Seeing is believing

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Writing the senses

Using the five senses is an important way to draw readers into your work and help them experience the character’s reality—but writing those senses can be a challenge. So this week we’re going to look at including the five senses in our writing.

I’m starting with sight because I think it’s the most obvious sense we include in writing. Whenever we describe setting or a character, we’re using sight. Our characters’ expressions, body language and movements can be part of sight (though not always).

The challenges of sight
Just because sight is obvious doesn’t mean it’s always easy. As with all description (and all senses), the trick is to slip in that description without slowing the story.

For characters and settings, focus on active and revealing details. “She had dark blonde hair, green eyes, regular features and lots of freckles,” is such a generic description that it almost asks us to forget it immediately. But if we describe her with active verbs (when possible—going overboard is distracting), and focus on characteristics that make her unique, our descriptions—and our characters—will be more memorable and vivid. It may take more words, and you may only convey one or two features, but readers will have a better sense of the character.

Seeing the scene
Focusing on those active and revealing details—or inventing them—can be the hardest part of conveying the sense of sight. Here are some things I’ve done to try to use sight to its fullest in my scenes:

  • Decide what kind of “mood” you want in this setting or scene. The same setting can be home to several scenes of different moods, or it can have a pervasive mood that dominates all its scenes.
  • Consider the characters. What would the POV character notice because of his/her occupation, personality and interests? If it’s another character’s home or other personal space, what kind of furnishings would they use? What are the characters’ emotional states during this scene? Is this the character’s first encounter with this setting or person, or are they so familiar they hardly notice appearances anymore? (Also think of the character’s height—a short, timid character will see a tall fireplace differently than a tall or bold one.)
  • Brainstorm details that would fit that mood or person. Think of more than you think you’ll need. Feel free to close your eyes and place yourself in that place—or better yet, in your character’s shoes.
  • Choose the strongest images and those that best convey the mood or one or more characters. I think three is a good number to shoot for, but depending on the length of the scene and how much you want to
  • Weave them in throughout the scene. Don’t plop them all in the first paragraph of the scene in static description: “She walked in the room. The fireplace stood tall by the imported damask drapes. The Persian rug was a little faded. The wingback chairs were mauve.” Skip, skip, skip.
  • Use not just adjectives and adverbs, but nouns and verbs to convey the POV character’s perception and emotional state, as well as the mood of the scene (again). “The imposing fireplace stood tall . . .” tells us about the room; “The fireplace loomed over me,” lets us experience the character’s reality.

Seeing 20/20
And of course, since sight covers body language and movement, it’s important that those kinds of actions are clear. Time, distance and impartial eyes are usually the best ways to help these things.

What do you think? How do you focus on including sight in your scenes?

Photo by Nicki Dugan

Sound is golden

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Writing the senses

Sound is generally the second easiest for us to remember to include. Little sound cues from knocking at the door, to a ringing phone to church bells to footsteps provide transitions and introduce characters. Technically, dialogue is a sound, but I think readers seldom process it that way (and that’s probably good), unless we specifically call attention to the way a line of dialogue is delivered.

Of course, we don’t want to use too much sound—especially not if we bring sound to the forefront as with the above (and even more so if we do this more than once in a scene). While sight will be used in pretty much every scene (even if we don’t need description), sound probably won’t play quite as prominent a role.

Hearing the scene
Sound generally doesn’t ground us as strongly as sight does, but it can still enhance a sense of setting and scene. Here are some tricks I use to focus on the sound in a scene:

  • Close your eyes. What are the background noises in this setting (traffic, natural, people, etc.)? Does the character notice them—or would s/he notice if they disappeared?
  • Look for missed opportunities to set the stage with sound. What sounds are (fairly) unique to this setting, that could help to ground your characters and readers and convey a sense of place?
  • Don’t neglect the dialogue. Are there any lines of dialogue that need a little help conveying their full meaning or emotional impact? (Yes, make sure the dialogue is as strong as possible on its own first, but if it’s still not enough—or if the words contradict the speaker’s meaning—add to the tone.)
  • Closely related: Read the scene aloud for cadence. Does the rhythm of the words sound natural, and does it fit the scene?

Silence is golden
Don’t neglect silence as a part of sound. Whether it’s an awkward pause in a conversation or the still that falls over forest birds when a predator is near, silence can convey as much meaning as sound, if used properly.

What do you think? How do you use sound in your scenes?

