To wrap up my month on writing about the five senses, I have a link to a blog post by Heather Blanton on K.M. Weiland’s site, “Helping Writers Become Authors.” I enjoyed this post because Ms. Blanton uses Edgar Allan Poe as an example of how to describe sound effectively. I hope you enjoy it, too. Click here.
In the story “The Price of Light”, author Ellis Peters brings medieval England to life through the senses, and especially through texture.
Once I sat down to analyze touch, I realized it encompasses many different kinds of sensation.
Not only clothes, but everything we touch has some kind of texture, if we think about it. The table I’m eating on, the chair I’m sitting on, the jacket of the woman I brush up against in a crowded mall, the goop my kid just invented in the basement. If the point of view (POV) character is touching something, I can switch from sight to touch to give my description variety.
I’m sensitive to food textures. Regardless of how a food tastes, if the texture triggers my gag reflex, I’m done with it. In fact, I will soldier through food that doesn’t taste good but can’t choke it down if the texture is bad. Marshmallows and meringue are two foods with textures I literally can’t swallow.
The temperature and moisture of the air around us is sensed through our skin. So instead of limiting myself to how a snowy scene looks, I will add how the cold makes my POV character feel. Humidity can be described the same way. Instead of writing how the sweat glistens on someone’s face, I will write about how humidity wraps around my skin like a wet quilt. When describing wind, I can switch to how it feels, rather than the effects the character sees or hears.
Pressure on the skin signals all kinds of emotions. If you want large man to intimidate your small main character, he can press against her, crowding her, trapping her. A squeeze of the hand can mean reassurance, a slap on the back affection or anger, a handshake, depending upon the strength, friendship or fury.
I know I haven’t exhausted the possibilities. How would you write about the sense of touch?
“There are fragrances. Beyond fragrances are smells, beyond smells are odors, and beyond odors are stenches. Beyond stenches is what I am about to write here.” — “The Pasture” from Kerplunk! by Patrick F. McManus
These three sentences are some of the best writing about the sense of smell that I’ve read. Using the sense of smell in my writing is something I need to work on. It’s the last sense of I think of because I have such a poor sense of smell. Unless a scent is especially strong, I just don’t notice it.
One way I have noticed the power of smell is its ability to trigger memories. No other sense works as well to recall past events. When I smell cooking onions, I immediately think I’m back at my grandmother’s house. Even if the smell is coming from the basement cafeteria at an elementary school, I still think of grandma. A smokey fire in reminds me of the wood burning stove that my grandparents had. Sunscreen, especially when mixed with the scent of bug repellant, sends me back to high school when I attended camp for marching band.
This unique aspect of smell inspires me as a crime writer. What if something tragic happened to a character at a young age, and now that the person is grown up, she can barely remember it? But when she encounters the same unusual odor that she smelled at the time of the tragedy, her memories come into focus.
Or a man is attacked and never saw who it was but did notice a distinct scent about the attacker. Months later, the man meets someone who smells the same way. With only this clue to go on, he begins digging into this person’s background.
In a lighter vein, describing horrible smells lends itself to humorous writing. The quote above comes from a story about how a terrible stench prevents a young man from enjoying his favorite fishing hole.
For more on how to use the sense of smell in your writing, click here for a previous post on the subject.
How would you write about the sense of smell?
Sound may be the second most popular sense writers evoke. Below are three ways to enhance your writing about the sense of sound.
I love it when an author describes how a character sounds. Dr. Watson often stated that the voice of Sherlock Holmes was strident. Is the voice high-pitched? A scratchy bass? Carries a heavy accent? Does the character talk fast or drawl? It’s now considered amateurish to have a line of dialogue and accompany it with a tag, such as “he roared”, “she squeaked”, or “he snarled.” So I have to get creative to let my readers know how a character sounds.
- “His snarl forced the other man to rear back.”
- “His roar would have done ten lions proud.”
- “He talked as fast as a flock of woodpeckers at work.”
If you have a character who loves music, you can have songs or tunes running through her mind to reveal her feelings about other characters and situations. By the way, you can use the titles of songs but you can not use the lyrics of copyrighted songs. You can get inventive and have your character create her own lyrics to fit familiar tunes. A few years ago, my kids loved the middle grade mystery series Jigsaw Jones. Jigsaw’s partner Mila would make up lyrics appropriate to the story, using tunes of well-known children’s songs.
A character with musical talent could also describe sounds in musical terms.
- Her staccato, piccolo voice clashed with her husband’s mellow cello.
- The gate squeaked like a first-grader’s first stroke on a violin.
All my stories, so far, have significant sections set in rural areas. Working in the sounds is important because nature is never quiet. In face, when nature gets quiet, something strange is going on ( Speculative fiction, anyone?) Bird songs signal what season a story is taking place. My backyard is home to many mourning doves. Their plaintive call would work well in a scene if I wanted to underline a melancholy tone. I often write about the sound of the wind. Where I live, the air is rarely still.
How do you use sound in your writing?
Most writers write by sight. And most readers think by sight, so the sense of sight is the easiest way to connect with readers. Poor or cliched descriptions using sight is the easiest way to lose them. The three tips for using the sense of sight in your writing will help you dig deep to construct descriptions that are original but relatable to the reader.
I love to use color to describe characters. But I have to be careful not to overuse it. So When I first describe a character, I try to come up with a vivid description that makes an impact. Then as the story continues, I touch on that initial description to keep it in the reader’s mind. But I touch on it. I don’t dwell on it. I don’t want description to dam up the flow of the story.
- Hair as black as a new moon night
- Hair as red as sunup
- Skin tanned to “a baked bread brown.”
The colors of interiors set the mood for your interior scenes. My youngest and I visited a local art museum. The children’s room had been repainted a deep purple. It was so dark in a room with no natural lighting, that I grew depressed and could barely stand to stay in it. I could use that strong reaction for a character who is uncomfortable in a setting.
In a previous post on color, I write about how I gave one of the characters in my YA novel the medical condition synesthesia and it reveals how she perceives the other people.
While reading Writing from the Senses by Laura Deutsch, I was reminded of how much motion is a part of sight. How characters move in a scene anchors readers in it and also reveals qualities about those characters.
- Shifting feet show anxiety
- Long strides show confidence
- Flipping hair shows flirtation
- Raking back hair shows irritation
Movement of animals, the wind, and machinery all depend on sight descriptions. Sound plays a part too, but that’s another post.
Light, whether exterior or interior, has a profound affect on my mood, so I work it into my writing.
- Golden summer evenings seem perfect wrap-ups to stories.
- Harsh overhead lighting for a scene in which the main character is uneasy or irritated.
- Low lighting, like a fire in a fireplace, throws up big shadows creating a mysterious atmosphere.
How do you use the sense of sight in your writing?