I’m not talking about sexytimes. Sorry if I got you excited, there. Maybe in another post, hmm?
No, this post is a little bit “here’s what I do” and a bit more “what do you do?” Again, not sexytimes. Honestly, I don’t think we know each other well enough to share that. What I mean is, we’re going to discuss how we work sensory experiences into our writing. Yay!
Engaging a reader’s senses immerses her in the story, making it real in her mind. This is one advantage books have over film. Movies give us everything in terms of sight and sound (and I think that “everything” is a point against them, too), but can’t bring us the somehow-pleasant rotting leaf and moss smell of an autumn forest, or let us experience the flavor of a fresh blueberry bursting in our mouths (or in a character’s, but the reader experiences it too). They can show us an actor touching a fluffy bunny and saying, “ooh, fluffy!” and smiling, but a book can let us feel that fur that’s so soft it almost seems to disappear under our touch. Books rock, guys, and as writers we have incredible power to build a world that’s not only seen and heard, but experienced completely. You can’t tell me that’s not magic.
Well, then. On to the senses, how I as a reader like to see them used in books, how I use them when writing, and how you lovely people feel about this (if you care to participate, and I know you want to).
Sight is fairly obvious. Unless your characters are blind, they’re going to give us a visual description of what’s happening around them. Sight is powerful; most of us rely on it heavily in real life. Sight-words bring visions to our minds of beauty or horror. Sometimes we go overboard; I’m sure we’re all guilty of it when we have a particularly powerful vision for a scene and want the reader to understand every nuance. But when I’m reading, I don’t need to be told every little detail about a setting or a character or what someone is wearing. It gets boring, and over-description is best left in first drafts. But then, too little visual description can leave a reader feeling cold or lost, with nothing to anchor him to the scene. One approach that can be very effective is to let a few details speak for the whole. Lace doilies and meticulously organized knick-knacks tell a reader that a room is fussy (and probably its owner, too), even if every teacup in the collection on the wall isn’t described in detail, and even if we don’t say “the room looked fussy.”
Another tip I’ve found useful when it comes to visual descriptions: specific language trumps vague, both because it’s often more concise and because it’s more accurate. “Big, fancy house” takes up more space and tells us less than “mansion,” and sounds clumsy in most contexts. “Topiary” brings a more refined picture to mind than “bushes cut into shapes of animals and geometric thingamabobs.” When it comes to colours the options are almost limitless, and specific names for colours tell so much more than “light ____.” Amethyst or violet, cerulean or navy, butter or lemon? Changing one word can add great depth to the world your reader sees, for better or worse.* Oh, and speaking of light, it’s a great tool for creating atmosphere, too. Harsh, soft, dim, bright, cool, warm, blinding, direct, filtered… Lovely.
Hearing is probably the next-most frequently used sense in writing; in a dialogue-heavy piece it might be the most important. Obviously characters hear others speaking, but what do they hear in those voices? Hesitation? Confidence? It’s important, beyond what the words themselves tell us. In a close perspective what a character thinks she hears can be wrong, and that makes things interesting, too.
What else do characters hear, and what does that tell us? The sound of a horse’s hoofs scuffing through drifts of pine needles and dry leaves indicates that this road isn’t used often. A frantic heartbeat betrays anxiety even when a person is presenting a calm demeanour (assuming our POV character is close enough to hear it, obviously; noticing it from across the room is just weird). What they don’t hear can be just as important. A forest shouldn’t be silent; noticing a lack of animal noises might have saved a few of my characters a lot of trouble. Does music play a part in your writing? I don’t mean what you listen to while you type, I mean for the characters. Music conveys meaning and adds much to the atmosphere. Use your power wisely.
Touch starts us moving into the less-often-written senses, and that’s a shame. There’s a real danger of sensory overload if we use it too much, but touch adds a lovely dimension to any description. The texture of cloth tells us something about its quality. How had a friend squeezes someone in a hug says a lot about their relationship and their emotional reaction to whatever else is happening. There are many ways to describe pain, all of them pulling the reader deep into the experience, and all in slightly different directions. I dare you to try to write a really good sex scene without describing touch. Really, do it and I’ll give you a gold star. Usually, though, if you want your reader to be truly immersed in the scene, you’re going to need to let them feel it.