Photo by David Boocock

A touching story

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Writing the senses

So sight and even sound are the easy senses. We remember to include those all by ourselves usually. But then there’s this big gap where we almost completely neglect the other three senses. Most of us realize we don’t use taste and smell very often—but we rarely think about how often we use texture, touch and tactile senses.

And no, the character just touching stuff doesn’t count.

So much of our perception of the physical world comes from our physical interaction with it. Touch encompasses texture, pressure, temperature, weight, consistency and more. To really flesh out the physical world of the story, don’t forget touch!

Including touch

  • Close your eyes and put yourself in your character’s shoes in this scene. Not just emotionally—physically. (Ooh, suede.) What does s/he touch, pick up or handle in this space? How does it feel—rough/smooth, heavy/light, wet/dry, squishy/solid, hot/cold? Make a list of all these sensations, especially for anything of particular importance.
  • Reverse engineer: think about textures that will evoke moods or character attributes. Close your eyes and imagine feeling happy/sad/ennui/etc.—just the feeling. What kind of materials and sensations do you want to surround yourself with? Keep a list, and look for ways to work those in.
  • Link up with emotions: remember to tap into the POV character’s mental state. Does it color how he or she perceives or interprets things? Does her new sweater feel a little too warm when he’s around? Does sweat creep down his collar as he waits in the sun?
  • Link up with taste: texture is a huge part of an eating experience. If you’ve remembered taste, or have your characters eating, enrich that taste experience with texture from the creamy smoothness of vanilla frozen custard to the satisfying crunch of a crispy cookie.
  • Select: sift through all the tactile information in the scene and pick the most important ones. Our brains do this automatically—quick, what do the insides of your shoes (or the floor under your feet) feel like? If you concentrate on that sensation, you can identify it, but most of the tactile (and other sensory) information we deal with every day we filter out. If we didn’t, we’d be overwhelmed before we got out of bed.

As with all senses, we have to be careful not to go overboard, and to change up which senses we’re using—too much of any one sense isn’t realistic, either. However, as with sight, a lot of tactile senses aren’t quite as “offensive” as other senses, because they do ground us so well in the story.

What do you think? Do you remember to include textures? How else do you include textures in your writing?

Photo by Agustín Ruin

Adding flavor to your writing

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Writing the senses

Taste is a tough sense to convey in writing. It’s generally going to be confined to two basic usages: a character eating and a character tasting fear/blood/etc. Latter is a sensation that can be very powerful as a visceral response—unless it’s overused. Generally, it’s remembered fairly well.

For the first example, we don’t want to spend too much time describing something we’re all familiar with. The taste of chicken? You’re probably better focusing on the spices or side dishes.

However, when a character is tasting something new and unfamiliar to them and your audience (chilled monkey brains!), describing that taste can help them experience this new food along with your character.

Taste testing your writing
Although taste is tricky to convey in writing, there are a number of ways to convey taste effectively in writing.

  • Expand your flavor vocabulary. Sour, salty, bitter, sweet and spicy are a good start—but they’re awfully generic. That doesn’t mean we should hop straight to just naming garam masala or vegemite as the flavor, either. There’s a whole spectrum of common flavors out there—smoky, lemony, nutty, yeasty, buttery—that can serve as references.
  • Use familiar references. Again, don’t just name an obscure flavor and hope your readers will get it. Some might, but if it’s important enough to name, it’s important enough to help your readers experience, right?
  • Expand your actual palette. Take a cooking or tasting class, or host a tasting party of your own—cheese is usually a good place to start, since you can get several varieties in almost any grocery store. Invite over some friends, taste the cheeses, take notes and compare.
  • Actually eat the food you’re describing. Even if it’s a familiar food, you might pick up on something to bring out your character or scene better with another taste.
  • Remember texture. Like I said yesterday, texture is an important part of an eating experience. (And hey, temperature can be, too. Cold pizza vs. hot, anyone?)
  • Consider the character. If this is a restaurant, what would s/he order? Why? (I like to use real restaurant menus as starting points, but you don’t have to.) Also, think about your character’s culture—was she raised on collard greens and KFC or colcannon and Abrakebabra? What flavors do they like, and is their flavor vocabulary, and how can you make sure that translates well to your audience?
  • Empower emotions. Is there something about these flavors that triggers a memory or other reaction from the character? Does s/he like or dislike this taste?

