Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Sharon Wildwind

Triangulation pinpoints a location by taking readings from two other points. The object you’re looking for is located where those two readings converge.

Educators have known for a long time that human beings have three primary ways of learning: visual (seeing), aural (hearing), and kinesthetic (movement or touch). Though there are group norms, within that group individuals may have a strong preference and ability for learning in a way unlike the rest of the group.

Roughly 85% of people who live in the U.S. and Canada learn most effectively by seeing, then doing. This is the old demonstration-and-return-demonstration, or the see one—do one—teach one methods that were both popular when I was in school. For most North Americans isolated aural learning is the least effective way to learn.

Many years ago, I worked with a woman who learned almost 100% aurally, and her way of doing things was marvelous to watch. She came to staff meetings without any note-taking material. When the meeting started, she put her hands in her lap, and closed her eyes. The only time she opened her eyes was when she spoke. At the end of a two-hour meeting, she could recite what each person in the room had said about any agenda item.

She confessed during a coffee-break that she’d hated school, and had a lot of trouble until she was placed with a special education teacher who allowed her to listen to a lesson being read rather than reading the lesson herself.

John Barth, an American novelist and short-story writer, has suggested that sight is built into written fiction. He said that readers can fill in sight details better than they can all the other senses because sight is built into language. I suspect, that predominance of visual learning among North Americans helps reinforce this. Who knows, maybe it even causes it.

In any case, consider this sentence: The boy shoved his canoe into the lake.

The majority of readers know immediately what a boy, a canoe, and a lake look like. If “The boy shoved his canoe into the lake” was the first sentence in a story, a reader could still put the picture together and “see” what was happening in the story.

She might discover in the next paragraph that the boy was Chinese-Canadian, that the canoe was painted bright blue, and that the lake in question was in Algonquin Provincial Park, which is about 200 kilometers north of Toronto, Ontario. Details change but images of a boy shoving the end of a canoe, the canoe picking up speed as it entered the water, and the boy hoping in before the canoe left the beach, would remain essentially unchanged.

I learned John Barth’s theory in a writing workshop taught by the thriller writer, David Morrell. He went on to explain that a common mistake writers make is to interpret that the adage Show, Don’t Tell indicates a need to load a story with sight details.

Morrell says it’s just the opposite. Loading the reader with sight details only tells the reader about the place where she is already standing. As in geographical triangulation, what she needs is two different measurements, which will come together at another point. Give the reader two other sensory inputs chosen from smell, taste, sound, or tactile experience. With those two additional sensory details, the reader can triangulate on sight and build the scene in her mind.

After the workshop, I came home, picked five mysteries, all authors I like, and opened the books at random. What I was looking for was enhanced description, not just the boy-canoe-lake use of words, but where the writer tried to emphasize a detail through the use of one of the five senses. Here’s how the score card came out:

Mystery #1—read 9 paragraphs and found 10 sight details, 1 smell
Mystery #2—read 3 paragraphs and found 9 sight details, 1 sound, 1 tactile
Mystery #3—read 5 paragraphs and found 8 sight details, 1 sound, 1 tactile
Mystery #4—read 7 paragraphs and found 1 sight detail, 1 sound, 6 taste (This scene took place in a restaurant, so this may have skewed the taste emphasis.)
Mystery #5—read 2 paragraphs and found 1 sight detail, 3 sound, 6 tactile (This was my favorite passage. In fact, I got so lost in it that I almost forgot why I was doing the exercise and just kept reading.)

Totals: 26 paragraphs contained 29 sight details and 21 for all other senses combined (8 tactile, 6 sounds, 6 tastes, 1 smell) and the one I liked best had the fewest number of visual references compared to sound and touch.

So here is our challenge for the week: Try writing a few paragraphs using two senses—other than sight—to convey vivid details.
Writing quote for the week:

~It can be argued that movies are primarily visual, but that books should be multi-sensory.
David Morrell, Hemingway scholar, writing teacher, fantasy writer and creator of Rambo


Kathryn Lilley said...

Really great post, Sharon! It's also a great thing to keep in mind during rewriting--go back through and on each page, make sure you've worked some of those other senses in.

Sandra Parshall said...

Wonderful post, Sharon, and a great exercise for writers. I learn a lot about writing from you. :-)

Julia Buckley said...

A great challenge! I'll share it with my writing class, too.

Anonymous said...

Glad you all enjoyed it. I've tried a couple of paragraphs and it's harder than it sounds. We are all so visually spoiled in writing.