Tip: If you’re not feeling confident about describing touch when you write, practice it in your head as you go about your day. Have a headache? Figure out exactly how you would describe that particular pain to someone who’s never had one. No, it’s not a pain in your head. It’s more, and it’s more specific. It’s connected to things this person has experienced or imagined before. There’s creeping pain, stabbing pain, squeezing pain, twisting pain, pain that feels like an upset stomach in your head… you get the idea. When you pet your cat or dog (or companion cactus, whatever floats your boat), choose words in your mind that describe the experience, and go beyond soft, coarse, or prickly. It will start to come naturally.
Smell. I have a smelly character. That is, one who notices smells more than some people might. She gets that from me. My perception of the world is filtered through my nose; one of my favourite parts of walking Jack on cold days is smelling the different woods that people are burning in their homes. Some are pleasant and campfire-like; some remind me of pipe smoke, and one house burns something that smells like cat pee. Gross. This character inherited that trait from me, and it makes some scenes very fun to write. Again, too much can be overwhelming, and timing is everything: she wouldn’t report on the smell of a vase of flowers if someone was attacking her with it, but she noticed the foul breath of the guy who was crushing her. A character (or narrator) only needs to tell us what’s important in the moment and affecting the story directly. But the world, to me, comes into sharper focus when I know what it smells like.
I’ll admit it, I neglect taste. With so much smelling going on, I rarely think it adds anything. Maybe that’s a mistake. I use it, but not nearly as much as smell; after all, there are usually only so many things that end up in a person’s mouth, and I don’t need to describe every meal. I do have heartleaf bark, which smells sweet and tastes bitter, but nothing really huge. Anyone here have a wicked example of how you’ve used taste in a scene? Do share. Another personal note on taste: it needs to be realistic, or I’ll laugh at the description. “His lips tasted like cherries” only makes sense if he was eating them moments before the kiss, or he’s using fancy lip gloss that makes me ask some very distracting questions. Otherwise, just no.
Taste doesn’t always have to be about food or kisses, either. I’d love to give you a direct quote from “Bag of Bones,” but parts of my Stephen King collection have gone missing. Much of the story is set at a house on a lake, in an area with a dark, mysterious history, and more spooky atmosphere than should be legal. The taste of the lake water is used several times; not so much that it bacomes an “oh, jeez, not again” thing, but it’s a unifying element. Whether the main character, Mike Noonan, is swimming, remembering, fantasizing, having a premonition or experiencing a horrifying vision of a long-since-past death, there’s that odd, metallic taste (and smell, they’re related) tying everything together.
Heck, let’s talk about another book that I think uses every sense to build a world that’s so deep and rich you could swim in it. I had trouble getting through The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for various reasons, but the world the author created kept me coming back even when the plot and characters didn’t grab me. From the first pages, the circus is described so beautifully that it breaks my heart to know I’ll never visit it. The visual descriptions are astounding, the stark colour palate of the circus striking, the important set pieces and characters so real you can almost touch them. But there’s so much more. I can’t think about the circus without smelling the warm caramel and popcorn in the air, hearing the silk tents flapping in the breeze, feeling the warmth of that mysterious bonfire on my skin. And the food… Oh, the food! Never have you tasted anything like this in real life. I’m sure some people think the description was boring or over-done, but I just wanted to wrap myself in that world and fall asleep, and I don’t say that about many books.
Now, I asked you all (if you wished) to bring us a sample of how you use sensory input in your writing, so I guess it’s only fair that I share, too. I came up with one example for you that used all five senses. Please bear in mind that this is a small, unusually sense-tacular portion of a larger scene; I don’t usually pile it on like this, but this poor girl has been sleeping in the woods, frightened out of her mind, for several nights. She deserves to be a little overwhelmed by civilization, dammit, and it serves as an example of what I mean. From chapter 10. Not a professional driver, not a closed course, feel free to try this at home:
After a few nights on the road, the room was like heaven. My exhausted mind passed over most of it, taking in only the white wing chair and sofa facing a stone fireplace, a few shelves of books, and the most glorious bed I’d ever seen. Fluffy pillows crowded next to the headboard, and thick quilts waited folded at the foot, begging to be snuggled into. When I took off my boots, the carpet was soft and deep under my feet. “Oh,” I groaned, and flopped face-first onto the bed. Sleep began to crowd my mind as soon as my face sank into the feather mattress.
