The Rule of Five

Katherine Longshore Reply Tuesday, July 16, 2013
The other day, I deadheaded the roses in my back garden.  I don't know much about roses, but we inherited the plants with the house, so I try.  I really do.  Several years ago, I asked a landscaper friend how to remove the shriveled blossoms.  His response was, "Remember the Rule of Five."--Look for a five-leaf cluster, and cut the stem on an angle right above it.  New growth will appear in that little crook where the leaves meet the stem.

(I'm going to make a huge leap here, straining to reach an analogy for writing.  Watch out.)

The same can be said about writing.  You need to trim all the excess exposition, engage all five of the reader's senses and let it grow.

I sometimes think that reading is the one form of entertainment that can engage all five senses.  Not physically, of course, but in the mind's eye.  Movies, theater, theatrical dance, and the fine arts are all very visually stimulating.  We humans love to be visually stimulated.  For most of us, sight is the strongest emotion.  This is why we use vision as the primary source of description.  We show what the setting, the characters, the world looks like.  Green eyes, blue sky, brick walls.

With a good imagination, a viewer can imagine what the world in a film feels like, but with all that visual stimulation, it might not occur to him.  That's where we--as writers--are so very lucky.  That brick wall?  Is rough beneath the fingers.  That blue sky?  Is on a day so hot your fingers sweat and the air sears the lungs.  Those green eyes?  Are set within a face with skin that feels like silk beneath hair that's puppy short and smooth.

With luck, a patron of the arts can find sculpture--or even paintings--that she is allowed to touch, but this is rare.  We writers have been given a gift.  Use it!

And what about sounds?  Films, theater and dance use words, sounds, and music as part of the dramatic experience.  And music itself is an auditory delight.  With the advent of audio books and e-readers that can speak the words, books have become more hearable, as well.  But even without these physical supplements, a reader can imagine auditory experiences within the book.  Dialogue is a huge case in point.  But so are sound effects--the lapping of water on the side of a boat, the boom of a cannon, a scream, the crash of a vase on the floor.  Each of these "sounds" can cause an emotional reaction in the reader.

The final two senses--smell and taste--are connected, and can rarely be utilized by the visual arts.  Perhaps a sneaky scent-blower could be used in a theater or film (kind of like those fans that blow fudge smells out into Disney's Main Street).  These are the sense we writers can use to bring our readers fully into our story worlds.  The taste of a real sugar plum, the smell of fudge at Disneyland.  Or what about more insidious experiences?  One thing we didn't get from Showtime's The Tudors was the smell.  Our modern noses would have hated it.  People didn't bathe.  Men peed on courtyard walls.  Rubbish and effluent and dead bodies were thrown in the rivers.  This place reeked.  My characters can't comment on it all the time--they were probably immune to "regular" body odor, bad breath, and general noisesomeness.  But there were certain smells that were inescapable--like the river.  And flavors would have been different, too--probably a little more bland, the cakes a little less sweet, the meat perhaps a little spoiled.  Taste, for me, is the most difficult sense to convey, so description is challenging and tricky.  But so much fun to try.

We are so lucky as writers to be able to play around with all five senses.  To be able to plunge ourselves--submerge ourselves--in a fully realized story world.  When revising, remember the Rule of Five.

How do you engage the senses?

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