WRITING FROM WITHIN THE POV CHARACTER’S SENSORIUM
I’ve mentioned before that you can get a stronger identification between the reader and the point-of-view character if you describe setting and events from within the character’s sensorium – i.e., how things feel to the character’s sense of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
A lot of beginners write from outside the character, standing back and describing everything as if they were seeing it on a screen, relying almost exclusively on how things look, with occasional sound cues. It’s an easy way to get lots of words down. It can also be a hard habit to break.
So here’s an exercise: have your point-of-view character awaken in complete darkness, with no idea of where he/she is. Then have him/her explore that environment with the other senses. Don’t put down any descriptor that involves sight or that the character does not experience directly.
Something like this:
At first, I wasn’t sure I was awake. Blackness was absolute. I could see nothing but splashes and dots of color thrown up by my own optic nerves.
I was lying face down on something cold and hard. I levered myself up, felt grit rub against my knees. I groped around me with both hands, my fingertips finding a rough level surface. Concrete, I thought. I reached as far as I could in all directions without moving, found nothing but more floor.
I rested on my heels and listened. Nothing but the high-pitched whine of silence. But I felt a cold stir on the back of my neck, a whisper of air moving the fine hairs. I shivered. I wet a finger and held it above my head, felt a chill on one side. The movement of air was from my left. I listened for a fan, but heard nothing.
While my hand was elevated, I felt for a ceiling. For all I knew, I might be in some low crawl space, with more concrete to bruise my head if I stood up. Hands aloft, I slowly rose from my knees, but there was nothing above me but more cold air.
I faced the direction that the air current was coming from. Could be a vent, could be an ill-fitting door, a cracked window. Slowly, arms out in front of me, I took a step, then another, and a third. I stopped and listened again, heard nothing. But I could feel the current of air cooling my face.
I took three more steps, putting the ball of my foot down first, then the heel – less chance of slipping that way. Then a fourth step and my foot came down on something small and hard. I stooped and felt for it, my fingers encountering an irregular shape, though flat on one side. I rolled it between my fingers, lifted it to my nose but smelled only dust.
I took another step, the moving air a little stronger now. There was an odor I associated with dank, dark places. I was deciding that the object I’d picked up was a piece of broken concrete. Useful, I thought. I could throw it ahead of me and listen for it to hit something, even if it was only the floor.
I cocked my arm and threw the chunk of concrete as hard as I could. I heard it strike something a fair distance ahead, then more small sounds as it rolled and bumped. Big floor, I thought. I walked more quickly now, hands still out in front of me, moving from side to side. Just because the pebble hadn’t hit a wall didn’t mean I couldn’t walk right into a post or a pillar.
A few more steps, and my foot landed on something else. It turned out to be a bigger piece of concrete, the size of my palm. I threw it forward, too, and heard it strike the floor and skitter like the pebble, before it struck something with a hard click.
Wall, I thought. And the air flow was stronger now, along with the odor I associated with tombs and root cellars. A wall with a gap in it, letting in the smell of damp earth.
I groped forward, eager now, walking heel and toe. My feet encountered more debris. I kicked it aside. I wanted the wall. I took two more steps then a third. But on the last one, my heel came down on nothing. As I pitched forward, it came to me in a sudden useless insight: the moving air, the dank smell, the pieces of concrete scattered around; they all added up to a hole in the floor. And I was falling into it.
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- A Little Learning
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