“Use three senses to make a scene come alive”

Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert

One bit of writing lore I’ve heard many times, and always attributed to Gustave Flaubert:

“Use three senses to make a scene come alive.”

I’ve written before on my skepticism of writing lore. It often follows a pattern: Some nugget of keen insight for writers to follow closely, attributed to a big-name writer to burnish the saying with a little authority. Certainly this pattern is being followed with the “three senses” quote.

In this case, though, my skepticism is firmly tucked away. This is one bit of writing advice that’s well worth following (and not because Flaubert supposedly said it).

“She had learned from Flaubert”

Let’s start with that “supposedly” qualifier. I’ve been unable to locate a direct quote of Flaubert making the three-senses pronouncement in any variation. All roads in my search lead to an essay by Flannery O’Connor titled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”:

A lady who writes, and whom I admire very much, wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.

Already the lore around the three-senses maxim is being chipped away. It’s not make a scene come alive, it’s make an object real. The three senses are described here as “three activated sensuous strokes,” an odd phrasing. It could be construed as indicating the object’s three sensory details do not have to originate from different senses. (For example, an old beat-up table might be described with three different sights: the paint color, the length of its legs, and the shape of its surface.) And notice how the unnamed writer “believes” the three sensuous strokes are connected to the five senses—in other words, she is reading into Flaubert’s maxim rather than paraphrasing it.

If he uttered the maxim, of course. A Google search for Flaubert and the original “three sensuous strokes” phrase always leads back to this passage by O’Connor. As mentioned, searching for Flaubert and other variations of the quote, including the most famous version above, don’t pan out either.

What’s more, O’Connor’s unnamed writer friend “learned from Flaubert” this bit of wisdom. There’s some ambiguity here. It could be read as saying the writer had discovered this technique by studying Flaubert’s work, rather than receiving it directly from him via an interview or essay.

And that’s probably what happened here. The unnamed writer is most likely Caroline Gordon, a Southern novelist and critic who tutored Flannery O’Connor. Gordon’s How to Read a Novel returns repeatedly to Flaubert and his techniques for making a novel come alive, which she calls “Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”:

Flaubert never told you what a flower, for instance, was like. Instead, he tried to give you the illusion, by the use of sensory details, that you could not only look at the flower he was presenting for your admiration but could smell it and feel the texture of its petals.

Caroline Gordon

She continues with effusive admiration for Flaubert’s techniques, particularly his use of narrative distancing: One passage away from his characters to observe their situation, then moving in close for intimate details, and then moving into their interior to plumb feelings and thoughts. Gordon plainly admired Flaubert’s writing. It makes sense she would have passed on the “three sensuous strokes” observation to O’Connor.

In other words, the advice “Use three senses to make a scene come alive” may not have sprung from Flaubert or O’Connor, but Caroline Gordon. What’s more, she was discussing objects and not scenes, although I think the generalization is forgivable.

As much as I believe in the three-senses maxim, this is why writing lore—and lore in general—deserves questioning.

Why it works

Provenance aside, I’ve taken the accepted maxim to heart in my own writing. Unlike other writing lore I’ve come to question, the three-senses maxim has served me well, both in making scenes come alive, and in making objects seem real.

I first heard it over twenty years ago—attributed to Flaubert, naturally—during a writers conference at Foothill College. Those years have given me time to take advantage of this advice and ponder why it works so well. Why three? Why not two, or four, or all five senses?

If a story limits itself to two senses, it will likely focus on sight (the most dominant of the human senses) and sound (because sound—dialogue—is our primary means of communication).

A novel of nothing but sight and sound may be compelling in subject matter, but readers will feel locked out of the book’s world. (“You almost aren’t present.”) Scenes will play out as heads talking to each other. Objects will be nothing but photographs displayed from afar for the reader to observe. A very short story may be able to sustain this, but it takes a special kind of novel to keep this up.

By employing three senses, the dream-vision of the story becomes less boxed-in and more nonlinear (“Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”). The other senses—taste, smell, and touch—have less communicative power, but are evocative to the reader. They’re not as cerebral and more bodily.

Naming a paper bag of popcorn identifies the object. Allowing the reader to smell the yeasty aroma, or taste the melted butter, or feel the heat of the kernels through the paper like small coals: These details inflate a flat object into a tangible thing. Imagine the possibilities of foiling expectations with sensory details: The popcorn smells of cigarettes, for example, or tastes soapy for some reason.

Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor

This is why I think the three-senses rule works: It almost always forces the writer to break away from sight and sound, which dominate the story’s telling, and activate the other senses. The story evokes an experience rather than catalogs a series of events.

While I don’t think four or five senses in a scene is necessarily too much, doing so consistently will over-inflate the story with picayune details. I’ve tried it on occasion, only to cut much of it later as excess fat weighing down the scene. Three senses seems to be the sweet spot.

Flannery O’Connor saw all these problems when she wrote “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”. After mentioning Gordon’s lesson on Flaubert, she cautions,

Now of course this is something that some people learn only to abuse. This is one reason that strict naturalism is a dead end in fiction. In a strictly naturalistic work the detail is there because it is natural to life, not because it is natural to the work. In a work of art we can be extremely literal, without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement. [Emphasis mine]

Keeping the number to three helps limit the writer to selecting only the most essential details, rather than flooding the reader with a surplus to create a sensory shotgun effect. It’s “the essential that creates movement.”

