Come to Your Senses: The Art of Using the Sense of Sight in Romantic Writing

“Before there is a touch, a taste, a moan, a smell, there is perception, seeing and being seen, eye-beckoned.”  This quotation from Anne Taylor Fleming in her article, “Awaken Her Senses:  Look,” in Best Life, persuades us that sight is the primary sense that we use.  Other senses may be touted as being more important, but the sense of sight in a romance novel is paramount to an excellent read.

Romance writers are always told to “put the five senses into your writing.”  What is meant by that is we need, as much as possible, to put our readers into the virtual bodies of our heroes and heroines.  Most romance readers want to vicariously experience the joys and thrills of love by putting themselves into the characters they read about.  In order to do this, the author needs to describe in detail, everything the characters experience—what they hear, touch, taste, and smell, and see.

In this final post on the senses, I’m exploring the sense of sight and how much our readers depend on us to be their eyes within the world of the novel.  When creating a scene, the writer must visualize that place, those people, the action–must see them in her mind before translating that onto the blank page of the manuscript.  In doing so, the writer becomes the guide for the reader, helps them navigate a clear path, shows them exactly what they want the reader to see and thereby creates the vision of the book for the reader.

The best way to do this, at least for me, is to submerge yourself in the character, much as the reader will do, and experience the setting, action, and other characters first hand through them.  Like an actor who takes on a role, if the writer takes on the persona of his/her character, he/she can see what they see and pass that imagery along–vividly–to the reader.

This technique is called “showing,” and is usually tied to the advice “show don’t tell.”  Excellent advice for a writer, but what exactly does it mean?  Beth Hill, a fiction editor, writes in the article “Show and Tell–Not Just A Game We Play,” that “Telling forces a reader to stand outside a candy store window, able to see, perhaps, and hear what happens inside.  But he remains outside.  Yet when a writer shows, he invites the reader into the store to taste the bite of bitter chocolate or the tang of a lemon drop.”  It is not, however, description.

“When a writer shows rather than tells, the reader is allowed a more active role. He draws conclusions, he projects himself into the story and into the character’s shoes, he experiences the character’s emotions with the character.”  In short, when show is employed correctly, the reader can live vicariously through the characters, seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, tasting what they taste.  A good “show” can involve the reader, suck them into the book, let them become part of the book themselves.  So much so, they will come joyfully back to experience more.

Do you have problems with showing rather than telling?  How have you overcome this in the past?  Tell me, how do you put your reader into your scenes?  Thanks for coming by!

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21 Responses to Come to Your Senses: The Art of Using the Sense of Sight in Romantic Writing

  1. Zee Monodee says:

    I do my best to become the character, much like an actor would get into the skin and be that person. And I agree on the visual element – that’s why I work with physical templates for my characters so that I can accurately put out what the other is seeing when they look at the person.

    Great post, Jenna! Well done 🙂

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  2. Super great post. Telling is my biggest problem.

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  3. Sue says:

    Yeah no shit – too much to remember when writing. Hardest thing I’ve ever done. The show not tell thing is about the first thing I learned in writing class. And I try and use all 5 senses when possible in everything I write. I have a check list – which I should use more often – eg 5 senses, showing and stimulus – response. We do have to multi task don’t we?

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  4. Cera duBois says:

    I agree that the only way to show what your character sees, feels, hears, tastes or smells is to become that character. Great article, Jenna.

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  5. caseamajor says:

    Great post, Jenna. You can’t show something you don’t see yourself – so for me I picture the scene and describe what I see using the voice of my character.

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  6. Carrie-Anne says:

    I think there should be a good mix of both showing and telling, not a preponderance of one or the other. Sometimes you’ll need to directly tell the reader establishing information in the first few chapters; sure there’ll be lots of time later on to show that a character is a spoilt brat, a religious fanatic, a mama’s boy, etc., but if that information is important to establishing and understanding a character from the start, why hide it or make the reader guess?

