Next in our reboot of my Writing Tips article is:
Senses: Add two to five senses to every description.
Hot and tasty! Two senses at once!
When I started writing, I used to swap the pages I finished that week with two writer friends. We would read each other’s work and send back comments. My friend’s comments were almost universally the same. They constantly complained that I had not included any sense impressions except for sight.
”What does it sound like?” They would ask. “What does it smell like?”
At first, I added additional sense impressions at their urging. Then, with time, I began to remember to do it myself—but it was an artificial process. I had to go back after my first draft and deliberately add them in.
Now, the majority of the time, I remember as I am writing the scene the first time.
Why? You might ask. What’s the big deal about sound and smell, and maybe taste or feel?
The answer: The move vivid the description ,the more real the experience of reading about it feels.
Imagine you had someone in a virtual reality suit, and you wanted to convince them into believing your program was the real world—not necessarily to delude them but to entertain them. No matter how realistic your visuals, if they heard and smelled their living room—the old sock their son left by the rocking chair, the odor from where their daughter had not properly cleaned up after the dog, the sound of their neighbors arguing—they would never be entirely swept away by your vivid waterfalls and grand vistas.
But what if you could make them hear the roar of the water and smell the pine resin? That would go much father to convincing them that they were truly in your scenario. What if they could feel the cool breeze? What if they could taste the icy water?
Because, when it comes right down to it, how do we tell where we are? By the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feel of things. Those are the methods we use to bring in information. So, if those senses were fooled, we would “correctly” draw the conclusion that we were somewhere else.
Our real senses are the most convincing, of course, but we have a second pair of senses, too—our imaginary senses. We can imagine seeing the warm green and brown walls of our local Starbucks; hearing the percolating liquids; smelling the roasted coffee; tasting the hot sweet liquid (after we added six types of syrups.); feeling the heat of the cup between our hands.
With enough imaginative pointers, we can get a pretty vivid mental image.
Which brings us back to writing. Basically, we writers are trying to befuddle the reader—to draw them away from their actual life, until the life on the page seems almost as vivid as reality. Or more so. The more successful we are at this, the more the reader forgets their surroundings and is drawn into the story…making it more likely that they will keep reading.
And that they will enjoy the experience more.
Adding sense impressions to a description—even a description of just a single sentence or two—goes a long way to help ground the reader and make their experience more immediate. It also helps broaden your readership. Some people, like myself, might think visually–in images. Other people may be more aware of what they hear or what they feel.
Adding these details helps ground readers across the perception range.
So, how do you actually do it?
You picture your scene in your head and then cast about your imagination/memory for what that place/time might look, sound, smell, taste, or feel like. And you add this to your description. Not only does this make the experience more vivid for the reader, it forces the author to think about the scene in more detail.
Often, when pausing to figure out what a character might be hearing or smelling, authors discover that there are aspects of the scenario that they had not considered. Maybe, they forgot to take the loudness of the waterfall into consideration, or they forgot how could a mountain top would be in late November.
Sense impressions can be added two ways: directly, where the sentence is just about the sense—the seat was hot. The air smelled like peppermint. Or indirectly, where it is mentioned as part of the ongoing narrative—he reached for the cold shovel. A hint of peppermint mingled with the smoky air.
Given a choice, I prefer the latter. But even a direct mention evokes the sense.
Each of the senses is important. For sight, you want to pick objects to describe that convey the mood of the surroundings. If possible, it is useful to do so in order: left to right, or up to down—the way a camera would pan over the scene—because, really, isn't the camera just copying what our eyes naturally do when we move our head?
“He had red hair, a green shirt, and long black boots” is a bit easier to picture than “He had a long black boots, red hair, and a green shirt.”
(This is not always possible, because sometimes, for emphasis purpose, one needs to end a description in the middle. But it is a useful tip.)
Hearing is often the easiest second sense to add, because if there is nothing interesting to hear up close, there almost always something farther away. Up close, I hear the computer and the kitten snoring. Father away is the hum of the heater. Beyond that a bird cawing outdoors and occasionally a plane leaving Dulles airport. So the author has a choice. Either include the sound of something up close, to add vividness to the surroundings. Or mention a far away noise, something that reminds the reader of the larger world around your characters.
The third easiest is smell. Scents are both easy and hard. Sometimes, there really isn’t much to interest the nose. I can’t smell anything interesting at the moment here at my desk. Even when I stuck my nose in the wrapper of the mint protein bar I had for breakfast, most of the minty goodness had already escaped.
However, when smells are present, they can be hard to ignore—especially bad smells. Adding dank laundry or a hint of pine-scented cleaner can immediately bring vividness to an otherwise lagging description.
Feeling come in two kinds: what objects feel like and what your body feels. From the point of view of the writer evoking the readers’ senses, these are almost two different experiences. If I write “Colleen shivered from the bite of the icy breeze,” it is evokes a different mental experience from, “The table had not been sanded. The wood was rough and splintery.”
Both of these kinds of descriptions are valuable in writing. You can even put both in the same paragraph.
And finally taste. Frankly, it is hard to find places to use taste—unless your hero is a dog or a snake who can afford to go around licking ordinary objects. But if the opportunity arises, seize it!
Experience has shown me that adding all five sense impressions usually makes your description too top heavy. Two is a good start. Three strikes me as idea. If I can find a place in a descriptive paragraph or early in a scene to include three sense impressions, the scenario both feels more vivid and is not bogged down by too much description.
This is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes, I just use one or two. Sometimes, more than three. But three seems to me to be what makes a scene come alive.
The neat thing, for a writer, is that stopping to think about sense impressions makes you more aware. I probably would never have noticed that I can feel the weave of my sweater or hear both the regular whir of my heater and the gentle mrrr of one of the cats had I not paused to pay attention.
Even if we are not aware when we start out, we become more aware in retrospect when we sit down and work our imaginations, trying to piece out what a particular time and place would sound and smell like.
It’s great fun. You should try it.