“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.

Kurt Vonnegut on story structure and punctuation

Kurt Vonnegut

Previously I wrote on Kurt Vonnegut’s considerable body of interviews, especially his comments on story shape and fiction as a series of experiments.

One fascinating (Vonnegut-esque?) tidbit in his interviews was an offhand moment in a 1971 profile by Richard Todd (New York Times Magazine):

The class began in a surprising way. Vonnegut remarked that last time they had been talking about form, and he walked to the blackboard and drew there a question mark, an exclamation point and a period. He said these bits of punctuation were the outline of a three act play or story:

? ! .

A student asked if the end might be “Dot, dot, dot.” Vonnegut agreed.

? ! …

So maybe this is a gimmicky or silly way to describe story structure, but I’m game to play along.

I’ve written about organizing structure to motivate my fiction, so this little lesson in punctuation caught my attention. The way I organize my thinking, the three acts of story (really, four) look something like this:

  • Act 1: Setup
  • Act 2A: Complication
  • Act 2B: Confrontation
  • Act 3: Resolution

This list comes from my reading of Syd Field’s books on film structure, which I’ve modified (slightly) for the purposes of writing fiction, especially novels.

Syd Field

I agree with Vonnegut that most stories, if not all, open with question marks. Even if I’ve read a book two dozen times—and there are books I can make that claim—the pleasure of the opening chapters is the illusion I do not know what is coming. (I would say this is related in spirit to Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief.) There are numerous, sometimes playful, ways to pose those questions when a story opens, but those questions are almost always there. Rare if ever does an interesting story open with all the questions answered and the main characters in possession of all the facts. Jim Thompson said there was only one type of story: “Things are not what they seem.” That is another way to say stories open with question marks.

Vonnegut’s exclamation point jibes with what I’ve labeled 2A, Complication. Exclamation points do not have to be action or cliffhangers. Sometimes a quiet revelation or admission can turn a story on its head and rearrange how we see the main character and their situation. I hold a pet theory that the art of storytelling lays in reversals (perhaps I’ll post about that some day). The exclamation point is one such reversal for the characters: a well-kept secret revealed, a surprising discovery, a fortune amassed, a fortune lost, and so on.

Vonnegut’s three punctuation marks (and most of his story shapes) imply three acts. I wondered if my idea about a fourth act, Confrontation, could fit into his punctuation-as-story-structure?

Confrontation, I think, could be expressed as an em-dash. Tension draws taut in the confrontation phase of a story. More than any other part of a story, confrontation is where the reader should be asking herself “Wait—what happens next?” In contrast, final acts are generally not “What next?” but rather “How will it end?”

With an em-dash, then, Vonnegut’s story structure could be punctuated like this:

? ! — …

Which seems about right to me.

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: Now write it again

Syd Field

Syd Field

(See my “Continuing Series” page for a listing of all posts about using Syd Field’s paradigm to write fiction.)

Previously I discussed the fiction writer’s treatment (and how it’s different than a film treatment) as part of this series on how to use Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure for writing stories and novels.

To recap, a fiction writer’s treatment is a way to prepare yourself for producing a rough outline. The treatment asks direct questions about your story and force you to start thinking about its skeletal structure. The eight questions of the treatment are:

  • Protagonist: Who is the main character of this story?
  • Setup: What is the minimum of backstory, history, setting, or exposition that must be presented before the main story begins?
  • Inciting Incident: What event disrupts the rhythms and rituals of the main character’s daily life?
  • Plot Point #1: What reverses the main character’s daily life such that there is no easy return to normalcy?
  • Conflict: What is the primary or core conflict the main character now faces?
  • Assessment: What does the main character do to immediately resolve Plot point #1?
  • Midpoint: What revelation or reversal of fortune occurs that permanently shifts the story trajectory?
  • Plot Point #2: What dramatic or defining reversal occurs that leads toward a confrontation with the core conflict?

Although it looks like a lot of work, as I mentioned before, you should only be answering each question with one to two sentences. Remember, the treatment is for you and no one else—it’s to get creative juice out of your head, where your story is ethereal and plastic, and put it on the page, where it hardens and takes shape.

Writing down answers to these questions commits you to something. It puts a stake in the ground rather than allow your loosely-connected story ideas to jounce about in your skull. The treatment isn’t a hard contract, but it does dare you to commit to something regarding your story.

I assume some people reading this will already be skeptical about this process. I assume some will resist any process at all, in fact. But if you’ve come this far with me, I’m asking you come a little farther and see what happens to your creativity when you expend a little effort organizing it.

