09 September 2014 by Published in: Uncategorized 2 comments

My goal when telling a story is to immerse my reader into whatever is going on so they feel they’re right in the middle of it. This means that they need to experience at a number of different levels. Ideally, I’ll engage all of their senses rather than focusing exclusively on the story.

You could call that approach to writing experiential. I find that asking myself a number of questions before starting a scene really helps. Those questions are, after asking, “what’s the point?” as outlined in my prior post: What’s the environment like? Hot? Cold? Humid? Dry? What does it smell like? What sounds can be heard? How does it feel (if in a jungle, the ground will feel different than a desert, as will the plants or whatnot, and so on)? What do the surroundings look like? How much light? What kind? And on and on. A good checklist before each chapter might be: Time of day? Weather? Surroundings? Sounds? Tactile sensations? Smells? Tastes (I’ll usually try to impart some character state-of-mind using taste or something associated – a dry swallow, a lump in the throat, the flavor of metal or sour bile or acid, etc.)? Once you understand these elements in the scene, you can integrate the information seamlessly into your story. If you haven’t thought about them, you can’t.

If you can impart this information to the reader in a way that isn’t an info dump, it will help you put the reader in the thick of it. Even writing something like romance I try to do this. Especially in sex scenes, where the whole experiential thing really carries the mood, employing all the senses to immerse the reader is essential.

That’s not to say you want to write page after page of description. Often a well placed word here and there will get it across. Just as you don’t need to belabor how a character is feeling, which we’ll get to in the next bit (you can convey that they’re nervous by putting a quaver in their voice, or a stammer, or a hesitation, have their eyes dart to something, have them shift or fidget – just about anything besides “he said nervously” or “he was nervous”).

Viewing the senses as elements you drop hints about or leave clues about for the reader to catch is a good way of doing it, and requires a delicate touch. Too often for my tastes, novice authors either employ prose that’s overly sparse (like the journalistic style praised by ex-journalists like Mark Twain and Hemingway) and leave far too much out for my liking, or go florid in an attempt to get across a sense of the environment. If you want to read brilliant examples of how to write atmospherics well, read anything by James Lee Burke. To my ear, his descriptions beat the snot out of any other living writer, although there are a few that come close.

So aside from “what’s the point?” which is the question you should begin every writing session with (not, what’s the point of writing, rather, what point does this next bit serve – what’s its objective?), ask yourself how the scene is set – what it looks like, what it smells like, how it feels, what it sounds like, etc. Because if you don’t know and haven’t provided the clues, your reader sure as hell doesn’t know, and their experience will suffer accordingly.



  1. cinisajoy
    Tue 09th Sep 2014 at 9:35 pm

    Excellent blog. Now i know why i love reading you. It feels like I am really there.

  2. Tue 09th Sep 2014 at 9:51 pm

    I struggle in this area. I’m good with conveying emotions, but I always have to go back and add atmospheric stuff on second draft. Guess I spend too much energy on the character’s inner world.

    You definitely rock in this department. I’ve noticed I feel like I’m there in all of your books.

    I started a new chapter earlier and asked “What’s the point” though. That’s been an especially helpful one for me.


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