Using the five senses and passive voice in your novel
This post is the twenty-third in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.
As you write the scenes of your novel, you want to draw your reader into your story, into your make-believe world. You want to surround them with details – the sights, the sounds, the smells – of your world.
Using the five senses can enhance your writing and have your scene coming to life. Note: you don’t have to use all five ALL the time but rather interject these into your scene just enough to create realism. A few chosen details are better than a waterfall of information.
Remember, what your character sees is what your reader sees, and if you fail to describe very much, your reader won’t fully appreciate the scene. However, there is a such thing as too much description. There is no need to describe the cracks and peeling paint on a sign unless it has some relevance to your story.
The sense of smell can invoke powerful memories; a certain perfume may remind you of someone, or freshly cut grass may bring back memories of your childhood. By adding the sense of smell to your writing, you create a subtle sense of atmosphere and add another layer to your descriptive passages for your reader to enjoy. This is an often-overlooked sense, but it can provide background color to your narrative.
This is perhaps the most neglected sense in writing. Eating can be a shared, sensual pastime. Arouse your reader’s taste buds. Was the apple pie warm and delicious and make the character remember the pies their grandmother made or was it barely edible and tasted of cardboard?
Whether it’s characters or background noise, remember to add a sense of sound to the narrative to help your reader feel the scene. This could be the chirping of birds in the morning or the fog horn of the ships at the harbor.
You can describe the feel of material of a character’s dress, the feel of a baby’s skin, the roughness of the ropes binding your character’s wrists and so much more to add to your description.
These senses may be just small details of your whole novel but remember it’s all in the details.
Show, Don’t Tell
Writing about senses brings up another common phrase writers often hear – “show, don’t tell.” This is a technique that uses words to enable the reader to experience the story through action, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s summary or description.
In other words, instead of telling us the character is hungry or scared, show us.
If someone is hungry, he might lick his lips as he stares at a pie, or she may place her hand over her rumbling belly. When a character is scared, he trembles and his heart races. He jumps at strange noises in the darkened house as he grips the flashlight.
To show instead of telling the reader what is happening, you need to use active voice. In fact, most of your writing should be in active voice. But as always there are exceptions to that “rule.” (See below.)
Active vs Passive Voice
Passive voice is where the subject receives the action rather than doing the action. It is dependent upon the use of “to be” verbs such as is, was, am, were and has been. With passive voice there is no action implied. These verbs merely relay action.
Passive Voice Example:
The window was shut quickly by Elizabeth.
Passive voice isn’t necessarily incorrect; it’s just that it isn’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward or vague. It also can be wordy and it deflects who is doing the action – “mistakes were made”; “shots were fired.”
Caution: Not all “to be” verbs are always passive – I am holding the pen is still active voice since I – the subject – am doing the action of holding the pen. To make this passive it would be – The pen is being held by me.
Active voice uses action verbs. The subject is doing the action.
Active Voice Example:
Elizabeth quickly shut the window.
This example is stronger since the subject – Elizabeth – is now doing the action. Using active voice gives your writing more immediacy and puts the reader into the middle of the action. Once the reader is involved in the action, it is harder for them to put down your book.
Reasons to Use Passive Voice
But there are times when you may want to use passive voice in your story. Here are some examples:
When you don’t know who was doing the action.
The plate was dropped on the floor.
In this case, the emphasis is on the item dropped rather than who did it.
When what was done is more important than who did it.
Uncle Bob was killed today.
What is important is that Uncle Bob has died. It doesn’t matter how or who did it. Later characters may question those things but in the beginning, their only focus may be on the fact that Uncle Bob is dead.
When you want to speed up the story.
Half an hour later, the tents were stowed and the fire dowsed.
A lot of mundane actions are now contained in that one sentence. It would have taken many more words to write that in active voice and nothing really would have been gained for the reader.
These are just a few examples. I am sure there are other instances where you may want or need to use passive voice – for variety’s sake if nothing else. Just do so sparingly.