Thursday, May 10, 2012

Invoking the Five Senses

One of the best ways to draw a reader into a world and make it feel more real is by invoking sensory information. Most writers, if you tell them to describe something, will involve one sense, or sometimes two. I'm sure you already know what the five senses are, but here's how they apply to you and descriptions:

  • Sight - What something looks like, including color, opacity, whether it reflects or absorbs light, and what it physically resembles. This is the most common descriptor, because ours is a visual species.
  • Sound - What it sounds like. Sounds can be loud or soft, soothing or harsh, distinct or hard to make out. Very few environments are perfectly silent. Right this moment, I can hear the cat snoring, and my husband's foot sliding over the bottom of the desk every time he fidgets, in addition to the tap-tapping of my keyboard.
  • Touch - What it feels like. Textures, including whether something is slimy or sticky, how much give it has, how soft or rough it feels against the skin, all invoke touch. Romance novels generally make great use of the sense of touch, both in the texture of the person being touched, and what the other person's hands feel like. Heat and cold also involve the sense of touch.
  • Taste - What the taste buds detect. Also shows up in romance novels, but more commonly used in scenes where characters experience a new food for the first time, or they're consuming a favorite. Foodies will tell you that touch also plays a role, in that "mouthfeel," or the texture of the food on the tongue, plays a role in how it tastes.
  • Scent - What the nose detects. Smell is the sense most closely tied to memory in the brain, and I feel it's underused in modern fiction to spark flashbacks or brief interludes of memory. Smell enhances taste, which is why wine tasters do that thing with their mouths. It's to push wine-scented air up through their noses, so they can involve more senses in the tasting. But smell can also give environmental clues. The choking smell of exhaust will tell you one thing about an environment, while the scent of damp moss will put you in an entirely different place.
While I think it's excessive to use all five of these senses every time you describe something, the use of senses not usually used to describe an event or object is the best way to sidestep cliché and describe it in a fresh way. The reader feels far more immersed in your world if you can surround them with all five senses throughout the narrative.

Also, as you can imagine, the senses are closely tied to one another. If you start describing how savory a meal smells on its way to the table, you're cheating your reader if you don't then describe how tender the food, how multilayered the tastes, how well the perfect wine pairing washes it down.

And now I've made myself hungry.

If you're not sure how to go about this, try filling out some of your sparser scenes with a description of what your characters see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. You can cut the excess later, but you might stumble across some sensory details you really like, in the meantime.

No comments: