -each of these segments has descending pitch-profile. This creates an intuitive sense of descending emotional tone, which works with the semantic content of the line to achieve the intended emotional effect. The line wouldn’t have worked if it was written this way:

“The dread pirate Roberts never takes prisoners, and your ship attacked on the high seas.”

It means the same thing, but the line isn’t good. One reason this line doesn’t work* is because the pitch-profile is mismatched with the intended tone. It goes from low to high, ending on “high seas”, which runs counter to the feeling that the sentence is meant to evoke. It should end on a low note, not a high one.

I don’t mean to imply that William Goldman was consciously engineering a pitch-profile for this sentence. But good writers have an intuitive sense of these things, honed through a lifetime of practice. They feel their way around the sentence until it does what they want it to do; they sense when a sentence isn’t working and they try changes until it does. And sometimes, what’s not working -or what could be made to work better- is the pitch-profile.

This is a skill that can be developed. You can hope to develop it just by reading and writing a lot, and paying attention to what sounds right and what doesn’t. Or you can do some exercises to specifically develop that particular skill.

The goal with the next exercises is to improve sensitivity to pitch-profiles and their corresponding impact on the reader.

Pitch-profile exercises:

  1. Create a sentence with a roughly ascending pitch profile using made-up words; Create a contrasting sentence with the same made-up words, and a roughly descending pitch profile.
  2. Create a sentence with something sad happening, and a roughly descending pitch-profile.
  3. Create a sentence with something happy happening, and a roughly ascending pitch-profile.
  4. Locate a line in a book or movie where something good or bad is revealed. Map out the pitch-profile by drawing a line graph over the sentence, representing the pitch of the vowels. Does the pitch-profile complement the semantic content?

Note: because English places varying stresses on syllables, some vowels will be more important than others in determining the pitch-profile. If you know how to do scansion, you should focus on the stressed syllables when determining a pitch-profile.

The Consonants

This is going to be harder than the vowels. The consonants don’t map on to a neat-and-tidy scale like the vowels do. And we care about more than just pitch: we care about a wide range of potential mental impressions. Some of these sounds feel rounder or sharper, weaker or stronger, smaller or bigger, hotter or colder, etc, and the features we care about will change depending on the context. This is something that has to be intuited.

A list of English consonants can be found here.

The following exercises are meant to (a) increase familiarity with the consonants in the English language (not just the written ones), and (b) develop awareness of sense impressions created by the consonants.

Consonant Exercises – Familiarity with Consonants:

  1. Write out all the consonants in a column (it doesn’t need to be organised in any way)
  2. Think of two example words for each consonant

Consonant Exercises – Developing Sense Impressions:

  1. On a separate sheet, put the consonants on a scale from sharp to round (and “I can’t tell” in the middle). No two consonants can occupy the exact same position (you are going to have to do some tough discrimination -it might feel arbitrary- but try anyway).
  2. On a separate sheet, put the consonants on a scale from heavy to light (and “I can’t tell” in the middle). As above, no two consonants can occupy the same position.
  3. On a separate sheet, put the consonants on a scale from rough to silky (and “I can’t tell” in the middle). As above, no two consonants can occupy the same position.
  4. Are there patterns of correspondence between the different scales? Does an item’s position on one scale determine its approximate position on a different scale?

Sonic Texture Exercises

Okay, we’ve looked at vowels and consonants, now we’ll put them together. These exercises are all meant to develop awareness of the sonic texture created by strings of syllables -vowels and consonants working together to create a mental impression.

Sonic Texture Exercises:

  1. Create a list of ten nonsense words, between one and three syllables (most should be two syllables).
  2. For each nonsense word, choose a colour that best fits, based on its sonic texture; say the word and try to imagine what colour it invokes. You can’t use the same colour twice (but you can use patterns like stripes or dots, etc). For example: which word is “deep purple”, which is “yellow with green spots”, etc.
  3. For each nonsense word, choose an animal that best fits, based on the sonic texture; say the word and try to imagine what animal it invokes. You can’t use the same animal twice. But you can use imaginary animals, or descriptions like “something with a long tail”.
  4. On a separate sheet, place your nonsense words on a scale from:
    1. sharp to round
    2. heavy to light
    3. magnetic to electric
    4. another adjective of your choice to its antonym (or to another pole of meaning)
  5. Have someone else create a scale with the same words that you used. Compare your scale(s) with theirs, looking for similarities and differences in placement of words on the scale. Which words did you place on similar points in the scale? Which words landed in different places in the scale? What do these similarities and differences tell you about the sonic texture of that word?
  6. Write a haiku or a ballad stanza using only made-up words (you can use real articles and conjunctions if you like). Your poem should meet the following conditions:
    • Your poem has a real word(s) for a title (like “alligator” or “lemonade stand”)
    • Your poem uses a sonic-profile to create a sense of changing mood
    • Your poem uses sonic-texture to evoke images based on the title
    • Your poem uses only made-up words (except for articles and conjunctions).

Review

We looked at sonic texture: the mental impression created by a series of sounds. We looked at pitch-profile, the way a string of vowels can rise or fall in pitch and contribute to the changing emotional tone of a sentence. We familiarized ourselves with the phonemes of the English language. We exercised our awareness of sonic texture, for consonants and vowels, and for their combinations. And we practiced using sonic texture to create mental impressions.

Final Comments

I hope you liked this article on Sonic Texture. This site is updated at least once a week with articles about writing.

David


* This variation also ruins the punch of the original line, which was expertly withheld until the very last word, where the full impact of the sentence unfurls on reaching the word ‘prisoner’; in the inferior variation, the implication that Westley has been killed is seen coming, so the line loses its punch by comparison.