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Describing how something looks or sounds isn’t always enough to bring a story to life. Many people experience things through smells, touch, and 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, we describe things we’ve witnessed or experienced and we transfer them onto the page. Yet it’s not as straightforward as it seems.
It would be nigh impossible to describe every aspect of a scene, and even if you did achieve it, nigh impossible to read. Some of the most acclaimed writers, Dickens, in particular, approached it by picking the right details. The little things that tell us everything. Let’s look at an example from Great Expectations:
“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.”
This is Jagger’s office. Though he doesn’t feature, we’ve gleaned much about who he is from details like the types of books upon the shelves and the paper-filled table, suggesting he lives a busy, professional life.
Colour is another fantastic tool when it comes to sight. Dickens was known for using 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 a story.
Something I learned not so long ago is that ducks don’t quack. They tend to grunt or even cackle. It’s easy to assume how things sound, but sometimes what we assume is wrong. It’s always worth taking time to research. In doing so you may find new and original ways to describe the sound. Using metaphors and similes, particularly if the sound is unusual, is a great way to bring clarity to descriptions.
Another often overlooked thing is silence. Silence is an excellent tool to set the 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.
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.
The scope of this sense depends on the nature of the scene, but imagine, for example, walking barefoot through a forest. The softness of moss between your toes, the cool slime of mud, the pokes and scratches of sticks and stones. Such details can draw readers deeper into the story.
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 and 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 baked by 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.
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 and those smells help to shape our impressions. 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 memories 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.
What I do is read over the plan and try and place myself in the scenes. Working my way through each sense, I list everything that pops into my head.
- It’ll be unlikely that you need to spend too much time on sight, but taking the time to consider things in detail can provoke new and unique ideas. What little details can be included? Remember the power of specificity.
- Next, onto sounds. Like sights, it’s unlikely you’ll need to spend too much time on this but it’s always helpful to consider the likes of character’s voices and any usual sounds that could be featured.
- Smells. When it comes to smells a good starting point is to 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.
- 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?
- 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?
Here are a few useful exercises to get into the swing of using the senses. The more you practice, the more it’ll 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. *Warning* You may look odd stopping all the time.
- 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.
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