Let’s Get Physical 2: Sense Memory – Character First Impressions

First Impressions

We all know that first impressions count. And the same is true for our characters.

MH900252595Finding that balance between too much physical detail (which prevents a reader from using their own imagination) and too little detail (height, hair and eye colour may be too generic and not individual enough) can be tricky.

It’s also important to realise that it is not just about a character’s physical appearance. To give those first reader/character moments real impact, a writer also needs to establish a character’s physical presence.

Which is where sense memory comes in.

Using sense memory allows an author to go beyond a character’s superficial physical appearance and to delve deeper into the essence of their character – to tap into their emotional core.

What is ‘sense memory’?

‘Sense memory’ is the effect of a character’s emotional and life experiences captured or expressed in their physicality.

How does sense memory work?

Just as our bodies reflect our physical lifestyles, so too they also mirror our emotional experiences and general outlook on life. Therefore, the main question is ‘Why is the character’s body memory the way it is?’

Take the following example:

Let’s start with the barest amount of character information:

‘The elderly man walked down the road.’

This sets up the basic image for the reader, but it gives us no clue whatsoever as to the old man’s character, or, indeed, tells us anything about who he is.

Next step, let’s look at physical appearance only:

‘The elderly man walked down the road. Of average height, he was of slim build with a shock of white hair.’

This tells us more: we now know what he looks like, but the question remains, does the character description tell us who this man is? No? Well, let’s push it even further and introduce a smidgen of sense memory into our description:

‘The elderly man walked down the road. Of average height and slim build with a shock of white hair, he moved slowly, hunching his shoulders forward with each laboured step.’

The man’s forward-hunching shoulders is a small detail, which piques a reader’s interest because, as well as describing his outward appearance, it gives us some idea of the kind of man we are dealing with: what sort of character he might be.

Physical and emotional impact

MH900157951Suddenly this elderly man becomes more noticeable. He’s no longer just one old man walking down the road; he’s an old man with a history, and a life; an old man who over time has learned to brace himself against adversity and somehow still keep pushing forward down the road. And, as readers, we now want to know more.

What has happened to that man in his lifetime? What has he experienced emotionally over the years to shape him in such a physical way?  

Sense memory can act as a useful emotional shortcut to your character for your readers, creating maximum emotional impact and allowing your character to hook reader interest in a few short sentences. In other words, sense memory makes it possible for all your characters, main or otherwise, to make an immediate and lasting first impression.

Creating and exploring new characters

It’s also a great way of creating and exploring new characters. For example, why not follow the elderly man’s sense memory story and see where it takes you? You may well find yourself in some very interesting places.

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Building Narrative Tension 2: A Trail of Delicious Crumbs

How much information do readers need to be able to fully understand what is going on in a story? It may appear an odd complaint, but sometimes when structuring a series of scenes to build tension, authors can be just as guilty of giving a reader too little plot information as too much. Sometimes it’s a case of giving them the right information at the wrong time. But what is certain is that readers don’t enjoy being treated like mushrooms: that is, being kept the dark and having stuff thrown at them unexpectedly.

To illustrate, let’s go back to our two resident Book Nanny characters: Simon and Julia. The last time we met Simon in Building Narrative Tension 1: The Tension Rises…dah, dah…doh?, he was trying to find a good time to tell Julia that their twenty-five year marriage was over. And so we continue:

MB900023351‘Finally they were alone. This was it. Simon grabbed the opportunity and blurted it out. Typically for Julia, she took the news rather stoically at first. ‘Well, that’s that, I suppose. There’s nothing to be done, is there?’ She inhaled deeply, as if trying to breathe in the entire room. A bitter, strangled cry escaped as she exhaled. It’s all her fault, isn’t it? She’s to blame, I know she is! This would never have happened if you hadn’t been offered that posting in Antarctica.’ 

So what’s the problem here? Well, personally, as a reader, rather than focussing on the emotion of the moment, I find myself instead taken completely by surprise by the reference to Antarctica. It even overshadows the news that someone else might be responsible for the couple’s marital difficulties. It’s one of those confusing reader moments when you feel obliged to go back to the earlier scene to check you haven’t missed something. Rather than drawing me further into the story, the revelation pushes me away. I feel excluded and left out, as though the characters and the author were in possession of some important information all along, but nobody bothered letting me in on the secret.

As a general rule, to avoid such unnecessary shocks to the narrative, you should err on the side of allowing the reader to be at least on the same knowledge level, or even one step ahead, of your POV characters rather than two jumps behind them. 

Reader anticipation is key when building suspense. So set your scene. Give your readers enough information to allow them to think ahead of your character and anticipate what happens next. Think of it as a trail of intriguing information crumbs which increasingly ‘ups the ante’ for a character, rather than bombarding readers with a series of plot surprises or sudden events which can come across as contrivances or manipulations.

