We’ve come to the third principle in Michael J. Gelb’s remarkable book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. In recent blog posts, I’ve been relating each principle to fiction writers, encouraging you to think like Leonardo as you write.

SensazioneThe third principle is Sensazione, which Gelb defines as “the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.” Leonardo knew that we experience life through our five senses; therefore, only the person who could enhance his or her senses in perception and accuracy could experience life fully.

Da Vinci’s sight and hearing were superb, and he worked to improve all his senses. He regarded sight as the most important, following by hearing.

The exercises in the Sensazione chapter of Think Like Leonardo da Vinci are among the most fun in the book. For example, Gelb suggests you smell and taste things while blindfolded until you can identify each odor and taste, even those with only slight differences.

How does this relate to writing? The Point of View character in your story also experiences life through her or his senses, just as real people do. However, the only way you can convey these sensations to your reader is through words.

I’ve blogged about the senses before, and encouraged you to incorporate all five of them in your stories. To apply Sensazione in your writing, you must choose words that precisely convey the sensations experienced by your POV character.

I don’t necessarily mean you should pile on adjectives like beautiful, pungent, sonorous, delicious, and velvety—or adverb forms. Adjectives (and to a lesser extent, adverbs) can be useful if you’re selective and choose just the most apt one. Some adjectives, like “beautiful” and “delicious” are not distinct; they tell rather than show.

Another method is with metaphors and similes. If you can compare the sensation your character is experiencing with something to which the reader can relate, and make the comparison distinct and descriptive, that’s Sensazione.

As Leonardo knew, sight is the primary sense for humans, and so it will be for your characters most of the time. But if you appeal to the other senses, too, it can only enhance the reader’s enjoyment. Also, there are times when a character’s first sensation is through one of the other senses, such as when a sight line is blocked and the character hears or smells something before seeing it. Your character might be blind, or in darkness, and will have to rely on the other four senses.

If you work to cultivate your senses in your own life, by going through Gelb’s recommended exercises, you should also strive to become more adept at describing each feeling and sensation in words. As your skill improves, readers will be drawn into your stories and connect with your characters’ experiences.

Ah! I see, hear, and smell breakfast being prepared. I’ll have to end this post now, for soon I shall feel the fork in my hand, and a succulent repast will be tasted by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 13, 2015Permalink

Interview with the Adjective Expert

Recently I had the honor of interviewing Amber Wise Savage, President of the English Language Adjective Council (ELAC).* Following is the entire text of that interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: First of all, Amber, welcome to the world of Poseidon’s Scribe and thank you for consenting to this exclusive interview.

Adjective Expert

Amber Wise Savage: You’re most welcome, and many thanks for the superb opportunity.

PS: Let’s start with the basics. Please tell us about adjectives.

AWS: I’d be happy to. Adjectives are describing words. They modify or qualify nouns and noun phrases. They make up about a solid quarter of all English words. That’s only half the number of those over-plentiful nouns, so we have some catching up to do.

PS: Catching up? Do you think the language needs more adjectives?

AWS: Of course. The current number is meager, scanty, and insufficient.

PS: But don’t you think fiction writers should be sparing in their use of adjectives? Not every noun needs an adjective, after all.

AWS: I disagree. I’ve never seen a noun that couldn’t benefit from two or three choice adjectives.

PS: That used to be true, certainly, when authors used long and flowery descriptions, but don’t today’s readers prefer prose with unadorned nouns and powerful verbs? Don’t adjectives slow down the pace?

AWS: What a dreadful thought, and quite false. Fiction would be bland, barren, and dull without adjectives.

PS: But you’d agree that most adjectives tend to tell, not show, and writers are always being told to show, not tell.

AWS: Again, indisputably false. Writers whose fiction tells too much should not blame innocent adjectives. In like manner, in fiction that shows, you’ll always find well-placed adjectives there, shouldering their share of the burden.

PS: I can see why you’re President of the ELAC. You must acknowledge, though, that some adjectives are used in a redundant way, pleonasms such as closed fist, exact same, and new invention. Also, there are some worthless adjectives that do nothing to modify a noun, weak and ineffectual words like comely, foolish, lovely, pleasant, pretty, stupid, and wonderful.

AWS: For every poor use of adjectives you could cite, I could give you a myriad examples of excellent adjectives that give crisp, focused meaning to their nouns.

PS: I’m sure that’s true. On that note of agreement, I’d like to thank you, Amber Wise Savage, for joining me today. You’re an effective advocate for adjectives everywhere.

AWS: You’re welcome. It’s been…interesting.

Well, that was something. You readers of my blog will have to form your own opinion. Other good blog posts about the use of adjectives in fiction are here, here, here, and here.   Amber and I disagree about the extent to which fiction writers should use adjectives. But you’ll have to decide who you’re going to believe, a paid proponent of adjectives, or—

Poseidon’s Scribe

* Not a real person. Not a real council. No interview took place. Some of the facts are true, however.