As I said, answering the above eight questions—on paper—is a kind of commitment on your part. Let me assure you: You’re not committing to anything. You’re free to write whatever story you want, or even not to write this story at all. For a little effort you can get an idea of just how much you have in the bank—and how much more you need to develop to finish your story.

A treatment is not saying “This is what the story is about.” Rather, it asks, “What if the story was about this?”

Also know that writing a treatment isn’t the end goal of this process. When you’ve finished answering the above eight questions, you’re not really finished. There’s two more steps to writing a fiction writer’s treatment.

First, walk away

That’s right, walk away from the treatment (and your entire story) for a while. Take an hour, a day, even a week. Keep your treatment with you or handy so you can review it during this duration.

If you feel the urge to write a chapter or a paragraph of your story, go ahead, but resist the temptation to jump in and write with abandon. It’s important to let your creative juices stew.

If you can get your head away from your nascent story for a period of time, you might discover later you’re surprised by what you wrote. That’s a good sign. You also might find yourself bored by what you wrote. What seemed exciting or fresh when answering these questions may become boring or predictable later. That’s important too.

You might discover that, out of the blue, new ideas arrive in this interim to supplement or replace your old direction. The plane crash on the nightly news might turn into an auto pile-up happening before your protagonist’s eyes. The widow who arrives in town with shocking revelations might become a widower with a long-lost will. And so on.

Be open to fresh inspiration and new ideas. Don’t dismiss new directions that don’t neatly fit into your initial notions of what the story is about. Receive them warmly—they may lead you in surprising directions.

Second, write another treatment

That’s right, after a brief period of time, sit down and write another treatment. Don’t look at the old one. Don’t revise the old one either. Write a fresh treatment, answering all the questions I listed above.

If you find yourself answering questions more-or-less the same as before, that’s fine. That likely indicates you’re happy with the answer and should continue pressing forward. (It may indicate you’ve run out of ideas on the topic—be sensitive to that as well, it may portend trouble ahead.)

As before, you’re not committing to this second treatment, but by externalizing your ideas, you’re putting a stake in the ground.

Rinse & repeat

There’s a third, perhaps obvious, step: Do this all again. Yes, wait a bit of time to ponder and consider—and then write another treatment.

Once you’ve done a few treatments, they shouldn’t take more than fifteen or twenty minutes to produce. (Be thoughtful. Don’t rush through it.) That strikes me as a pretty good bargain considering the novel I write might take years to complete.

Next: A case study in writing treatments

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: Completing the treatment

Syd Field

Syd Field

(See my “Continuing Series” page for a listing of all posts about using Syd Field’s paradigm to write fiction.)

Last post I explained the fiction writer’s treatment (and how it’s different than a film treatment) as part of this series on how to use Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure for writing stories and novels.

To recap, the first four questions you should ask yourself for the treatment are:

  • Protagonist: Who is the main character of this story?
  • Setup: What is the minimum of backstory, history, setting, or exposition that must be presented before the main story begins?
  • Inciting Incident: What event disrupts the rhythms and rituals of the main character’s daily life?
  • Plot Point #1: What reverses the main character’s daily life such that there is no easy return to normalcy? (Sometimes this is the Inciting Incident, but often it is not.)

Answering those four questions puts you at the halfway mark for writing your story’s treatment. Now I’ll go over the treatment’s final four questions.

Conflict: What is the primary or core conflict the main character faces?
Your answer to the prior two questions (Inciting Incident and Plot Point #1) should suggest an answer to this question. You might find yourself going back to re-answer this question later, when the story is firmer in your mind and the characters’ conflict better defined. For example, although Raisin in the Sun‘s core conflict would appear to be racism, a close reading of the play suggests the conflict is the family’s response to racism—will they keep their heads’ down or will they walk proud?

Assessment: What does the main character do to immediately resolve Plot point #1?
So far, the main character has experienced some kind of disruption (the Inciting Incident) and then an event that ensures they cannot walk away from that disruption (Plot Point #1). Whatever your character’s desires or motivations, they will still want to resolve their situation as quickly as possible. What action would they take?

I’ve learned that, in many ways, this is a crucial hinge to the success of a story. The Inciting Incident is often—almost always—out of the main character’s control. The no-going-back event (Plot Point #1) may be of their device, but it often is not. The Assessment is the main character locking into a course of action. This decision often determines the trajectory, shape, and flavor of the rest of the story.

