Friday, October 19, 2007

Sensodumping

Guest Maven Tessa DareThe Mavens welcome debut author Tessa Dare to our blog!

We always talk about the dangers of infodumping (chunks of backstory that are poorly integrated and slow down the story) but I’d argue there’s an equally insidious phenomenon of “sensodumping”—long swaths of sensory detail that may be beautifully written and evocative, but have little relevance to the actual story. Worst of all, the two — infodumping and sensodumping — often go hand-in-hand, especially in opening scenes where the writer is trying to establish the story’s physical and emotional setting.

Have you ever read a book that started something like this?

It was cold. The winter air nipped at Mary’s ears and rasped in her throat, erasing the lingering taste of her morning tea. Thin crusts of ice glazed each rut in the footpath. The wind whistled through bare tree branches; somewhere in the distance a man was chopping wood. The smell of smoke hung thick in the air. A single snowflake twirled from the sky, and Mary caught it in her palm and watched it melt.

Gathering her threadbare cloak around her, she hurried down the path. The little village she called home was simply not the same this year. Ever since the tragedy, Cotswold seemed to have entered a permanent winter. But although Mary was poor in coin, she was rich in imagination. Even in this gloomy chill, optimism warmed her heart. Unlike the rest of the villagers, she would not wait for springtime to live again.
There’s nothing especially wrong with it, is there? You get a sense of the physical setting, and you learn a bit about Mary and her backstory — but the two are completely separate. There’s a paragraph of sensodumping, followed by a paragraph of infodumping. Unfortunately, I tend to do this kind of thing a lot.

Somewhere along the line, I noticed that my favorite writers avoided both of these sins by using sensory detail to drive the revelation of characterization and backstory — and the result packed a stronger emotional punch. Take, for example, this utterly brilliant passage from the first page of Julie Anne Long’s recent release, The Secret to Seduction:

The Libertine. It was the sobriquet by which he was known throughout all of England, and his reputation was in fact such that the word of it had managed to waft, like opium-and-incense-scented smoke, all the way to the tiny, tucked-away town of Tinbury, Derbyshire—where the air, incidentally, had never been scented by anything more controversial than roast lamb, or maybe once or twice a cigar, and where life was as sedate, predictable, and pleasing as a minuet. The gentle green hills surrounding the vicarage, not to mention the Vicar of Tinbury himself, seemed to prevent local passions from becoming unduly inflamed. No one in Tinbury seemed in danger of writing sensual poetry.
What a gorgeous, vivid picture this gives of the town of Tinbury; yet the sensory description is not random sensodumping. Every detail proceeds organically from the story.

So, how could I improve Mary’s opening? Perhaps with something like this:

It was cold. The freezing air nipped at Mary’s throat where her too-small cloak gaped in front. There hadn’t been money for a new cloak this winter. Nor the winter before. Gathering the threadbare garment about her as best she could, she hastened her steps along the ice-crusted path. The distant thwacks of an ax cleaving wood cut through the thick blanket of silence. A thin curl of smoke from a nearby cottage disappeared into the winter-white sky. All was grey; all was quiet—just as it had been ever since the tragedy. This was Cotswold’s season of sorrow.

But a smile warmed Mary’s cheeks, for the air tasted of snow—crisp with anticipation, sweet as a secret. A lone snowflake twirled from the gray silence, and she caught it in her hand, admiring the bit of crystalline lace as it melted on her palm. And then it was gone. The first snowflake of winter, and a scrap of beauty none but her would ever see. The rest of the villagers kept to their thatched-roof cottages, or trained their eyes on the loamy soil beneath their feet… but not Mary. Mary looked to the sky.
Okay, JAL it isn’t, but it’s an improvement at least, don’t you think? Hopefully the sensory details draw you into the unfolding story, rather than feeling like an obtrusive break from it. The reader gets the idea that Mary is whimsical and optimistic by experiencing the scene through her senses, not by being told she’s whimsical and optimistic. (No, I’m not writing any book about a Mary in tragedy-stricken Cotswold, it’s just an example.)

Sensory description is always something I’m looking to improve. Some questions I try to ask myself as I write description these days: How would this character perceive this setting (or character) differently from anyone else? How would s/he perceive it differently than s/he has in the past? What details of the environment can evoke the mood I want to create?

