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

Of Adverbs, Approvingly

Was ever a part of speech more maligned than adverbs?  Go ahead–search the Web for a kind treatment of them.  More often you’ll find admonitions to hunt them down and kill them where they stand.  Is that nice?  What have adverbs ever done to you?

Adverbs are those words most often ending in ‘ly,’ that modify verbs and adjectives.  They often answer a ‘how?’ or ‘to what extent?’ question with respect to their attached verb or adjective.  How did he run?  Rapidly.  How did she speak?  Quietly.  To what extent was the room decorated?  An outrageously decorated room.

What’s so wrong about modifying verbs and adjectives?  Why do most writing books and websites advise writers to banish adverbs?  First, remember the basic structure of an English sentence–subject, verb, and object.  The verb is where the action is, the real power and punch of any sentence.  Over time, English has become rich in verbs, overflowing with them (by one count over 9000).  In odd cases when the right verb doesn’t exist, we sometimes take a noun and verbize it.

With all these verbs to choose from, why not select the one with the precise intended meaning and use that?  If a writer does that, her verb won’t require modifying by any adverb at all.  Sometimes writers get lazy, though, and choose weak verbs, then try strengthening them with adverbs.  Sometimes an even lazier writer adds an adverb that, well, adds nothing.  Tom crept slowly.  Um, how else would he creep?

Another knock against adverbs ties in with the ‘show, don’t tell,’ advice.  Adverbs tell us about the verb, but instead the writer could bring the sentence alive with a short clause showing us ‘how’ or ‘to what extent.’  Tom crept with snail-speed so he wouldn’t set off the motion detector. 

Against these damning criticisms, how can I dare to defend the adverb?  First, an occasional well-chosen adverb can help a sentence.  ‘Slowly’ is an example of one I find useful, but not for modifying verbs that already imply slowness.

Second, I’m mindful that adverbs haven’t always been denigrated. I’m not sure when they fell out of fashion, but many nineteenth century authors peppered their works with adverbs.  Perhaps the ban on adverbs is just a fad.  They might come back in style.  Some brave author could craft a well-written novel chock full of them and see it become a bestseller.  Others would then copy that author’s technique, and everyone will wonder how we got along without adverbs.

You could be that trail-blazing author, but if I were you I’d leave that to the literary types.  In the meantime, if you want your works to sell in today’s markets, I advocate using adverbs in a sparing manner, no more than one per page.  When you edit, search for those ‘ly’ words.  When you find one, consider choosing a stronger, more precise verb.  If there is none, consider adding a short clause or new sentence expressing your point in a vivid manner with nouns and verbs alone.

As always, feel free to comment.  Until you do I’ll sit here being, most patiently and expectantly,

                                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe