This week the focus returns to prose, and to one of the most invaluable lessons a writer can learn: writing with the five senses.
Merely communicating how something looks or sounds isn’t enough to bring a story to life. Many people experience things through smells, touch, taste. In fact, these oft forgotten senses are some of the most powerful forms of description, things which can enrich a story and give it life.
Let’s look at each of the five senses in turn, and then go over some ways to get into the habit of using them.
One of the ‘base’ forms of description. Images form in our minds and we transfer them the page, or we describe things we see in reality. Yet it’s not as straightforward as it seems, unfortunately. It would be nigh impossible to describe every aspect of a scene, and even if you did achieve it, nigh impossible to read. The best writers, Dickens in particular, who was a master at this, pick the right details. The little things that can make the biggest difference. A passage from Great Expectations (the description of Jagger’s room) exemplifies this:
“There was a bookcase in the room; I saw, from the backs of the books, that they were about evidence, criminal law, criminal biography, trials, acts of parliament, and such things. The furniture was all very solid and good, like his watch-chain. It had an official look, however, and there was nothing merely ornamental to be seen. In a corner, was a little table of papers with a shaded lamp: so he seemed to bring the office home with him in that respect too, and to wheel it out of an evening and fall to work.”
Jagger has yet to feature, yet we’ve gleaned much just from the description of his room, with the tiniest details, like the paper-filled table, revealing his nature and personality.
Colour is another fantastic tool when it comes to sight. Authors, again like Dickens, use colours to portray emotions or themes, such as red for frustration or anger, black for death, white for purity or goodness. Using colour, particularly with themes, can add extra layers to your story.
One thing which can be overlooked is body language and facial expressions. Much is revealed in people’s reactions. A particular word can send someone over the edge. Voldemort. And capturing those reactions in your prose again can help enrich that story of yours.
It’s worth keeping in mind the reality of sounds. Something I learned not so long ago is that ducks don’t quack. They tend to grunt, or if you’re this duck, almost cackle (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lv4rMDE8igg). Take some time to research things, and if you can, listen to them; don’t work off memory, and never make assumptions.
To aid the clarity of your descriptions, try to use metaphors and similes, particularly if the sound is unusual.
Another often overlooked thing is silence. Silence is an excellent tool to set tone or build an atmosphere. A noiseless forest. A still, foggy street. Eerie.
Description of sound is also underused when it comes to people’s voices. Nobody sounds the same, and a person’s voice makes such a difference to how we form views of them. Finding the right words to describe someone’s voice can be tricky. To get you going here’s a helpful tool courtesy of Writing Helpers over on Tumblr:
What can your character touch or feel? The scope of this depends on the nature of the scene, but for example imagine walking barefoot through a forest. The softness of moss between your toes, the cool slime of mud, the sharp pokes of sticks and stones. Details such as these draws your reader deeper and deeper into the story, enables them to experience what your character is going through, and above all, how they feel. Empathy, friends, empathy.
Touch is, in my view, one of the most powerful yet underrated senses, particularly in writing, and if you can convey it in an effective way, you’ll reap the rewards.
Just as a brief exercise, close your eyes and pick something up. Describe how that object feels. What features does it have? The texture? Sturdiness? Width? Weight?
Taste is one of the more neglected senses—the one that sits in the corner, out of sight, out of mind. Like all of the senses, taste can enrich your tale. How many times have you said the phrase, “It tastes like …”. Your characters, more than likely, have experienced such things too.
Like smell, taste can serve as a trigger for memories. For example a husband who shared a love for apple turnovers with his deceased wife is reminded of her whenever he eats one. It can also trigger emotions. There’ve been times when I’ve eaten food that tasted so good I bounced with glee in my chair.
It’s not an easy one to factor in, which is probably why it’s forgotten about. But adding the odd taste here or there again draws your reader deeper into your tale.
We at last arrive at smell, though its place is no reflection on its importance. The power of smells cannot be underestimated. We smell things all of the time. What can you smell right now?
A smell helps us to form a judgement on things, such as whether something’s okay to eat. And crucially, smells can trigger vivid memories and emotions, vital tools to any writer. Take for example the smell of marihuana and how that can incite fear in some people, yet in others provokes feelings of happiness and peace.
Here’s an example, from James Joyce’s Ulysses of how smells (and tastes) can enrich prose.
“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
Using the senses as a checklist
Something I’ve sought to do to improve my sensory writing is to include the five senses within the planning process. It’s good to save it until the end, when you’ve plotted out your story or chapter. Read over your plan and try and place yourself in the scene. Working your way through each sense, list everything that pops into your head. If you’re more of a discovery writer, in your subsequent drafts step away from your piece and see where some extra sensory details could be included.
1. Sights. It’ll be unlikely that you need to spend too much time on sight, but always take time to think of things again. Can any little details be included? Specificity is a powerful tool.
2. Sounds. Next, move onto sounds. Think of the likes of how a character’s voice sounds. If for example your piece features a door, what kind of sounds could it make? Creak? Groan? Grate? Doors can make some crazy sounds.
3. Smells. When you’ve covered your sounds, think of smells. List everything that comes to mind, even mere whiffs, which can be the most telling of all. Smells can provoke memories and emotions too, like the smell of perfume could remind a character of their dead lover, and that leaves you open to describe emotions (always think of ways to generate empathy!)
4. Touch. What can your character touch or feel? How does the hilt of the sword feel in your character’s fingers? How does the touch of a vivacious woman feel to your lonely character? What information can be gleaned from the manner of a handshake?
5. Taste. Lastly, what tastes, if any, can you include? Is your character eating? Can they taste blood after being punched in the cheek? Do they enter a room where the smell is so foetid they can taste it?
I leave you with a few exercises. You may well have come across them before. Author and lecturer Sarah Maclennan taught me a few helpful ones. The more you practice, the more sensory writing will become ingrained in the way you write.
One place, one sense. As the title suggests, think of a place and describe everything you can using just one sense. Challenge yourself. Pick a sense you feel you struggle with. Or do one sense, then a different one.
Walk and write. Take a notepad and write five headings: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. The next time you go out, even if it’s just to the shop on the corner, write down everything you experience. The touch of the rain or breeze, how the pavement feels underfoot, snippets of passing conversation you hear, the whistle of birds, how that warm and crispy sausage roll tastes.
Close your eyes and pick something up. This one was mentioned above, but it’s a powerful tool. Jot down everything you can think of.
Pick your favourite food and eat! This one’s a bit more fun. Take chocolate for example. Savour each bite and write down everything, from taste to texture, the sounds of it breaking in your mouth, and importantly, how it makes you feel!
As always I hope this has been of some use to you. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe to be notified of new posts!