Writing a Novel for the Senses

I recently discovered a whole new (to me, at least) kind of fiction, where you don’t have to focus on the story. You don’t have to figure out your main question and answer it. You don’t even have to wrap up all the loose threads for it to be complete.

This is the sensational novel. In this case, “sensational” doesn’t mean “fabulous,” “famous,” or “best-selling,” or “pulp-fiction-like” or “melodramatic.” It means the novel is focused on the sensations, the senses, the response it can elicit from the reader.

6b2d5f74971c5e48fe4a8992ab66cddf by hotblack

It is reader-response fiction, where the author’s goal is to create an experience for the reader, and all the words and characters, plot and pacing is designed to convey a particular feel, a mood, a “sensation,” rather than a particular story.

And, having identified it, I realized I’ve encountered it fairly frequently in the literary genre. I’ve seen it in stories about aging, or loneliness, or failed relationships, where the author is exploring a sensation more than a story. They are seeking to share what something feels like rather than what happened to someone.

And, while I’ve seen it well done, I haven’t always enjoyed it because the feelings weren’t ones I wanted to feel in the first place. Novels that aim at sharing depression, lethargy, and despair don’t rank high on my reading list, because they leave a sour taste on your mind. If done well, they share a miserable emotion with people who, in their own lives, have no reason to feel that way.

But it can be done well in a positive way, too. I just finished reading “The King’s Voice” by Karen Peradon, and, whether it was her intention to write this sort of novel or not, I ended up having a stronger impression emotionally then I did narratively. The novel had a unique flavor, and the end was abrupt, undefined, and uncertain…but it was part of giving the feeling that life is fragile, story is a gift, and the world is both larger and smaller than we think.

A regular novel is sharp and clear, like a mountain range, with rises and falls, and it keeps up a steady clip. It doesn’t lazily rise and fall, but follows the interests of the characters and the story. By contrast, a sensational novel is like a meandering stream. It cavorts in places, it pools in others. It stops and wanders and flows, and sometimes it doesn’t even make sense to the reader why this tidbit is included, why this anecdote matters, but it all works together to give the reader a desired emotional result (if done well; otherwise, it can just give a reader a headache).

So if you find that you aren’t very good at writing a “typical novel,” where the focus is on plot and character, motives and relationships–if you find that you like to amble and wander in your writing–there’s hope for you. You might need to write more sensationally. 🙂

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by hotblack, Creative Commons

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