Thanks for joining us, Tessa!

Do you ever notice “sensodumping” in your own writing, or in published books? What kinds of questions do you ask yourself when envisioning and incorporating sensory detail?

20 comments:

Maggie Robinson said...

Tessa, what does it mean when I love both your versions? *g*

Tessa Dare said...

LOL, Maggie - It means I used up the inspiration on the first, ran out of time on the second, and thus the point is kinda lost. Oh well. There's still lots of room for improvement.

I meant to say to the Mavens - thank you so much for having me! I'm so honored to be a guest Maven.

Darcy Burke said...

Hmmmm, lots of great food for thought here. As I'm doing another pass of Glorious for the GH, I'm going to keep my eyes peeled for sensodumping. Brilliant.

Oh, and time (obviously!) to pull out the Julie Ann Long I picked up at National and crack it open!

Thanks for such an awesome post, Tessa!

Bill Clark said...

Great post! I loved the examples, and found the second a definite improvement over the first (not that it was bad to begin with).

No, I’m not writing any book about a Mary in tragedy-stricken Cotswold

Whyever not? *g)

Tessa Dare said...

Thanks, Bill!

Why am I not writing about Mary? Hmmm, because after just a few paragraphs, I can tell that her middle name is probably "Sue." My own heroines are usually a bit less precious. But yeah - now I'm curious as to just what did happen last autumn in Cotswold. Any ideas?

BTW, everyone, I'm having a contest on my blog today!

Jennifer Linforth said...

Oh. Dear. Lord. This is why I edit! Yes, I am guilty of this. I tend to just let my fingers fly and then edit until I get to the meat of the story.

In the passage you quoted in the blog, I would even remove the first sentence as that information was shown in the following one.

I hate editing, but back story is a thorn in my side as are fingers that get away from me when adding detail.

My CP always asks what my hero smells like. That is the hardest for me as I never really think of what people smell like.

Jennifer
(BTW, since he is a Austrian noble I went with fir after a rain, mixed with some good old spicy man- scent. Does that makes him smell like a sweaty Santa?)

Tessa Dare said...

LOL, Jennifer! Sweaty santa, indeed.

I know what you mean with the "It was cold" being superfluous. I guess it's just part of my style, to throw in a simple declarative sentence now and then - "it was cold", "he was tall", "she was scared", etc. - just in case all my 'fancy' wording isn't getting through. Cheating, I know. You're probably right that it should go.

Santa said...

Your timing is impeccable, Tessa. I am purging my ms of all its infodumping as we speak after I had someone critique it for me. I still miss my prologue, though. Strange thing is I managed to give that same information in a truncated, readable format in other parts of the manuscript. It was almost as if I was anticipating losing one or the other for the sake of pacing.

I'm not so sure I can be as successful in weeding out any sensodumping I may have done since my story involves the sensuality of food.

Jeez, this stuff never ends! Great blog by the way. Keep Mary somewhere in the back of your head because you just never know when she might want to invite you back to Cotswold.

Marnee Jo said...

Tessa, this is great advice. I always tell myself ACTION ACTION ACTION. I know my WIP has some infodumping and some sensodumping. But, info and senses are sooo much fun to write, ya know?

Jacqueline Barbour said...

Like Darcy, I now feel the consuming urge to read through my manuscripts and eliminate unnecessary sensodumping (what a great word!).

And, while the first version of Mary's story is plenty good, the second is total awesomeness. And I certainly do want to know what tragedy occurred in Cotswald...

Marnee Jo said...

I also forgot to add that I particularly liked the questions you keep in mind to avoid senso-dumping. Those will come in handy as I continue. Thanks!!

Bill Clark said...

now I'm curious as to just what did happen last autumn in Cotswold. Any ideas?

I think there has been an outbreak of mad sheep disease, or sheep flu, or some other ovine catastrophe comparable to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown of our own times (which is ovine-related in that so many sheep got fleeced and are now being led to the slaughter).