Midpoint: What revelation or reversal of fortune occurs that permanently shifts the story trajectory?
As the name implies, this is an event which occurs approximately halfway through your story. Depending on the type of story you’re writing, this is often where the main character’s true antagonist is revealed or discovered, but that’s not a requirement. The purpose of this question is, in many ways, to keep the plates spinning—to prevent the character from getting too comfortable in this new situation, and to prevent you, the author, from digressing too far from the core conflict (which is terribly easy to do with longer forms, such as the novel).

Syd Field (the creator of the paradigm I’m riffing off of) explained in The Screenwriter’s Workbook that he “discovered” the Midpoint while analyzing Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown. Field recognized that in Chinatown (and many other movies), something significant was happening around the middle of the film, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what the event was, or why it was significant. In Chinatown, after much analysis, he realized the Midpoint was when the protagonist (private detective J. J. Gittes) discovers that the head of Los Angeles’ water company is married to the daughter of the founder of the water company.

At this Midpoint moment, almost all the questions and complications in the film have been introduced: an unsolved murder, the taint of corruption in Southern California’s water politics, and the detective himself being setup to unwittingly smear an innocent man in the press. At the Midpoint, we think we’re watching a murder mystery against the backdrop of 1930s city politics. J. J. Gittes discovery of the true relationship of the three central characters transforms Chinatown into a drama of a highly dysfunctional family. That’s what Syd Field (and this process) is asking for you to consider for your own story’s Midpoint. It’s the moment when you’ve laid all your cards out for the reader, the moment when the reader now recognizes what’s really at stake for your main character.

The Midpoint is more than a new complication. It’s a chance for you, the writer, to reveal that the story so far is not the whole story. Jim Thompson said there was only one kind of story: “Things are not what they seem.” The Midpoint is where you introduce revelations and reversals that open up the story in larger ways.

Plot Point #2: What dramatic or defining reversal occurs that leads toward a confrontation with the core conflict?

This part of the treatment is the furthest removed from the beginning of your story, and therefore one of the hardest to commit to paper.

Often when I’m writing I have a crystal-clear view of the story’s opening and a hazy idea how I want it to conclude. Finding the path between those two moments is what the process of writing is about. Plot Point #2 is where you make a statement about the final actions and decisions before the end of the story.

To make this easier, go back to what you wrote for Conflict (above) and re-read it closely. Then ask yourself how you think the story will end. You don’t have to commit to this, just get it down to see the words staring up at you from the page. But remember: this isn’t Plot Point #2. It’s where Plot Point #2 is leading toward.

Between those two points—the Conflict and your idea for an ending, however sharp or hazy—lies Plot Point #2. Like the reversal in the Midpoint, a story rarely arouses the reader when it’s predictable. Look for another reversal here: an unexpected shift that leads your protagonist from the middle of your story (Act Two) into the third act, where the final confrontation lies.

An illustration might help here. (Warning: spoiler alert.) Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle has many unexpected twists and turns—it’s easily Vonnegut’s most unpredictable novel—but the reversal that sets up the novel’s conclusion is when the protagonist is declared the San Lorenzo’s next Presidente by the dying dictator. This is not the conclusion of the novel, it’s the final complication in the character’s dramatic journey. (It’s important to realize that some complications are welcome by the protagonist, even though they might come back to bite him or her later.) With the protagonist’s ascension to El Presidente, all the bowling pins are in place, ready to be knocked down with godlike force in the novel’s stunning final chapters. This final complication is Plot Point #2.

Don’t worry if you currently lack Vonnegut’s clarity in your own character’s journey. Like the rest of this treatment, the goal here is to get ideas on paper and begin organizing the whirlwind of inspiration now circling your as-yet-unwritten story.

Take a breather

It looks like a lot, but you can craft a treatment in less than an hour. Give yourself time and space to do it. Don’t rush yourself, and don’t do it while distracted—no Internet, no television, no kids. Most importantly, write your treatment down. Like writing a contract, putting pen to paper forces hard decisions, engagement, and thoughtfulness.

When you’re finished, set your pen down and take a deep breath. When I write a treatment I often feel much like I feel after a sustained time writing prose: a bit exhausted, a bit lost, and more than a little exhilarated.

Remember, writing a treatment is writing. Don’t mistake this as an academic exercise. Organizing your thoughts on paper is as important as writing, editing, and polishing the final prose—it’s just a preliminary to those important steps. Writing a treatment is writing.

Next: Now write it again