So how do you decide which information is important to impart to a reader at the start and which can hold until later? Consider the two pieces of information from Julia in the scene above: (1) that someone else is to blame and (2)  Antarctica. MH900414074Well, Julia’s accusation is exactly that: an accusation. We don’t know if someone else is to blame for the break-up of their relationship – that is something that will be explored over the course of the story. Julia’s reference to it in this scene moves that element of the story on from the first scene and is the right reference in the right place. However, the Antarctica trip is clearly a pivotal plot point for Simon: either he has already been there and something has happened to make him want to end his marriage to Julia, or he has taken the posting for whatever reason and wants to deal with the marriage issue before he leaves. Either way, its existence has a direct bearing on what he wants (there we go with objectives again!) and the steps he takes to achieve his goals. Which is why the mention of it only in the second scene strikes a reader as an omission or exclusion.

So let’s see what happens when we add Antarctica to the opening paragraph of the scene in my previous Building Narrative Tension 1 post:

‘Do it, do it now!’ The small voice in his head urged Simon on as he made his way to the greenhouse. In three weeks’ time, he would be holed up in the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, and it would be too late. But Julia was alone at last, and he would tell her now. That it was over. Them. After twenty-five years, three children, five dogs and a grandchild. Yes, he would do it. He would tell her. She looked up at him as he reached the greenhouse door.

Much better, don’t you agree? Putting Simon under time pressure to have the ‘Big Talk’ gives this scene a far greater sense of urgency. It also provides an intriguing hook for the reader as we want to know more about his upcoming trip to the South Pole. In fact, even without Julia’s allegations in the following scene, we will probably still wonder about the someone or something Simon is running to or away from in Antarctica. And rather than being out of the loop, we readers are now fairly chomping at the bit to know more. Job done!

Building Narrative Tension 1: The Tension Rises…dah, dah….doh??

The issue of readers’ expectations cropped up in my earlier post ‘The Ins and Outs of Writing Character’ in relation to keeping your protagonist in character rather than out of it.

MH900390992However, readers’ expectations also play an important part when it comes to structuring scenes to create tension in your novel.

As a general guideline, if you set up your reader to expect a certain development, event or revelation in a scene, you must deliver in some form or other, or risk incurring their (wholly righteous) anger and annoyance.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you have to tell the reader everything immediately. Revealing character secrets bit by bit is an essential part of building tension, and keeping your reader engaged. But one of the structural problems I come across as a substantive editor is what I call the ‘unfulfilled promise’ syndrome, which usually shows up when an author is trying to create tension by drawing out, say, a confrontation or the revelation of a secret over a number of scenes.

To illustrate my point, let’s bring in Simon and Julia from my earlier post in relation to Point of View shifts:

Simon made his way to the greenhouse. Julia was alone at last. He would tell her now. That it was over. Them. After twenty-five years, three children, five dogs and a grandchild. He would do it now, while she was alone. She looked up at him as he reached the greenhouse door.

‘There you are, darling. Almost finished here. I’ll be in shortly.’

BD09315_He gulped.

‘Julia? ‘

‘Yes?’

Simon decided he wouldn’t do it. Not yet. 

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

‘Oh, yes, please.’ 

As a reader, this encounter leaves me feeling dissatisfied and a little cheated. And asking some awkward questions. Why did Simon say he was going to tell Julia their relationship was over and then decide not tell her after all? What caused him to change his mind? And what exactly was the point of that scene?

So how do you build tension without giving everything away at once? The answer is the same way you keep your character ‘in character’: by managing your reader’s expectations, not simply walking away from them or changing the subject at the crucial moment.

Let’s look at our Simon and Julia scene once again. What we need to do is to make it clear to the reader why Simon doesn’t go through with his intention of telling Julia their marriage is over. So why doesn’t he? Remember objectives and obstacles in The Terrible Twos? What if Simon’s objective is to tell Julia of the break-up while she’s alone, but just as he is about to do so, someone else arrives:

 

‘Julia? ‘

‘Yes?’

AN00363_A loud bark from their excitable cocker spaniel and the sound of a small car pulling into the driveway alerted Simon to the fact that their two youngest daughters had returned from their shopping trip rather earlier than expected.

Now was not the time, after all.

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

Or perhaps the obstacle is internal: to do with the type of man Simon is. Perhaps he simply hasn’t the bottle to go through with it, or he shies away from conflict, or perhaps he still loves Julia deep down, and just can’t bring himself to do it.  You’re the author, it’s your character, you choose. But whatever you choose, please keep the reader in the loop.

‘Julia?’

‘Yes?’

MB900412716Simon hesitated. The thought of his wife’s distress at what he was about to say made him feel sick. No, he couldn’t do it. Not now. Not while she was alone, with no one to comfort her. He’d wait until their daughter, Poppy, arrived. Yes, that would be better. He’d wait until Poppy was here, then he’d do it. 

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

So by fulfilling the promise set up in the scene, you not only gain a wonderful opportunity to impart some great character information, you also keep your readers engaged and wondering what will happen next.

Of course, if you really want to make it interesting, you could try this:

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

For a moment Simon thought he saw a look of dark suspicion cross Julia’s face. But then she smiled sweetly at him. 

‘Oh, yes, please.’

Dah, dah, dah….