1. Rzero

    Rzero Reluctant voice of his generation Contributor

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    Sensory description without the use of idiom or simile

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Rzero, Feb 3, 2019.

    (Apologies for length. I promise there's an actual question toward the end.)

    I'm writing a story with only three characters. The two MC's have amnesia (don't give me grief about being trite. I don't care. :p It's the crux of the entire story, and the logistics have already been work-shopped more or less to my satisfaction in other threads.) The third character is AI. It's written in first person from the perspective of one of the amnesiac human characters. I originally started in third person, but switching to first solved a myriad of problems, both mechanical and, more importantly, narrative.

    The human characters retain their vocabulary and functional knowledge. In other words, they don't have to relearn English or how to tie their shoes. What's missing are their memories of all facts and events from their lives, up to and including their own names. There are places in the story where I have to make judgement calls, obviously. They know how to open a door, but can't cook a souffle without instruction, even if it used to be their favorite dish to make. I'm sure this is something I will heavily scrutinize in my second draft, but for now, all that stuff is fine.

    Here's my problem: The more I write, the more difficult I find it to express sensations and impressions, especially in dialog and internal monologue (which comprise the bulk of a book in first person), without relying on idioms and similes. I can't make comparisons, especially early on, to anything they remember, because they don't remember anything.

    An example: The first person MC is describing to the reader and to herself the tactile and olfactory sensations of being covered in corpse goo after a zombie attack. So far as she remembers, she's never cleaned out the trap under a sink or dissected frogs in biology class or been vomited on by a drunk friend at a party.

    Before writing this, I was only vaguely aware of how utterly dependent my sensory descriptions were on simile and metaphor. In fact, I think it's something at which I've always excelled, but now I can't use any of it. I've found ways around it, and it's been an interesting exercise in vocabulary selection, but I'm hoping some of you might have some ideas that haven't occurred to me yet. If nothing else, you might be able to help me break up monotony. She can't keep saying, "It was the single most [adjective] thing I'd experienced since waking up with no memory." or "I had nothing by which to compare it, but I imagined this was what [example she read in a book or saw in a movie last week] felt like." I'm also in danger of overusing, "For some reason, it made me think of [noun I want to use in a simile, but the character wouldn't understand the connection]." The latter example is great, because it points to the differences between the rote and the remembered, but occurrence really needs to be sparse.

    So what would you do? How would you narrate familiar sensations with which the narrator is unfamiliar? How would you keep it fresh and interesting?



    ETA: I don't know where to put this query. I think it speaks to character development, because it's vital to thought process, but if a mod wants to move this to Word Mechanics or General or somewhere, I'm totally fine with that.
     
  2. making tracks

    making tracks Active Member

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    That's such an interesting problem to have! Personally, I think I'd go for trying to describe the sensation as a play-by-play of what the character feels. For example:

    'The red goo encased her fingers, a sticky mess that simply stretched as she flexed her hand. The smell was acrid, making her gag as the red substance trickled slowly down her wrist, the hairs on her arms rising in a futile attempt to shake off this tenacious gloop. The warmth of it didn't help, she felt repulsed at the thought of it touching her, though she could not say why.'

    I'm sure you could write it a lot better than that but you get the drift! I do see what you mean though, I kept thinking of treacle or comparing it to cobwebs tickling her arm but that's back to metaphors, it's hard!

    I know you can't do this with every sensation but you could also try experiencing things yourself and really focus on what they feel like and smell like - for instance stick your hands in treacle or those toy alien goo things to help imagine what zombie goo would feel like.
     
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  3. Rzero

    Rzero Reluctant voice of his generation Contributor

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    This is helpful. It makes me think I should concentrate on using elements of her environment more often as subjects with active verbs to break up some of the monotony of passive sensation and observation. Good call.
     
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  4. Fallow

    Fallow Banned

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    I agree with @making tracks about describing the sensation directly. I would add (potential) effect - feeling the need to vomit, squeezing the eyes shut to keep out a painful light, making fists in a wish for something to grab onto, etc.

    Comparing sights and smells is less interesting, to me, then describing sensations more directly.
     
  5. Rzero

    Rzero Reluctant voice of his generation Contributor

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    That particular example is a dozen pages back at this point, and looking over it, I think I have most of that covered, which makes me feel a little better. Throughout the story I've tried to balance sensory input with physical and emotional reactions like the ones you're suggesting. I'm laboring under the assumption that, given her situation, her feelings would be extremely visceral.

    Maybe I'm just having trouble letting go of a favorite device. When I write, "I swung my arm, flinging pus and blood and God knows what in putrid, pink streaks on the wall," my instinct is to observe that the results were shamelessly derivative of Jackson Pollock or to have the viscous strings that hang from her arm remind her of a hideous fringe jacket her mother wore when she was young. Those are kind of banal examples (not to mention silly), but again, I'm actively trying not to think in comparisons and simile.

    Incidentally, she did vomit, twice actually. I don't deal in the grotesque very often, but it's a gag-worthy page or two, I think. Suffice it to say, I don't feel I'm having any trouble keeping things vivid. I'm just so used to being able to draw on recognizable imagery and relatable experiences.
     
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2019
  6. exweedfarmer

    exweedfarmer Banned Contributor

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    Describe it from the character's perspective as anyone would perceive a completely new experience. He's got the word guey, let him described it as gooey and then possibly viscous Etc. Describe it as a matter of self-discovery. That's how I do it.
     
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  7. Rzero

    Rzero Reluctant voice of his generation Contributor

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    Absolutely. Everything she experiences is brand new, so this is a major theme in the narration. It's also a huge challenge though. In my quest to finally finish a serious project, I accidentally created some serious hurdles, like an intimate first person narrative told by a character with no memory. It's convenient in some ways, because I don't have to balance exposition with discovery. She knows even less about her sci-fi world than the reader can surmise going in, so we all get to learn about that world together. It's fun, because she gets to experience Monte Cristo sandwiches and The White Album for the first time. It's also very difficult in other aspects, because I have to imagine the thought processes involved and the emotional toll of each experience as if I didn't have close to four decades of memories myself.
     

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