Engaging the Senses - Debbie Bennett

Senses. We have five of them (let's not get into psychic abilities here). One of the best pieces of writing advice I've ever come across was about engaging all five of them. If you can engage a reader with all five senses, you can pull them into your story and make them believe they are really there.

Sight is the obvious one. What is your character seeing? Light patterns, colour, luminosity - it's not just about objects. So instead of it being dark outside, we could have:

The surrounding buildings were dark. No, not dark, black -  Hammer Horror black - with the few windows that weren’t broken reflecting the moonlight like eyes watching them. Cycling down the narrow alley and trying to avoid the split rubbish bags piled against the walls, Spike half-expected Christopher Lee to leap out of the shadows and sink fangs into his neck.

Isn't that so much more evocative than just being dark outside? What other senses can we engage? Sound is another obvious one - the wind in the trees, the squelch of wet mud, the baby screaming incessantly. All of those not only give you sound but there's emotion attached too. Soft wind in trees is calm and peaceful; gales can build tension and foreshadow an event to come. Why is the baby screaming? What's his mother going to do about it? As a writer you're not only building images, you're hooking into the reader's own memories and imagination too. Some of the best writing can present an image and a mood, immerse the reader and then turn the scene on its head completely. Music is another way of doing this - although music is intensely personal. A song can instantly transport me to a certain time and place in my life, but will be a different time and place than yours.

What about smell? Much underrated and under-used in writing, but smells can be a great way of describing a scene. Again they can be very personal - the smell of bacon might be mouth-watering to someone anticipating a good fry-up but nauseating to a vegetarian or pregnant woman!

At the cigarette kiosk by the store entrance, Lenny clicked off his phone as he saw her, took her plastic shopping bag and draped his coat around her shoulders. It smelled of some scent or aftershave - something expensive - an earthy, woody scent that was all male.

That tells us something about character. Not a lot in isolation, but it builds up a picture, one sense at a time. Far better than my just telling you who Lenny is as a person.

Touch. Probably the best-used sense in romance and erotica! But how does something feel to somebody who is blind? Or autistic? It's not just sensation, but the feelings such sensations evoke. The feel of sand running through your fingers, or wet mud - it's the same basic substance but a totally different feeling. Have you ever played the party game where you're blindfolded and asked to identify objects by touch alone? Peeled grapes become eyeballs, chopped jelly becomes brains - you get the idea? A touch on the arm can be supportive or threatening.

And finally we have taste.It doesn't have to be just food - the salt in the air at the seaside or somebody's body odour can register on the tongue. In pregnancy, women often crave certain foods (for me it was tomato soup and tinned mandarin oranges) and nobody's yet worked out whether it's the body's way of getting certain minerals, or whether it's just the baby-brain fizzing! But taste can trigger memories too. I've always hated brandy and whisky as they conjure up unpleasant memories of childhood tummy-pains.

Food can give you so much mileage in a scene - both as a background and as a way of showing characterisation. Many of my characters eat dinner...

‘Good enough. So long as we understand each other. Shall we order?’ He handed her a menu. ‘I’ve been told the jalfrezi is the house speciality.’

‘Do you come here often?’ She had to smile at the cliché. ‘It all looks pretty good. You order.’ She didn’t usually play the little woman role, but she was willing to pander to Lenny’s ego if it kept him on side.

‘I’ve been here once or twice before. But this
is Rusholme’s Curry Mile.’

‘Clearly I’ve led a sheltered life.’

‘You have no idea. A fact which I find curiously refreshing.’ He summoned the waiter over and ordered for them both. Poppadoms and condiments arrived at the table a few moments later with a jug of iced water and fresh glasses.

So engage all five senses when you're writing and you'd be surprised by how much a scene can come alive.



glitter noir said…
Well done, Debbie. Especially the section on smell. This can also be used, imo, to help render some characters more sympathetic. Even a villain who smells like a million may be more fun to hang around.
Chris Longmuir said…
I loved the 'Hammer horror black' descriptive passage - wonderful. As for food, all my characters have time for is a grabbed sandwich or burger, a scotch pie, or a fish and chip supper from the chip shop! My characters are food deprived. And my smells are of the unsavoury kind. Oh, and my craving was for tomato sandwiches, never ate them any other time!
Bill Kirton said…
Great post, Debbie. I remember years ago reading Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White and actually feeling what it must have been like to walk London's streets back then. It was his use of smell and touch that was most striking. As I read, I sensed clamminess and found myself taking much shallower breaths to avoid inhaling the foetid pongs. (And I loved it, which it's probably unhealthy of me to confess.)
Debbie Bennett said…
Reminds me of those 3D/imax/film experience things where the seats all move around, they add smell into the mix and spray water at you too!
Lydia Bennet said…
right on Debbie, I always plug the five senses when teaching workshops. Smell in particular is very important to me, and really helps set scenes and moods in a book. Great post. I craved oranges, and pickled beetroot & cheese sarnies with the first, honeydew melons, and pickles again, with the second, once the three months non-stop up-chucking had stopped.

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