Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 25, 2022

Using the Sixth Sense in Writing

by Ellen Buikema

We experience the sixth sense every day.

Driving down the highway, you feel a persistent need to get off the road to take the long way home. Later in the day, you discover that you narrowly missed a horrific accident.

A parent working at home has a sudden feeling that something is wrong. Not knowing why, he runs down the stairs to find his child staring at the edge of a deep, uncovered sewer hole.

A patient opens a new bottle of medication and holds a pill in her hand. Something about it feels wrong, but since her doctor prescribed the medication, she takes it anyway, leading to a trip to the emergency room from an allergic reaction.

Intuition impacts us in a multitude of ways.

Writing using the sixth sense

We are born with a sixth sense used to feel a situation or story. Some of us can better use this sense to perceive others’ emotions and pains. But you don’t need to be an empath to write using the sixth sense.

Writing fiction is a lot like finding a story that is happening somewhere, but you see and hear bits and pieces of it, or sometimes entire scenes, in your mind. We know some details of the story intuitively. The other information lurks about in the dark, waiting to be discovered.

“I see fictional people. And they don't know they're fictional.” – Stephanie Orges

We discover scenes, arranging events around our characters’ personalities and needs. That may be why our characters refuse to do things. I had a secondary character, a dad’s drinking buddy, who demanded a name change. I couldn’t get past a particular scene until he was given a new name. The struggle was real! Now he is Hugo.

I am not alone. According to Jim Davies’ article, “When Alice Walker was writing The Color Purple,  not only did her characters seem to choose their own actions in the plot, but they regularly visited her and commented, sometimes unwelcomely, on Walker’s own life.”

Ways to Develop Your Sixth Sense

Take “Me” Time

It’s hard to hear your inner voice when you are distracted by the constant stream of information from the world via electronics, as well as other folks and situations clamoring for your attention. Get some “Me” time and listen to the silence.

Listen to Your Gut

Pay attention to those “gut feelings.” They tend to lead us in the right direction and out of harm’s way.

Follow the Signs

Is something catching your eye? Do you keep hearing the same tune? These may be signals from the universe, clues to move you further on your life’s journey.

Note Your Experiences

We think we’ll remember the “lightbulb moments,” but we don’t always. Write them down. It’s horrible to have a fantastic plot twist and then lose it in the day’s whirlwind.

Pay Attention to Your Dreams and Daydreams

Your dreams serve you. They might be cryptic and strange sometimes, but they are informational. Dreams can open a whole new world full of interesting stories and opportunities.

Use a Dream Journal

When your subconscious mind comes out to play, in your dreaming state, your intuitive powers enter your awareness.

Writing your dreams may improve your memory in general.

Find tips for using a dream journal here.

Writers Inspired by Dreams and Nightmares

E.B. White

“Where did I get the idea for Stuart Little and for Charlotte’s Web? Well, many years ago I went to bed one night in a railway sleeping car, and during the night I dreamed about a tiny boy who acted rather like a mouse. That’s how the story of Stuart Little got started.”

Mary Shelley

This dream birthed her first novel, Frankenstein.

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

Anne Rice

She wrote Interview with a Vampire while despairing over the loss of her five-year-old daughter’s death from leukemia.

“I dreamed my daughter, Michelle, was dying — that there was something wrong with her blood. It was horrifying. Several months afterward, she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.”

Stephen King

King’s childhood nightmare that inspired Salem’s Lot.:

“It was a dream where I came up a hill and there was a gallows on top of this hill with birds all flying around it. There was a hang man there. He had died, not by having his neck broken, but by strangulation. I could tell because his face was all puffy and purple. And as I came close to him he opened his eyes, reached his hands out and grabbed me.”

Maya Angelou

Angelou, on dreaming in general:

“I do believe dreams have a function. I don’t see anything that has no function, not anything that has been created. I may not understand its function or be able to even use it, make it utile, but I believe it has a reason. The brain is so strange and wondrous in its mystery. I think it creates a number of things for itself — it creates launching pads and resting places — and it lets steam off and it reworks itself.”

The following steps may help to liberate a suppressed sixth sense.

  • Have an open attitude. Accept that you can’t control everything.
  • Listen to your body. Respect your limits.
  • Set aside your reason. Forget about the practical and think about what makes you happy.
  • Let go and leave space for chance.
  • Relax. Rest your mind by closing your eyes, lose yourself in thought, and listen to your inner voice.
    • Meditation is an excellent technique to use if you have many stressful dreams, which can cause muscle tension and spasms.

If you dream it, you can give it life.

Have you experienced the sixth sense in your life? How do you use it in your writing? Have any of your characters refused to do as you ask?

* * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA paranormal fantasy.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image created from photo by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

15 comments on “Using the Sixth Sense in Writing”

  1. Oh, yes, yes, yes! And thank you for writing the blog post I needed to read when I needed to read it.

    All through 2020, I'd been planning to write a novel for which I couldn't find inspiration. Meanwhile, I'd drafted Protecting the Pneuma Key the autumn before and had killed off a minor character named Talma Loyal at the end of the book. That should have been that, but it wasn't sitting right. Those two events came to a head in August 2020. I had this persistent scene that kept dogging me and I don't know where it came from. A woman is hurrying along a street at night in the fog. There's no one around. With each step she takes she'd swear there's a corresponding one behind her. Bracing herself, she stops short and there's one extra footfall behind. She runs.

    That was it.

    Over and over it repeated until I allowed myself to sit down with it. It hit me. Talma Loyal. She was supposed to live. Not only that, but I'd longed to write a fantasy noir for years. She was it! From that point, it all came together. In my journal, I wrote, "I totally didn't see her coming … she's begging for a noir story."

    It all happened in a rush then. I "saved" her in Pneuma Key, which was a small change. Just beginning to write notes for the novel, my computer crashed. It didn't matter. It was an obsession. While the computer was repaired I sat on the couch listening to jazz and writing on my ancient laptop. I studied art deco. I worked furiously on the worldbuilding for the city of Duskspell (it's otherworld historical fantasy). Even all this time later, strange events follow her. For instance? This blog post and the fact that the scene where she's followed is one of those I edited—yesterday.

    1. Hi Christina,
      Those characters can be pesky. Your Talma seems interesting! I suspect she will send you in fascinating directions.

      I find that when I give my mind space to wander the ideas flow better.

      Don't you love it when elements fall into place?!

  2. So far I have not applied my sixth sense to my writing, but this post encourages me to give it a try. However, I do use it in life. I've had a couple of dreams that pointed me in a better direction, and more than once my gut sense (which I call "listening to my bones") has told me to withdraw from a freelance job that is guaranteed to be demoralizing no matter how hard I try to beat myself into believing that I "should" go ahead with it. My bones have never let me down. Ellen, thanks for these useful tips.

    1. Hi Anna,
      I'm glad to know the post is helpful!

      Everytime I don't listen to my gut I end up in trouble of one kind of another, so I've finally learned to pay attention to that inner voice/feeling.

      Let us know if using that sixth sense works for your writing!

  3. So many times I've known things were going to happen before they did. Whenever I let my conscious, analytical mind override what my 6th sense was telling me, I regretted it. So I listen now.
    And those characters that come and argue with you, they're real in a certain sense. You created them. Maybe. Mine seem to pop out of nowhere and nag until I write about them. Or argue with me after I do. One character told me "that's not what I'm really like. You've got my motivations wrong." I listened to that, too.

    1. Hi Virginia,
      I can totally relate with your having insistent characters.
      So far I haven't gotten the motivation wrong but I'm sure that'll happen at some point.

      Congrats on listening to your inner self. This makes life so much easier.

  4. My characters are constantly telling me what to write, or more specifically what not to write. My fictional characters also don't know that they're not real. I spend so much time talking to them that even I forget sometimes that they're not real.

    As for the dreams, my short story The Waking Room came from a dream as well as many bits and pieces of my James McCarthy series.

    1. Hi Eldred,
      I enjoy your writing, so please thank your characters for me. 😁

      The Waking Room even sounds like it was drempt.
      How about The Smell of Fear? That story is all kinds of great fun.

  5. I love this, Ellen! I have experienced this in my life. My husband and I have learned - the hard way - to respect our gut. We talk about things we want to do and we'll look over the logic, and then we'll say, "what is your gut telling you?" Why? Because one time we had an absolutely amazing opportunity. Logic, research... all said that we should do this. But both of us felt just a little off. Eventually we decided to go with our gut regardless of how silly it seemed. This saved us from what would have been an absolutely disastrous business deal. We didn't know some facts at the time that wouldn't show up publicly for about 2 years. Had we done the deal, it would have been terrible. Ever since then, we've promised each other that we'll trust that feeling.

  6. Hi Ellen,
    This is an insightful post. I haven't thought of developing my sixth sense but I see how it can add depth to my writing. These tips to build a sensitivity to the world around me and to trust my own intuition is very useful.

  7. In the original Judge Dee novels honest-to-Yoda ghosts would show up to point Judge Dee at "who did it." In his translation for western readers, Van Gulik replaced supernatural with the judge's sixth sense. This is good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

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