Also, take into account your setting and genre. Culinary cozies, for example, will probably feature far more taste than fast-paced thrillers—unless those thrillers take place at Le Cordon Bleu.

What do you think? How do you convey taste in your writing?

Photo by Mike Burns

A rose by any other name

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series Writing the senses

So the last of the five basic senses is smell. We all know our sense of smell is intimately bound up with our sense of taste. Some scientists have found interaction between smell and sound (“smounds,” they call them. Really.). And they say that smell is the strongest memory or emotional trigger of all the senses—hence why it’s especially important to include in our writing.

Smelling up the place

  • Track the scent to its source. No, you don’t have to hire a bloodhound, but the specificity of “fresh paint” or “old paper and dust” brings a more vivid scent-image to mind than “new building” or “musty.”
  • Work on your smell palette. Just like with taste, we can try to expand our smellcabulary. (No?) Smell foods before you eat them, and analyze the scent for its constituent parts (especially handy if you made the food—then you know everything that went in). Go give your spice rack a spin and sample the smells. Try a blindfolded test.
  • Kaye Dacus recommends this one:

    Try this exercise. Close your eyes (well, after you finish reading this paragraph!). Imagine you are walking into your favorite restaurant. What does it smell like? Start breaking apart the smell into layers (yes, like an onion, Shrek). What are the component parts of the aroma—garlic, basil, tomato? Corn, cilantro, peppers? Feta cheese, oregano, lamb?

    Note the clustering of threes as well.

  • Kaye also recommends reading perfume descriptions to observe what “notes” and aromas the creators describe, so check out White Diamonds or Polo for Men on
  • Make them active. Even a short smell description carries more power if it’s part of an active construction. Contrast this example from edittorrent:

    The scent of fresh-brewed coffee permeated her nostrils.
    The scent of fresh-brewed coffee teased her awake.

    Note that I also agree that smells shouldn’t be so active as to permeate, assault or do just about anything else to a character’s nose/nostrils/smelling apparatus.

Then again, maybe I’m not the person you should ask about this. I have a weak sense of smell in the first place, and this week I have a Sudafed-proof head cold. 😀

What do you think? How do you highlight smell in your work?

Photo by Deann Barrera

Dealing with sensory overload

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series Writing the senses

I thought I was only going to spend five days on writing with the senses, but there’s more to sense-rich writing than just focusing on each sense. In fact, focusing on each sense can actually make it harder for your readers to get that deep, in-character experience.

Why? Because instead of having a scene where something happens, we get distracted repeatedly by these perceptions. The setting keeps interrupting the action. (And you wondered what would happen if these walls could hear!)

In writing the senses, we have to carefully balance the sensory data with the action of the scene—and always focus on only the most important details.

  • First time’s the charm. The first time we see a set or meet a new character is usually our best opportunity to describe.
  • Wait as long as you can. Describing at the first opportunity doesn’t mean stopping the story to give every detail. Start with the most noticeable aspects, and then weave in other pertinent details when they matter. For example: you know that halfway through the scene the precise arrangement of the furniture will be important. Can you wait until then to describe it, so that it will be fresh in the reader’s mind? Will they remember how the settee and the arm chair are positioned after three pages anyway?
  • Focus on the character. I said something along these lines for most of the senses, but remember who the POV character is—what s/he would notice and how s/he would interpret it.
  • Focus on action. Long, static descriptions are boring. Remember the action of the scene and put most of the focus there, with enough setting to enhance that action.
  • Focus on emotion. Senses can be most useful in enhancing the character’s emotional experience (and thus the reader’s). If a sense brings out an important emotional reaction, don’t neglect that stimulus/response.
  • The rule of three. What are the three most important, powerful sensory inputs that the character experiences? Start with those. As above, weave in other sensory data as it makes sense.
  • Variety is the spice . . . . Make sure you don’t use the same senses too much. Smells may create the biggest emotional response, but unless your character is a bloodhound, a smell in every scene might be overdoing it a little.

What do you think? How do you decide which senses to use and when?

Photo by the Lichfield District Council

Tapping into your character’s senses

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Writing the senses

Yesterday (and throughout this series), I mentioned that we have to focus on our characters and what they perceive when we detail the sensory information. We’ve talked about how to get into a character’s head (waaay back when), but sometimes seeing with our character’s eyes (or using their other senses) is a bit more challenging than just understanding what they’re thinking.