    I’ve mostly read older books my whole life, so I’m used to doing more telling than showing, while I still see how a writer shouldn’t rely entirely on telling in the modern era. You should use it for a reason, like if direct telling works well with a certain type of story or your own personal voice. Personally, I don’t understand how some writers now insist you should ONLY show and NEVER tell, even if telling is more effective or to the point.

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  7. Brenda says:

    Ah yes, show don’t tell. This is such a hard thing to accomplish, but done properly, it makes all the difference between a good story and a fantastic one.
    When a writer is showing and not simply telling, a reader should be able to “see” the action, the characters, etc, etc.
    Jenna, you are so right. “Seeing” is so important to writing a book–especially romance.
    The way I taught myself to show and not tell was by becoming the character. That way I showed what was happening from that characters pov.

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  8. D'Ann Linscott-Dunham says:

    IMO, the easiest way to show, not tell, is to become the character. Get in their head, do what they do, say what they’d say….

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  9. Loved your post. Yesterday I was looking at my heroine from my hero’s eyes. It was interesting finding the words he would use to describe her.

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  10. Jenna, you’ve completely nailed a great description of showing versus telling. I love this: to put our readers into the virtual bodies of our heroes and heroines. That is exactly what we need to try to do but it is not always done. Bookmarking your page for future critiques. Thanks!

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  11. I’m definitely a sense-layerer type of writer. The first draft, I get what I see/hear from my characters on paper. But the second draft gets the layers – the showing, the emotion. Great reminders, Jenna!

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  12. Lisa Kumar says:

    Great post, Jenna! I agree with Jennifer. Often I have to layer in the senses over several edits. It’s too hard getting everything right the first time. Lol, a rough draft is supposed to be rough, right?

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  13. jerridrennen says:

    Great post, Jenna. I need to work on incorporating all 5 senses into my writing.

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  14. I never thought about the writer taking on the role of the character as an actor would, but that’s exactly what I do. Years of acting training wasn’t totally wasted, apparently. Wonderful, thoughtful post, Jenna! Your articles are always so well put together.

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    • jennajaxon says:

      Thank you, Patricia! I think my years in the theatre prepared me well to be a writer. It’s helped me with character analysis, dialogue, setting details, action sequences (like sword fighting). And I’ve noticed a lot of romance writers I’ve met have had some theatrical training. Coincidence? 🙂

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  15. Neecy Kelly says:

    I think it’s so hard at times because we know our characters so well. We see them in our head and feel their emotions, that we sometimes forget to get it on the paper.
    Good post,
    Neecy

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  16. Sheri Fredricks says:

    The best advice I received on how to show not tell, came from my crit partner, Brenda. She suggested viewing a scene through the lense of a camera. How would I describe what’s going on? Like watching a movie, I had to learn to put my reader inside the action of my characters. I think this is a never-ending talent to learn.

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  17. I think this is the hardest thing for an author to overcome–showing rather than telling. I overcome it by submerging myself in my character. A lot of times I’ll pull my fingers from the keyboard and close my eyes to become my character. Then I put my hands back on the keyboard and type what I see, feel, hear. It seems to work for me.

    Great post!

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    • jennajaxon says:

      That is exactly what I do too, Sharon. I find it makes me aware of exactly what the character would experience, just like you were there. Thanks for coming by! 🙂

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  18. Jennifer Lowery says:

    Great post, Jenna! Using the five senses definitely puts the reader in the scene and I often have to go back and edit some of those senses in, lol! Not easy to remember everything you have to do while writing 🙂

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    • jennajaxon says:

      Writers are the biggest multi-taskers in my opinion! LOL We have to be aware of story structure, character arc, language issues (-ly adverbs, -ing endings, etc), passive voice, POV. The list goes on and on! And does include the use of the senses. But we have to get them in somehow. 🙂 Thanks for coming by, Jennifer!

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