Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday #90: Your Five Senses

This Week's Topic:
The Five Senses. How you use them in your writing, how you are inspired by them, pictorial essays, that character with smelly socks, books that have used them well, the ones that are currently missing from your work, etc.

Warning: Rambly post ahead.

This is one of the most commonly described senses in literature. Most of the data we take from the world around us is visual. We judge each other on appearance before ever discovering anything else. I've found that I tend to use visual descriptions near the beginning of a scene - because that's when people do the most visual processing. Then, as the scene progresses, visual information becomes sparser and used only when relevant. I'm not a master of description, so visual info can be difficult for me to relay.

My current WIP is written in the first person and I'm finding description so much easier to pull off this time around, because it's all related to the character's perception and her ego. I'm not the omnipresent writer telling you that the tree is beautiful. Instead, my MC can tell you that she climbed trees like that when she was a kid. See? So much more natural and relevant.

I like sound a lot. There's something fascinating about the pitch of our voices and the cadence of our speech. I'm more likely to describe the way a person talks then I am to describe the clothes they're wearing or the color of their eyes. Maybe because it's less commonly done, so it feels like there are more options available, or maybe it's a sense I'm more comfortable working within.

Plus, you have to include the fact that that sound encompasses music. Even the sound of your words being read aloud is going to define the world that you're creating.

Did you ever play the "would you rather" game? Would you rather be deaf or blind? It's a difficult question and one I'm hesitant to answer, for fear someone might take me at my word one day. But, there's no denying that sound connects us to our world in a powerful and meaningful way. A life without conversation? Without music? Without the sound of the cars rushing by and the birds singing overhead? That's a lonely and isolated world.

Touch is another way in which we connect to others, but the amount I use it varies from project to project. I try to determine how tactile my MC is going to be and go from there. My current MC is fairly connected to the world around her, but less likely to interact physically with people. So, every time she comes into physical contact with someone, it's notable.

For me, when it comes to senses, smell is the most potent spice on the shelf. It's so emotional and so strongly connected with memory, that I try not to overuse it. Just a dash here and there should be plenty for my purposes. I don't want my character to be that creepy person who goes around smelling everyone. (I'm looking at you, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille)

Speaking of which, is anyone else ever inexplicably drawn to the candle aisle? I think there's something universal about the need to smell things, because there's always someone making their way down the aisle, sniffing things. Whether it's the sharp pine scent of Christmas, the smell of clean laundry, or the gooey warmth of cookies baking... yeah. Smell is good. Why, then, when I use it, do I usually use it to describe bad things? Huh.

This is another one that depends on the project. I think a film like I Am Love requires an intimate relationship with flavor and taste. In some books, lingering too long over food might be strange and distracting. Me? Well... it depends. In my first book, I tried to use examples of food and flavor to help build the world. In my current project? It's less prominent. The characters don't live in a world with a rich food culture, so most of what they eat is bland and forgettable. Though, there is a theme of beverages. The kind of beverages in a scene tend to define the interaction. Why? Mostly because I thought it would be cool.

And.... The Sixth Sense:
No, not the ability to see ghosts or read people's minds. Many believe that the sixth sense involves proprioception and kinesthetic awareness. It has to do with your awareness of your body's position in space and time, and your ability to coordinate movement. Different characters are going to have varying levels of awareness and awesomeness when it comes to the sixth sense. If you're writing a ballerina or a sports star? They probably have a high level of kinesthetic awareness.

When you're writing first person it helps do a sensual profile for your MC, to understand the things she/he is most likely to perceive. Yeah, descriptions should be well-rounded, but the truth is that most people are going to respond more powerfully to a select few. Maybe the perceptions evolve over the course of the book, or maybe that's overanalyzing things. I dunno.

Anyhoo... how I utilize the senses in descriptions... my uninteresting answer would have to be... it depends.

Thanks for stopping by!


  1. Love the photos you used with this post--satisfyingly visual!

    I can tend to overdo the sensory stuff if I'm not careful. But then, that's what ruthless cutting in rewrites is for.

  2. "It depends" is a great answer! Some scenes call for a lot of description, and some don't.
    I also love the visuals you included in this post. :)

  3. Fact: I'm a candle fanatic. It helps that my sister works at a candle shop and makes me candles. Right now I can't get enough of the Eucalyptus and Spearmint candles I have burning in my room. It's the perfect combo for me, plus they remind me of my grandfather and happy memories.

    I think it's funny that we both referenced trees. I wonder if it says something about our personalities that I mentioned falling and you mentioned climbing? Hmmm...

  4. Great post. The first sense I rely on (in real life) is smell. I have an incredible sense of smell—it doesn't matter where I am, I can identify a smell before anything else. (Don't even get me started on the candle aisle. It gives me such a headache.) Naturally, that comes easy for me in writing.

    The sense I'm terrible with is taste. Like you said, some stories demand it and others don't. My current WIP hardly ever uses taste.

  5. Ah! Kinesthetics! No one mentioned this before, I don't think, but it's definitely a sense! What would we do if our characters never felt dizzy? Or if they could never sense someone creeping up behind them...

  6. omg - these pictures are fabulous.

    I wrote about the sixth sense too! Great post, btw.

  7. Great post, Sarah! Love the visuals.

    I definitely try and incorporate all 5 senses in my writing, with taste probably the least used. I don't know that I've ever referred to a sixth sense, unless getting the "chills" or a "bad feeling" counts (which it probably doesn't).

    I'm a big fan of smells. They're powerful for me! And I know what you mean about being drawn to candles. My favorite candle right now is from Pier 1 and it smells like rainforest :) Can't write a word unless it's lit.

  8. This is a wonderful post! I particularly like the sound sense, simply because your dog picture makes me laugh ;)

    Also, you’ve been given the Liebster Blog Award on my blog post today Congrats!

  9. You picked such perfect photos to illustrate your senses.:)
    Great post!

  10. Great post and I like the visuals.

    Yes, you're right, it depends. Although I tend to not use enough sensory information. I'll add it on during revisions.