27 November 2018

Senseless Writing

by Michael Bracken

How we sense the world around us impacts our writing in ways we may not realize.

Apparently, the couch is blue.
Because I don’t see the world the way other people do, I tend to “white room” my scenes, describing what my characters say and do without describing them or their environment. This is because I don’t “see” the world around me. For example, I can probably draw a diagram of where everything in my living room is placed, but I cannot tell you the color of my couch, the color of the end tables abutting it, or the color of the chair in which I often sit.

This can be a problem. I once spent hours looking for a shirt because it was not in the place where I always put it. I repeatedly looked every place I thought I might have put it, only to learn that my wife put the shirt away, and, because she doesn’t put things away like I do, I had looked at it several times and had not seen it.

Or worse: I have no clue what my toothbrush looks like, but I know exactly where it is. This caused problems when I shared a bathroom with other family members because I would reach for my toothbrush each morning and use whichever one was in my toothbrush’s space. When other family members discovered I was using their toothbrushes, they finally understood why it was important to keep theirs out of my toothbrush’s space.

Being surrounded by people who never put things in the same place twice is an ongoing source of frustration, a frustration I struggle to control, and my writing space is essentially off-limits to everyone else for this reason.

What confounds people who know my particular foibles is that I write fiction, a creative act that appears on the surface to be the messy, creative antithesis of environmental blindness and rigid everything-in-its-place organization.

And yet, it isn’t.

A well-developed plot is nothing more than putting everything in its place, and a white-roomed scene is still filled with action and dialog.

I can write action and dialog because I hear how people speak and I see how they move. So, I use my strengths to mask my weaknesses.

Then, when I write scenes that require more than action and dialog I either cycle back—that is, I write the scene as action and dialog and then immediately go back into it and flesh out the details—or, I do what I did a few days ago: I stop completely and spend an inordinate amount of time researching some niggling detail that I have to get right for the scene to work. (For that project I was writing approximately one paragraph for each hour of research.)

Many books and articles about writing insist that all five senses must be engaged.

Those of us who do not naturally engage all five senses can only take solace in the fact that Tommy did quite well without them all. After all, “That deaf, dumb, and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball.”

My dark crime story “Dollface” was posted at Story and Grit on November 19.


  1. Many good points- we all have blindspots- literal and figurative- and learning to write is learning to manage what we have and finesse what we don't have. I found this particularly interesting as I am just the opposite- highly visual with a strong sense of color.

    congratulations on your story!

  2. Ha! I think I have the same problem, though maybe to a lesser degree. If something's not where it's supposed to be, I simply can't find it! The kitchen is the worst for that...... But yep, you seem to be doing OK! :-)

  3. You're doing just fine, Michael.

  4. How interesting, Michael. I've told my students that the video of my scenes plays in my head as I am writing them. I can see everything, just like a tv show. My fault therefore is not describing enough, because I can see it so perfectly in my mind.

  5. Wow, I was actually thinking about writing on a similar subject. I still might. I can see my environment ok - enough to write - but I tend not to think about sounds, smells, etc. When I wrote a story about teenagers set in 1967 my sister had to point out that I never mentioned music - which was kind of important to kids at that time!

    Good piece.


  6. Michael, like you, I usually sail through dialogue and action but have to remind myself to go back and add a little description and one or two senses. When I work them in, it's a minimal amount. I think my disability stems from two tips I read long ago which became tattooed in a front lobe:

    Don’t describe the tug – unless there’s blood on it.

    If you’re being chased by a killer with a knife, you don’t smell the roses.

  7. What a great blog entry, Michael. Fascinating! Jan C.

  8. P.S. Congrats on the publication of Dollface!

  9. I'm a little late, but thanks for all the kind comments.


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