The Alchemy of Writing: Your Other Four Senses

Today, I’m addressing a problem that many writers stumble over frequently; that is the tendency to forget to describe what all of the senses are receiving when we write.

Generally speaking, when we describe a scene or an action, we tend to focus on what our character sees. Now, this is understandable because visual data is the most obvious thing that needs to be shown usually. However, focusing on sight can leave the scene feeling rather flat.

Now, that’s not to say that you should go in and include description of every bit of sensory input for every scene. In that case, you’d run the risk of bogging down your pacing and possibly distracting yourself from the important stuff. Rather, I would suggest choosing one or two additional scents to the primary input (if it’s dark, sight isn’t going to tell you much) and describe it.

Let’s take an excerpt from one of my short stories for an example. Here’s how the text appears in the final version of the story:

Boys like Hobard went off to war with nebulous notions of honor and glory in their heads. There was nothing in those dreams to prepare them for the reality of seeing your best friend dying in the mud as his life’s blood gushed from the stump of a severed leg and other injuries. Nothing to prepare them for the screams of dying men and horses mingled with the cries of carrion birds that sometimes didn’t even wait for the dying to stop moving before feasting.

Trask gave himself a mental shake to cast the memories of the smells of blood, sweat, and sweet, nearly-forgotten perfume from his mind as he pushed through the sturdy door to the inn.

 

Now, let’s excise the senses of smell and sound from the description and see how that affects things:

Boys like Hobard went off to war with nebulous notions of honor and glory in their heads. There was nothing in those dreams to prepare them for the reality of seeing your best friend dying in the mud as his life’s blood gushed from the stump of a severed leg and other injuries.

Trask gave himself a mental shake to cast the memories from his mind as he pushed through the sturdy door to the inn.

 

The memories don’t quite have the same weight if Trask doesn’t recall the sounds and smells accompanying the scene he’s remembering.

Psychology tells us that scent is the most powerful of our senses and the most primal as well. Scents tend to trigger memories far more than any other (which is why one of the tricks people recommend to improve your memory is to associate things you want to remember with scents) so if nothing else, try to convey what your characters are smelling as well as seeing. Additionally, our senses are often tied together (smell and taste for example), so if you’re describing a meal, it would be good to describe how the food smells as well as tastes if it’s germane to the story.

Remember, the best writers transport their readers into the worlds they’re weaving so make sure you’re not shorting people on the experience!

 

3 Comments

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