And, yes, there are exceptions to all of the above I’ve discussed. Fiction writers who seek hard rules to follow militarily will soon discover surprises and disappointments. Familiarity with proven techniques, and knowing when to deviate from them, is what separates art from assembly-line manufacturing.

O’Connor’s caution also reminds that the purpose of sensory detail is to invite the reader into the story rather than have them observe it. Sensory details are not the story itself. They are subordinate to the characters, their motivations, and their decisions. Use three senses to make the characters’ world come alive, but only alive enough.

A different kind of naturalism

T1: The Village of Hommlet by E. Gary Gygax
Original cover of
The Village of Hommlet

My previous posts on the blogs Monsters and Manuals and Grognardia led me to look back on Dungeons & Dragons, a game whose influence on me is pronounced, even if I haven’t played it since I was a teenager.

One topic blogger James Maliszewski explored in depth was “Gygaxian Naturalism,” his term for D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax’s aesthetic sensibilities:

The intention behind Gygaxian Naturalism is to paint a picture of a “real” world, which is to say, a world that exists for reasons other than purely gaming ones. The implication is that monsters have lives of their own and thus go about their business doing various things until they encounter the player characters. … I don’t mean to imply that [D&D] is realistic in any meaningful sense, only that its fantasy follows “natural” laws of a sort, much in the way that, for example, I know that there are squirrels and raccoons and rabbits in my neighborhood who go about their business when I’m not seeing them in my yard or chasing them away from my recycling bins.

Before Grognardia I’d never heard anyone describe D&D as naturalistic, and yet the moment I read this post I knew exactly what Maliszewski was referring to. Gygax breathed an internal logic into his game. His fantasy world is a dynamic and mutable place rather than a static backdrop.

The creatures that inhabit this fantasy world don’t merely exist as wooden cut-outs in a shooting gallery. They coexist within an ecosystem. Minotaurs prefer solitary existences while goblins live in tribes. There’s a pecking order. In Against the Giants, the players discover the Hill Giants answer to the Frost Giants, and the Frost Giants answer to the Fire Giants…and all the giants answer to the elves underground.

Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet is an exemplar of D&D naturalism. The village is a medieval Winesburg, Ohio of nosy innkeepers and petty intrigues and split alliances—oh, and there’s an evil-worshiping death cult ten miles outside of town. One reviewer notes Hommlet “is a place with history and its history shapes and affects its layout, mood and inhabitants.”

Those inhabitants don’t exist merely to impart exposition or direct the adventurers to the dungeon entrance. They have ambitions, suspicions, and secrets. They share useful and baseless rumors. A widower farmer and his spinster daughter live in town. They are the black sheep of the village and not well-liked. They’ve stashed seventy-three silver coins in the hollow of a tree—there could be a story within all these details, a story within the larger story. Another farmer’s son likes his brew a bit too much and will wag his tongue if drunk under the table, while the town brewer’s nephew can hold his ale and then some. One elderly farmer is ex-military but would rather talk about any matter other than fighting. More question marks, more history.

And yet, it’s possible, even likely, none of these inhabitants or their situations will be faced by the players. Like Hemingway’s iceberg, Gygax’s inclusion of these details make the setting richer even if little of it is presented in-game. The players may never meet the farmer’s daughter, they may never drink at the inn, and they may never become involved in Hommlet’s inner squabbles. But if these details do become relevant, the game referee is expected to honor the villagers’ best interests and play to their strengths and weaknesses the way a character actor might develop a backstory for his brief role.

How does this correspond to naturalism in literature, especially American literature? In work like McTeague or The Awakening, characters are cursed to accede to the drives of base instincts rather than follow established civilized norms. Greed is innate. Lust cannot be tamed. (Brew cannot be avoided.)

Naturalism presents “nature as an indifferent force acting on the lives of human beings.” Gygaxian Naturalism certainly meets this criteria. Man is of no concern not only to animals, but also bugbears, dragons, and gods, demigods, and demons. The infamous D&D dice act as passionless Fates that hold the players’ futures in their hands. The players start as insignificant creatures in the great chain of being, only becoming a problem when they burst into a lair bearing swords and torches. A player character’s death is mourned by few, if anyone.

When I was in grade school, two of my favorite short stores were “Leinigen Versus the Ants” and “The Most Dangerous Game.” Both are high naturalism, and both are very D&D-like in their telling.

In the introduction to The Village of Hommlet, Gygax writes “there are wheels within wheels in Hommlet and the lands around, and behind each character there is another, the circles growing wider and the figures shadowy but very powerful.” It’s not deep, nuanced stuff, but it’s enough sophistication to give players a lurking sense they are but minor actors in a larger drama. Gygaxian Naturalism is a big reason why playing D&D felt like acting within a story rather than playing a sword & sorcery video game sans computer.

