Story Inspiration Sunday

Sometimes writers compare themselves to method actors.

You know who you are.

You’re the one torn between actually experiencing what’s happening to you and trying to record and remember all the details so you can use it in your fiction later. Like the grubby walls of the ER or the sensual touch of your lover’s hand. Those snapshot moments that take your breath away, that are too intimate to write about clearly–how the pain catches at your side and the cramps force you to bend over, or the vibrancy of the reds on the Japanese maple on a gray day and how they give you hope, or even the sweetness of holding a little girl’s hand as you cross a quiet street together.


Usually, for me, none of these tiny moments inspire story. They can, like the sad eyed dog with dreadlocks for hair who reminds me of an old soldier guarding his corner of an abandoned lot. But usually, those small times are reserved for imbuing a character with sensory details, or giving a setting more character.

And speaking of sensory details — have you ever tried following strict guidelines for using them? Like a touch every five pages, or a taste every ten? It’s one of the ways I can find the next sentence in a story, by asking what is the character touching/smelling/tasting?

But those senses can’t be used alone, or you’ll end up with a very rote story. Every sense detail generally also comes with a reaction. He might smell something like roses, which means nothing. Or he might smell her rose water perfume and be strongly reminded of his mother’s funeral and how the sanctuary was filled and overflowing with bouquets from all those men who weren’t his father.

So go ahead. Remember all those tiny moments. But don’t just use them. Use a reaction to them.

What moments in your daily life inspire you?




Story Inspiration Sunday — 9 Comments

  1. This is one of the areas that’s really been a challenge for me. I’m on the opposite end of being detail-oriented, so the world tends to go to a summary for me. It’s hard for me to grab those details and retain them at all. I also don’t get an emotional reaction from them — I get that from the big picture. It took me a long time to figure that out. People kept telling me my writing wasn’t emotional, and yet, to me, I was thinking, “How can you not see it?” It was because I was missing the details.

    • My writing really started hitting home with the readers when I started having “action/reaction from POV character” in almost every paragraph.

      As they say, the devil is in the details.

  2. First, I want that dog. Old soldier guarding his corner of the lot, of yeah there’s a story there.

    Of our 5 normal senses memory is tied most closely to scent. Tuber rose perfume on a cold morning and I’m right back in my dad’s garage waiting for him to warm up his aging VW to take me to high school… Curry and I’m in a Buddhist Temple over on Division St. Cinnamon takes me to pumpkin pie and Thanksgiving morning when I was five. Sweaty shoes and I’m lacing up my toe shoes for ballet class. Disinfectant–the hospice where my mom died.

    It’s in the details.

  3. I think it was Kipling who said, “Smell is surer than sight or sound, to make the heartstrings crack.”
    Young writers, raised on video gaming and tweets, are less likely to resort to visceral descriptions like taste and smell, and so it is worth while encouraging them to do it.

    • I agree. There’s an old formula about a smell every 3 pages, a touch every 5, and a taste every 8 (assuming that sight and hearing are done on every page.)

      As an exercise, I recommend trying to get every sense on every page. It’s challenging to carry the story forward with so much sensory detail. But it’s a good exercise, I think.

  4. I did a tie-in novel years ago, with Daredevil, the Marvel superhero. His deal is: he’s blind, but has super senses otherwise. The way he navigates a room is by sound, smell, touch, taste, and proprioception. Aside from the fun of the project itself (it was fun) it had a lasting impact on the way I write; when a character walks into a room I’m still thinking about what the sensory impact is, albeit on a normal-human-being level.

    • One of the books I read for research is “Perfume” — a story about a “super smeller” in 18th century France. It’s a marvelous book for such an exploration.

    • One of the exercises I developed for my writing class was to describe a landscape using all 5 senses, plus an emotional reaction. BUT I limited the students to 2 visual references.

      Not surprising that some failed miserably and never wrote about sensual observation. Others took a quantum leap forward in their writing craft. I have to remember to look for these things in my own writing about 2nd draft phase because I get too caught up in who’s doing what to whom and where in 1st draft.