One thing that I’ve done to work on this (can you tell this is actually what I’m working on now?) is to go through each scene and write down all five senses for that character in that setting. As I do this, I ask myself questions about the character in the setting:

  • Which of my character’s emotions or experiences would color this setting? Does the sandy desert remind her of her grandmother’s house, or him of Desert Storm? (Or make up new experiences, if you feel like it.) If you need a setting to have an impact, sensory data could trigger strong memories for your character. Or if you just want your character to have a strong emotional experience, sensory data from the setting might be the way to go. Emotional
  • Is this a new setting for the character? If so, keep in mind your character’s personality and purpose there. Someone accustomed to danger might scan for the best escape route first. (And she won’t sit with her back to the door. Don’t even ask.) But if she’s there to meet a friend, looking for that friend will be a close second priority.
  • Conversely, is this setting very familiar to the character? If, for example, it’s their home or workplace, they may not “experience” it anymore. So if you need to be in that character’s POV in that setting, focus only on what stands out. Most of us don’t know what our own house smells like (unless we’re the ones buying the air fresheners!), but we’ll notice the overripe garbage.
  • In a familiar setting, can I have other people interact with the set? The other characters’ interactions with the POV/owner character’s furniture may suddenly draw her attention to the ratty patch on the arm of the couch where her cat sharpens its claws—or maybe the cat does that itself.
  • Do we remain grounded in the setting? Do we go too long without referencing something concrete in the “real world” of the story, devolving into people talking in space? (That’s one of my big things to work on.) Note: we don’t have to redescribe the drywall, but even interacting with a prop keeps us from floating off into space.
  • Do we remain grounded in the character? Kind of the opposite phenomenon—do we spend too much time on the description so that we kind of lose track of what the character is doing/thinking/feeling? (And thanks to Andrew for bringing this to mind in the comments!)

What do you think? How do you get into your characters’ senses?

Tomorrow, we’ll have more about picking which senses to focus on for your character!

Photo by Vestman

Selecting character senses

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Writing the senses

Last week, I read an excellent article by author Jade Lee (aka Kathy Lyons). It was called “Setting as Character,” but the underlying message is that characters always interpret the setting through their internal lenses (or precepts, the term the author uses in the article).

To help her remember her characters’ internal precepts, Jade assigns them images that reflect (and control) their internal states, external behaviors, clothes, movements—and even what senses they tend to rely on. One of her examples (emphasis added):

The heroine of Cornered Tigress was a skittish cat. That gave me her colors: black and gray. It also gave me how she moves: on her toes silently, or she pounced or stalked. Cats don’t see as well, they’re very texture and taste oriented. So she became a cook and whenever she entered a room, she tasted the air and noticed the fabrics. When she grew frightened, she hid in tiny closed spaces like a closet, but she would fight like a demon when cornered. The hero made her feel safe. When he caressed her, she wanted to stretch and purr.

In the comments, Jade helps others find these images. One thing to remember is not to focus on events, but behaviors and characteristics—internal factors rather than the action of the story (or backstory). Focus on adjectives and describing your characters’ personalities (even if you only have a sketch), then look for something that matches—something in nature, or something man-made, but ideally something that can grow, develop or change. This can even fill in blanks for you as you’re creating a character.

The most instructive comments even give a guide for finding these, and several examples (emphasis mine, again):

Think of your heroine — is she powerful take charge like a race horse? Fiesty, never say die even though it’s stupid like a small terrier? Cold and stand offish like a frozen fountain? seething beneath in anger like a volcano? Get some general words associated with her — three or four key characteristics. You gave me her main baggage issue, but I don’t have a feel if she’s a do-er or a be-er (action first or feel/fit into a situation first before you act) If she’s afraid or angry or determined first. That will lead to more imagery that will lock it down in your head. . . .

[B]ackstory and plot [are] not what makes him unique. And that certainly isn’t what DRIVES him. What are his internal precepts? What gets him out of bed in the morning? What does he believe he has to do in this lifetime before he dies? That will tell me what kind of man he is. And then we can begin fleshing him out with an image.

If you need a different way to look at it—think this…Name one core belief that he lives beyond all others.

Granted, if the best image for your character isn’t an animal, this may not be as helpful in the sensory writing. But it can still help to focus on their senses and the way they interact with their environment.

What do you think? What kind of images spring to mind for your characters?

Photo by Chrissy Wainwright