“You go ahead,” Aren said from somewhere very far away. “I’ll sleep on the chair.”
My head weighed a thousand pounds, but I lifted it to tell him, “I said, ‘that’s not fair, you take the bed.’” I mashed my face back into the sheets, then lifted my head again to add, “it’s all so clean!”
I heard him moving around the room, but couldn’t open my eyes. “I think I’ll be more comfortable on the chair than you’ll be on the sofa,” he said. “Go ahead and sleep, I’ll see what they have to eat around here.” I barely understood his words, and was only vaguely aware of a blanket being pulled up over my shoulders.
The most beautiful scent greeted me when I woke, clean and floral. As much as I wanted to stay curled up in that beautiful bed, I had to see where it was coming from; after three days on the road, I knew it wasn’t from me. My hair was thick with grease, my skin felt like it had a layer of dirt and smoke ground into it, and the perfection of my surroundings was only making it more bothersome. If only it was a—
“A bath!” A door I’d been too distracted to notice earlier stood open, revealing the edge of a tub in a tiny room, steam rising from the water that filled it almost to the brim.
“Excellent timing.” Aren sat in the chair, clean and shaved and wearing fresh clothes. Anyone who’d seen us enter the inn would hardly have recognized him. “I asked them to prepare a bath for you. Nothing personal, I just thought you might like one.”
“That’s all right, I know I stink.” My legs insisted that it wasn’t time to get up, and only reluctantly carried me past him to the bath. I cleaned my teeth with one of the mint-flavored cloths stacked at the edge of the wash-basin, double-checked that the door was closed tight, then stripped off my filthy clothes and stepped into the tub.
The water was hot enough to turn my skin a deep pink as soon as I slipped in, but I didn’t care. I was happy to let it burn the grime of the previous days out of me. I soaked until my skin wrinkled and used the heavy bar of soap to scrub every inch of myself twice over.
So there you go. Things we see, things we hear (or don’t really hear), feeling comfort and heat, the scent of the bath (and after this, the food) that are needed so badly, tasting mint in an icky mouth, all filtered through one character’s perceptions. This is why I like reading and writing first-person stories. I love the immediacy and the meaning.
One more thought, on using the phrase “I heard.” This is most often a no-no; we don’t usually need everything to be filtered through a character’s perceptions so obviously, and it adds a layer of separation between the reader and the scene, which you probably don’t want. “The hippopotamus plunged from the turret” is more immediate than “Dilbert Von Slanglesteen saw the hippopotamus plunge from the turret.” So why did I use it up there? Because the character’s personal experience is what’s important, the contrast between hearing and not seeing. Like any rule, it’s made to be broken; just make sure you have a darn good reason for doing it.
Well, that concludes today’s post. Probably nothing you didn’t already know, of course, but it’s a topic I love and one of my favourite parts of editing- that’s where I add and subtract these things, playing until it all makes my happy.
Go on, now. Talk to me!
*Note: you take your chances with more obscure colour descriptions. Google tells us that “puce” is a dark pink (or something to do with fleas, apparently), but it just makes some people think of (puke) green/brown. If you use a numbered paint chip reference or an obscure descriptive name that only has meaning to you, you’ve lost me. Telling me that her dress was “flower-coloured” doesn’t help. Or that “his eyes were the colour of a windy day.” So… invisible? With things blowing in them? What?**
**More colour footnote! The words you use to describe colours can bring emotional impact or affect how the reader sees things. So if I describe a car as “baby-poop brown,” you’re going to know I probably don’t think much of it. I assume that if I used the factory name, it would sound better. If not, the factory really needs to get on that.