However, Mary Sue (it's actually Mary Susannah, but the family usage tends to shorten it) has met a handsome shepherd who has learned how to make a crude vaccine from the sheep pox, or whatever. This vaccine will help to save the remaining flocks, but the evil earl, who wants to oust all the crofters so he can sell the land to his rich cronies to build McCastles thereupon, is sending his thugs and minions to "take care" of the shepherd.

Mary, however, who knows how to see the universe in a grain of sand, or a snowflake, is also privy to the earl's deep dark secret. Thus her secret smile is a compound of shepherdly love, intrigue, and a karmic sense that the nasty earl will soon get his and the flocks will be saved and the whole village will come and dance at her wedding.

Or something like that...

Tessa Dare said...

Bill, that is priceless! Sheep flu, indeed. Although... I hate to tell you, but the NY houses would be forcing you to make the Evil Earl with a dark secret into the hero, and leave the poor shepherd to comfort himself with his vaccinated flock. Sigh. It's dreadfully difficult to sell a romance with a shepherd hero.

Santa - I'm not saying you should get RID of sensory detail! No, no. Just that I try to integrate it into the story as much as possible, so the reader doesn't feel like I've hit the Pause button just to describe the farm/house/boat/whatever.

But most importantly, I try to make the description unique to the character's POV. Like in my WIP (new tentative title Surrender of a Siren, btw - you heard it here first!), the ship is creaking during a storm. And in the heroine's POV, I liken the sound to "a legion of the damned" or something, because she's so convinced she's going to die and go to hell for all her sins. When I switched to the hero's POV - he's used to storms, he's used to the noise - he compares the creaking to "the familiar cadence of a harlot's bedsprings." There's no way I could switch those two descriptions and have them make any sense.

So Santa, I'm just suggesting you let your cheesemaker describe tastes, textures, sounds, etc., with an entirely different vocabulary than your TV producer does(those are the two characters, right? Am I getting mixed up?)

Jacqueline Barbour said...

Although... I hate to tell you, but the NY houses would be forcing you to make the Evil Earl with a dark secret into the hero, and leave the poor shepherd to comfort himself with his vaccinated flock. Sigh. It's dreadfully difficult to sell a romance with a shepherd hero.

Actually, I think you could do it, as long as the shepherd and the evil earl were actually switched at birth (possibly as the result of some sort of Oedipus-like prophecy), so that the shepherd actually turned out to be the hero and vice versa.

Hmmm, this is sounding more intriguing all the time...

Tessa Dare said...

Oh, and I'm not quoting myself because I'm the bestest at this, just because I can think of an example that way. I'm wrestling with these things in every scene.

And I also meant to say - Santa, I had to cut a prologue, too. I still miss it.

Tessa Dare said...

Actually, I think you could do it, as long as the shepherd and the evil earl were actually switched at birth (possibly as the result of some sort of Oedipus-like prophecy), so that the shepherd actually turned out to be the hero and vice versa.

Yes!!! OMG, this book needs a title.

A Little Bit Ovine?
The Sheepish Earl?
Sheepless in Cotswold?

Bill Clark said...

I hate to tell you, but the NY houses would be forcing you to make the Evil Earl with a dark secret into the hero, and leave the poor shepherd to comfort himself with his vaccinated flock. Sigh. It's dreadfully difficult to sell a romance with a shepherd hero.

*Bill echoes Tessa's sigh*

I guess that's why I'll be leaving the romance writing to you and the Mavens...

Santa said...

You could call the sheepherder-who-was-a-secret-baby-of-
the-8th-Earl's-wife's-story 'The Tale of the Tenacious Tenant'. Thereby making the ovine inoculation expert the half-brother of the Evil 9th Earl.



Hitting the pause button is a great analogy, Tessa.

India Carolina said...

I'm afraid I tend to be a spare writer. My stories could use a little info dumping and sensory overload! But I'm working on it.

I truly admire the way some authors (say, I dunno, Tessa Dare, Courtney Milan...) integrate character action and sensory detail with the forward movement of the story. Quite a feat!

lacey kaye said...

I'm with India on admiring & then everyone else on wanting to run back through my ms and see how many times I dumped.

Also, "sweaty Santa" almost made me lose my lunch laughing!

Manuscript Mavens










Manuscript Mavens