Lessons learned from Ross Macdonald

Recently at San Francisco’s Green Apple bookstore I discovered an edition of Inward Journey (1984), a collection of essays, poetry, and remembrances dedicated to mystery writer Ross Macdonald and published shortly after his death. The collection is edited by Santa Barbara rare book seller Ralph B. Sipper, who also collaborated with Macdonald on his autobiographical Self Portrait: Ceaselessly Into the Past.

Ross Macdonald obviously affected and influenced a great number of people in and around the Santa Barbara writing scene. The anecdotes and memories related by his friends and acquaintances paint a picture of a private and thoughtful novelist who quietly guided a number of writers toward improving their craft. It’s a touching book that mostly avoids miring itself in the maudlin. Some of the writers are quite close to the subject, such as his wife’s warm and elegant recounting of an early and late memory of him. Other essayists are more distant and matter-of-fact, such as popular writer John D. MacDonald’s humorous tale of his dance with Ross Macdonald over the appropriate use of their last names in publication credits.

That confusion is due to Ross Macdonald being the pen name of Kenneth Millar, who adopted the name to avoid being confused with wife Margaret Millar, a well-known novelist in her own right by the time his star began to rise. On top of his feud with John D. Macdonald, he also witnessed his style of detective fiction (and his detective, Lew Archer) relentlessly compared to hardboiled writers Raymond Chandler’s and Dashiell Hammett’s work from a quarter century earlier—often to his own detriment.

Between Margaret writing under his family name, authors John D. MacDonald and Philip MacDonald, and the unasked-for competition with Chandler and Hammett, it’s a wonder Ross Macdonald was able to carve out a name for himself. He did, and his workmanlike approach to novel-writing led to a corpus of nearly thirty solid books, the bulk set in Macdonald’s own Southern California, in particular his home of Santa Barbara (renamed to Santa Teresa). As such, Macdonald inherited not merely Chandler’s mantle of the premier tough-guy detective writer, but also the mantle of the leading Southern California mystery writer. The difference is, where Chandler’s stomping grounds are Los Angeles proper, Macdonald’s Lew Archer prowls the Southern California suburbs. This shift corresponded neatly with the rapid postwar growth of the Southern California valleys and coastal communities.

Free and joyful creation

Inward Journey opens with two previously unpublished essays by Macdonald himself. “The Scene of the Crime” is a lecture he gave at the University of Michigan in 1954 regarding the origins and development of the mystery story. It’s one of the most erudite, learned, and humble essays I’ve read on the subject. Macdonald had a degree in literature (his thesis analyzed Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and he draws on sources as wide-ranging as William Carlos Williams and Faulkner in way of framing the detective story as a modern narrative strategy devised in reaction to modernity itself:

“A Rose for Emily,” [Faulkner’s] most frequently reprinted story is a beautifully worked out mystery solved in a final sentence which no one who has read it will ever forget. … I don’t mean to try to borrow Faulkner’s authority in support of any such theses as these: that the mystery form is the gateway to literary grace…Still the fact remains he did use it, that the narrative techniques of the popular mystery are closely woven into the texture of much of his work.

The other chapter, “Farewell, Chandler,” originated as a private letter to his publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Pocket Books was republishing his detective novels and sought permission to “fix” them by making them more violent and sensational (and therefore more palatable to paperback readers). Macdonald was compared to Chandler his entire career, and this letter both acknowledges the debt while gingerly disentangling himself from Chandler’s legacy:

My hero is sexually diffident, ill-paid, and not very sure of himself. Compared with Chandler’s brilliant phantasmagoria this world is pale, I agree. But what is the point of comparison? This is not Chandler’s book. … None of my scenes have ever been written before, and some of them have real depth and moral excitement. I venture to say that none of my characters are familiar; they are freshly conceived from a point of view that rejects black and white classification…

A writer has to defend his feeling of free and joyful creation, illusory as it may be, and his sense that what he is writing is his own work. [emphasis mine]

These two chapters are worth reading (and worth republishing, if they’re not already.) If you’re a writer of any stripe, I would then encourage you read beyond them. Although many of the remembrances in Inward Journey are strictly personal anecdotes, more than a few dig into Macdonald’s bibliography for clues to understanding the man himself. They also relate tidbits of Macdonald’s writing habits and personal theories on fiction and form.

In particular, George Sims offers a wonderful history, book-by-book, of Macdonald’s bibliography, with highlights of his best work. The final chapters by Gilbert Sorrentino and Eudora Welty describe the evolution of Macdonald the writer (and Lew Archer, the hero) from Macdonald’s earliest works to his last. In 1954’s “The Scene of the Crime” Macdonald claims the mystery novel stands to be viewed in the same light as Zola’s and Norris’ Naturalism; Welty picks up that theme in 1984 and asserts Macdonald has earned the right to be included in the said light:

Character, rather than deed itself, is what remains uppermost and decisive to Macdonald as a novelist. In the course of its being explained, guilt is seldom seen as flat-out; it is disclosed in the round, and the light and shadings of character define its true features. … His detective speaks to us not as a moralist but as a fellow sufferer.

If you have any interest in Ross Macdonald or mystery/detective fiction, and your local library stocks this book, it’s well worth a trip to your nearest branch to absorb these chapters.