jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,

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A Beginning Writer's Lesson: Sensory Lead Ins

Our Write-A-Book-In-a-Year Club at the high school has a blog.  We try to have one new blog topic a week for discussion.  In the last couple of years, I've done almost all of the entries.  This year I'm going to try to get the members of the club to write some too.  They can blog about breakthroughs they've made or questions they have or observations they've made about writing from their reading.  Anything that is club related.

But for right now, I'm still doing the entries.  This week I adapted the lesson I did with my Creative Writing class at the end of August and turned it into a post:

Watching Out For the Sensory Lead In

A bad habit some (mostly unpublishable) writers get into is to write sentences that begin with “I see . . .” or “Roger saw . . .” They’ll do the same thing with the other senses too: “I heard . . .” or “Roger smelled . . .”

When they are really bad, the poor writers will follow the sensory lead in with just a noun, like “I saw a tree,” or “Roger heard the car.” The problem with these sentences are two-fold. First, the act of your character sensing something doesn’t mean your reader will, and secondly, if the sentence is really short, like my examples, the only action in the sentence is that the character sensed something.

One way to revise this is to make the noun do something in the sentence, like “I saw the tree waving wildly in the wind,” or “Roger heard the car roaring down the street.” An even better revision, though, is to eliminate the sensory lead in altogether. If the reader knows that the “I” is in the scene, then all the writer has to write is “The tree waved wildly in the wind.”  The readers know that the “I” person was doing the seeing already.  You can do that with the Roger sentences too.  Once the reader knows that Roger is the character who is seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling in the scene, you can quit putting him in the beginning of every sentence.

If you are aware of your sensory lead ins, you can also eliminate really silly sentences that can creep into writing like, “Roger felt the rough bark with his fingers.”  First, unless we say otherwise, the reader will assume that the feeling is being done with fingers (at least the reader won’t assume he’s feeling it with other body parts, like his ear or the back of his knee), and if we rewrite, we’ll create a much more active sentence so the story can move on, like “Roger braced himself against the rough bark, letting the tree’s bulk hide him from the soldiers.”

Here are three real sentences I pulled from students’ stories in the last year.  Unless you have a really, really good reason to write one like them, revise them so they aren’t silly and they help to advance the story.

  • Aunt Jessica dreamed in her mind that her daughter would come home.  (Where else would she dream?)
  • Disregarding his adviser’s fear, the general used his mouth to taste the potentially poisonous soup.  (Thank goodness.  I thought he might taste the soup with his forehead.)
  • My little brother ignored my advice, turned his back to me, and sat on his rear end.  (He couldn’t find a chair?)

Give it a try.  Go through your story to see if you’ve made the mistake of writing unnecessary sensory lead ins.  You will, of course, leave in the necessary ones!

Tags: teaching, writing
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