How many times have novelists been told to “show, not tell”? I can’t count that high. To “show” means the author must invoke the five senses that human beings are blessed with in order to describe what is happening and how the fictional character is feeling, acting, and reacting.
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THE FIVE SENSES
The manner in which human beings interpret and respond to the world around us makes us who we are. Novelists aspire to make their characters vivid and to imbue them with realistic emotions, actions, and reactions. It’s all in the emotions: how characters feel, act, and react.All authors are human beings so they should know all about emotions, right? But do we know what is behind those emotions?
The five senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – are our doorway into the world. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to write about them. Presumably, we need all the senses to survive. Although people can get along without all five of them, humans are not designed to function with more than one or two inoperative senses. The five senses are complimented by four internal senses: pain, balance, thirst, and hunger.
Each of the five senses functions independently, but they interact and complement one another. Under various stimuli, the combined effect of all five senses forms a unique impression of an experience. That occurrence is internalized through our five sensory organs – eyes, nose, ears, tongue, and body. Thus, they work simultaneously, resulting in everything human beings learn, feel, and know.
When all this input is processed by the brain, various highly intertwined emotions and feelings occur. What we hear, see, taste, smell, and touch provides us with information which tells us how to feel. The reverse is also true ‒ what we feel can be heavily influenced by what our senses are taking in.
So, let’s start by exploring the senses.
Vision ‒ the most used of the five senses ‒ is the ability to detect light patterns from the outside environment and interpret them as images. The eyes are the sight organs, and most people know essentially how eyes function.
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Although we are bombarded with sensory information, and the sheer volume of visual input can be overwhelming, our visual systems have evolved to focus on the most-important stimuli. To deal with just the important visual stimuli, an estimated one-third of the cerebral cortex is dedicated to analyzing and perceiving visual information.
A novelist doesn’t need to know the details of how the eye works, but there are several important factors to keep in mind. The most significant elements of vision are the amount and brightness of the light and the distance from the object observed.
● Anatomy of the Eye
Vision is the only photo responsive sense. Visible light travels in waves and is a very small slice of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum.The photoreceptive cells of the eye, where transduction of light to nervous impulses occurs, are located in the retina. To get there, light passes through the cornea and the lens, where both bend the light waves to focus the image on the retina. The iris, the colored part of the eye, regulates the amount of light entering the eye.
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Cones and rods are the two types of light photoreceptors in the retina. Cones, which are the source of color vision, exist in three forms, each of which is sensitive to different wavelengths which vary based on their frequency (wavelength = hue) and amplitude (intensity = brightness).
Rods respond in low light and can detect only shades of gray. Cones respond in intense light and are responsible for color vision. The rods and cones are the site of transduction of light to a neural signal. A large degree of processing of visual information occurs in the retina itself, before visual information is sent to the brain along the optic nerve.
Visual signals along the optic nerves carry information such as form, movement, depth and brightness, color, and finer details. Once in the brain, visual information is processed in several places. Some of it projects directly back into the same place in the brain, while other information crosses to the opposite side of the brain. This crossing of optical pathways produces the distinctive optic chiasma (Greek, for “crossing”) found at the base of the brain and allows us to coordinate information from both eyes.
● Light and Color
Light travels in electromagnetic waves. A photon is a packet of electromagnetic radiation. The electromagnetic spectrum shows that visible light for humans is just a small slice of the entire spectrum, which includes radiation that we cannot see as light because it is below the frequency of visible red light and above the frequency of visible violet light.
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We perceive color because of the three types of cones in retina of the eye. The colors of the visual spectrum, running from long-wavelength light to short, are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Humans can distinguish about 500 levels of brightness, 200 different hues, and 20 steps of saturation, or about 2 million distinct colors.
Human rod cells and the different types of cone cells each have an optimal wavelength. However, there is considerable overlap in the wavelengths of light detected.
WHAT YOU SEE DOES NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT REALITY
The other factor to keep in mind when writing is that “seeing should not be believing”. Not everyone sees the same things at any given place and time, and what you do see may not reflect reality.
This is because our long term memories are essentially who we are, what we believe in, and everything we know. (Heard that before, have you?) Past experiences molds us into who we are at any given time. The brain learns to use those experiences to identify our values, beliefs, and how we feel about external (and internal) occurrences. Because the brain’s short-term memory can only handle a limited number of details at a time, it develops filters that screen out those things that are important to us.
When the short-term memory receives a multitude of data from the five senses, it utilizes those filters to sort the information. Only those details the brain chooses as being important to the individual, are shipped off to long-term memory. The short-term memory discards the rest.
Of course, all this happens almost instantaneously. The result is that people tend to focus on the details that are important to the individual and miss a lot of others. Therefore, you can’t rely completely on what you or others see. Also, people react to the information stored and not that discarded.
For example, if three characters (or real people) walk into a room, presumably all three will take in the gist of things without the details. Let's say they all perceive a large luxurious-looking and pleasant dining room with a long table set for a dinner party, and soft music playing in the background.
Imagine the three people entering are an architect, the wife of a diplomat, and a cellist who play in the local philharmonic orchestra.
The architect ogles the dome above the center of the table, thinking about the construction and how a different shape and color might affect the balance of the room. Or maybe a more modern chandelier would look better.
The cellist focuses on the music, listening to the arrangement and the orchestra playing the composition. His attention is not on the visuals but the sounds.
What your characters notice and perceive is a way of describing for the reader what matters to the character and what interests and experiences they have. Writers often miss this opportunity to enrich their characters.
Although humans seem to rely more heavily on sight, remember that sounds, vibrations, touch, smells, and a general sense of mood are all processed through the brain in the same way.
WRITING TIPS ON USING SENSE OF SIGHT
● Example 1
Don’t create a character who recognizes a face in a dim light at three hundred feet. That’s not going to happen.
An example in real life: “Darrell Edwards was convicted of a New Jersey murder based, in part, on testimony from a witness who claimed that she saw him from 271 feet away on a dark night, when she was not wearing her prescription eyeglasses. “Scientifically, it is impossible to see someone well enough from that distance and make an accurate identification.” https://innocenceproject.org/
Just because this kind of mistake can take place in real life, authors need to be accurate with details. Some readers will always catch the mistakes.
● Example 2
Look at something similar to the scene you want to describe and write 20 things you see. Then pick 3 to 4 of the most interesting things and write down the specific details. Then write a description of the object or scene you want to use in your book.
Remember: What you find most interesting is being filtered through your personal lens. Be sure you are using your viewpoint character’s lens, not your own. What is your character interested in and concerned about. Perhaps a gardener, instead of noticing the redness of the brick wall, will observe the ivy that’s windings its way across the cracked surface of the bricks?
● Example 3
Instead of describing a scene or object directly, try it indirectly. To convey the brightness of the sun, you could say directly that the sun is bright, but you could also describe the way the light from the sun causes the glass windows to shine solid white.
Continued Next Week - Part 2 - Hearing and Touch
JUST SAYIN' !
Sources: Five senses