What you see is what you get, right? Not when it comes to writing. If we only focus on what’s seen, our writing will be flat, unexciting and boring. Reading the written word isn’t a sensory experience, so it’s up to the writer to make it one. A.J. Humpage at All Write – Fiction Advice says, “The senses are the most amazing tool available to a writer, yet the most underused.”
It’s easy to forget about them when we’re on a writing roll, but all of the senses must be incorporated to infuse life into our narratives to create an emotional connection between story and reader.
Todd Stone, author of Novelist’s Boot Camp, says, “As you use description to build that emotional connection between your reader and your story, consider carefully which sense you want to use. Some senses are more—more personal, closer, more private—than others. Using the more intimate senses can make your description more emotionally powerful.”
Stone explains that each of the senses has a level of intimacy, so let’s take a closer look at each one and see how we can use them to enhance our writing.
Sight: The most passive sense. We go through life with our eyes open, so we don’t need to do anything to see something. There’s very little involvement with sight because what we see remains outside of our bodies.
To effectively use the sense of sight in writing, Apryl Duncan at FictionAddiction.NET suggests dropping as many adjectives as possible and using nouns to describe an object. The bridge, like a giant steel cage, stretched the length of three football fields.
Instead of using a vague adjective like pretty to describe something, explain how it’s pretty. On the coffee table sat a dozen pink tulips arranged in a crystal vase. The sun shone through the translucent petals as if they were angels wings.
Sound: More intimate than sight. Stone explains that sound causes a physical change in the body, which is the vibration of the eardrum. We can close our eyes to block out a sight, but more effort is required to block out a sound. Sounds are more easily remembered, especially when repeated rhythmically (like “redrum” from Stephen King’s The Shining).
A description that uses sounds is more memorable, and thus more intimate, than a visual image. However, sound is considered a more passive sense because stimulation can come from far away.
When describing sounds, Apryl Duncan says try to use words that capture what’s heard in the atmosphere. If a couple walks into a fine restaurant, they could hear the hum of soft conversation, silverware clinking gently on china, and the melodious sound of a Schumann quintet for piano and strings.
Even little sounds can add to our stories. A nervous character could fidget with the peppermints in his pocket, making the wrappers crackle.
When possible be blunt with sound. A small pistol pops, an explosion bangs. Just thinking about hearing nails on a blackboard makes me squirm. Duncan uses that description to describe the sound made when a character keys a car—very effective.
Touch: As far as intimacy, touch falls in the center of the spectrum. It is easily remembered, and touch memory is stored in a different part of the brain than sight or sound. Touch can be active or passive. Characters can touch or be touched. Whatever stimulates touch must be close. It can be a powerful emotional trigger. Imagine your character’s reaction to the feel of a lover’s caress, as opposed to the grip of an abusive boyfriend. His calloused hands burned her as he twisted them deeply into her flesh.
Touch can be used as an intimate character marker—leathery skin, calloused hands, scarred face. Touch, however, remains outside the body. So, although it’s more intimate than sight or sound, it’s less intimate than smell and taste.
When describing textures (his wool sweater, her silk dress, etc.), Duncan suggests putting your hands on them to get an accurate sense of how they feel.
Smell. Stone says that the human brain’s neural connections tie certain smells to certain primeval instincts and emotions, making it an intimate sense. Smells can produce strong, emotional reactions even when very faint. We often smell something that reminds us of a familiar place, or even another person. A woman’s perfume, a man’s cologne.
Smell is a vivid sensory component capable of transporting us back to happy or traumatic times. Once inside the house for the visitation, his senses were assaulted by the sickeningly sweet smell of orchids, gardenias and lilies.
I have a friend who grew up in an alcoholic home. To this day he hates the smell of beer because of the memories it conjures up. Does the smell of oatmeal cookies remind you of your grandma’s house? For an extremely powerful and intimate effect on the reader, utilize the sense of smell in your descriptions.
Duncan says that sometimes, as with sound, it’s fine to be blunt with smell. A zoo smells like dung. With that word readers can easily get the picture!
Taste. The most intimate of the senses. Stone says that the taste buds, mouth and gums provide fast track access to the body and parts of the brain. Sensations that originate in the mouth can cause very powerful, very emotional reactions almost instantly. To activate taste, a stimulant must enter through the mouth, voluntarily or involuntarily. Taste can also reflect emotion, such as the sweetness of a lover’s kiss, or the coppery taste of a character’s own blood.
If you’re like me, food will appear a lot in your stories! Duncan says that when writing a scene with characters eating, “hint at what they taste, and how it might affect them. What does that wine taste of on the tongue? Or that steak? How does the dessert taste?”
An easy way to help you describe taste in your writing is to actually taste the item you’re trying to write about. How does the food feel on your tongue? When you bite it, does it squirt? Use your imagination and see what happens!
Kitty held his gaze as she took a deep, sensual bite from the peach. Sweetness filled her mouth, juice trickled to her chin. With his thumb, Ash brushed away the juice, then licked it from his finger…
It isn’t necessary to overload your narrative with all the senses at once. Choose the ones most appropriate in key scenes to allow your readers to see, feel, touch, taste and smell the story you’ve created for their enjoyment.
What are some tips you can share to engage the senses?
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Maria McKenzie writes historical fiction. She is the author of the Amazon bestseller The Governor’s Sons, and Escape: Book One of the Unchained Trilogy. She has just released book two of the trilogy, Masquerade:
Celebrated actress Lavinia Hargraves lives life as a masquerade. She hides her Negro ancestry to pursue her dream of becoming the world’s greatest actress. She elopes with Vernon Hargraves, the owner of New York’s premier theater troupe, to acquire all that she could ever want: a new life as white, stardom on the stage, and an abundant supply of money. The secret of her mother’s slave-girl past could easily destroy the life she has constructed.
Maria graduated from Wittenberg University with a bachelor’s degree in English. She also received a master’s degree in library science from Atlanta University. Before becoming an author, she worked as a librarian for several years. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two boys.
Purchase Maria’s books at Amazon:
Visit Maria at www.mariamckenziewrites.com
- Weekly Lecture Schedule, June 17 – 21, 2013
- A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Art of Writing Dialogue with Maria McKenzie
- Tips on Writing Deep POV by Barbara Wallace
- New York Times Writing and the EDITS System
- The Tricky Part by Laurie Schnebly Campbell