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Blogging By the Sea
Saturday, May 18 2024

In today's Round Robin Blog we will talk about using the senses to put your readers right into the heart of your stories.

For several years now, I’ve been judging a great writing contest that I believe in because you don’t just fork over your money and submit your work, then either win or not. Instead, whether published or unpublished, you get the rubrics with your scores in ten different areas of importance and comments or suggestions. No writer on the planet knows everything so even a multi published author might glean a new hint or idea, and unpublished, aspiring writers find out what worked and what didn’t work so they can go back to polish the piece before submitting it for publication. One of those areas of discussion is description, so I’ve had a few months now of reading a variety of new and not so new author’s work and experiencing how they have put me into the scene to experience what their characters are experiencing.


One of the biggest problems I see with some writers (some that are already published even) is the desire to see everything, and thus the temptation to write in the Omniscient point of view. Omniscient can be a great point of view when well done, but far too often, the reader is left feeling like they are watching a movie rather than experiencing it. TV and movie producers are careful to set the scene authentically, but the big problem is that you are outside watching, no matter how well done. The advantage of a book is the reader can “feel” like he or she is smack dab in the middle of the action. It is the difference between telling and showing, which we’ve discussed before. Telling doesn’t engage the reader as completely as showing.


What a movie or television show cannot do is make you FEEL what is going on. You can’t feel the heat of a raging fire, or the frigid cold of a blizzard. You can’t smell the salty tang of fog, or the sweet scent of flowers. You can see the wind pulling at a character’s hair or clothes, but you can’t feel it. The senses we are all most aware of are: Smell, taste, hearing, vision/seeing, touch and also pain. There are two more that can come into play that we often overlook: Proprioception and vestibular. Proprioception is our awareness of our bodies in space. This sense is what causes your stomach to lurch when the elevator begins and abrupt descent, or the feeling of gravity, which most of us don’t pay much attention to unless we are piloting an airplane doing crazy maneuvers or living at the space station. Vestibular is another one we mostly ignore and that’s an awareness of how our bodies move, a heart racing in fear or perhaps our stomach growling with hunger. For this blog we will just address the first five.


It's easy to “tell” the reader that the air is crisp with the arrival of a winter wind. We might even tell the reader that our character shivered with the sudden cold. But the reader will feel that better if we put them in the scene: for instance: She hunched her shoulders as a blast of icy air shoved its way down her collar and every muscle in her body trembled at the intrusion. Can’t you just feel your own shoulders tensing in sympathy?


Likewise, we could tell the reader that the scent of fall was in the air, with piles of burning leaves in the gutters as families raked up the colorful masses from their front lawns. Or we could suggest that: Colin’s eyes smarted as a gust of wind blew the smoke into his face. We’ve all experienced such an event, maybe not with fall leaves, but around a campfire, or watching a controlled burn, or a house fire, so we sympathize with Colin. We know how it felt.


We could say Sam fell hard and bit his tongue, tasting the blood. But what if we told it like this? Sam slammed down on the ice. It had been years since he’d last gone ice skating and he’d forgotten how hard ice was, or how shocking the blow to a tailbone that came abruptly in contact with it. Then the coppery taste of his own blood told him he’d bit his tongue as well. Which of these two descriptions puts you into the scene best?


How about, her lover’s touch was gentle, almost too gentle, as opposed to: his fingers traced a shivery line from her chin down to the tip of her breast, setting off tiny flares of desire that made her ache for more.




Who knew the cymbals would be right behind my head when the player clashed them together with a loud reverberation? Or: It felt like the damned cymbals were inside my head, crashing into my brain and echoing out through my ears.  

Another sound most of us can relate to is that of a crashing car. An author taking the easy way out might say the speeding truck smashed into the parked car with a sickening crunch of metal on metal. But a good writer might get into the down and dirty with: No way that kid in the speeding truck could have lived through that sick sounding collision with the parked car. Screeching tires burned hot against brakes applied too late. Metal scraped against metal gouging deadly gashes along the way. Then came the splintering shatter of breaking glass, a hiss of steam venting from the overtaxed engine and finally the dead silence when all motion stopped. Of course, the writer could go on to add the smell or sight of the crash.


And never forget the "little" sounds that set the scene. The gentle eddy of water along the shore of a lake. The crickets chirping on a walk home in the dark. The sizzle of bacon frying. The drip of faucet your character has been meaning to fix but never gets around to, or the creak of unoiled hinges. The cluck of hens on a farm, or the coo of pigeons in the city. The constant sound of traffic sets the scene near a highway. If there are horns tooting, perhaps it's a city. In the country, it's the lack of all those sounds - a quiet that lets the sound of the crickets be heard. It's those little sounds we grow so used to hearing we fail to notice them until they stop that set the reader firmly in that place and time.


Smell might be one of the harder senses to show the reader. We’ve all read about the sweet smell of roses, but what IS that sweet smell. We all know what chocolate chip cookies smell like, too. But how to describe a scent. One of my high school English teacher asked us to describe a scent in 500 words for his first homework assignment. I honestly wish I still had a copy of that paper. I got an A+ after being certain I’d fail. I described the scent of sheets fresh off the line. Of course, in today’s world not many American’s could relate to that anyway given we all shove our sheets in dryers and the only scent is whatever the dryer sheet we add has been imbued with. Romance writers love to describe a hero’s cologne as having a musky odor. In all honestly, that doesn’t really turn me on, but it takes all kinds, I guess. Telling about an odor would use words like acrid, pungent, sweet, putrid, minty, or flowery, so showing a scent requires more comparison. The smell of fresh baked bread might be yeasty, but if you’ve never smelled yeast, or fresh baked products raised with yeast, that kind of leaves you with a big blank. But how about this? The kitchen had a clean, slightly sweet, yeasty aroma that somehow smelled warm, like you were inhaling a blanket on a cold winter day. Chocolate chip cookies might have a sweet, sugary, vanilla scent overlaid with rich hints of chocolate that always made your mouth water. Rain might have an earthy smell to it. Fog might have a damp, salty tang. And a campfire might have hints of pine in the smoke.


And then there’s pain. In the ER they always want you to describe your pain on a scale of 1 to 10. But there are so many variations. To just tell a reader that his head ached, or his stubbed toe throbbed, is telling. How about if the author told you his headache felt like those cymbals crashing inside? Or if it felt like his head was in a vice? Or it hurt so bad he thought his eyeballs must be bulging? Does that give you a better idea just how much his head hurt? Or that toe that throbbed. If the writer instead told it like this: “God damn it!” Damned box in the wrong place. I’m going to kill that kid for leaving it there. I hopped on the other foot, unable to put weight on my injured toe for several minutes and even then the stabbing pain shot up my leg like a knife.


It is always important to set the scene with great description and most authors get this. We are great at describing a dark and spooky cemetery or the clatter and bustle of the hallway in a school when the bell rings with images that bring the scene to the reader’s mind. But adding the senses draws them right into that noisy hallway with chattering classmates, the crash of books in lockers, locker doors being slammed shut, the scent of someone’s week old gym shorts when a locker is opened. The same goes with the cemetery, with the creak of bare branches rattling or scraping together, long inky dark shadows crossing your path, or the hoot of an owl. The next time you consider doing it the easy way, ask yourself, do I want to tell the reader what it looks, smells, feels, sounds or tastes like, or do I want to find a way to make those senses come to life for them?


Anne Stenhouse 

Connie Vines

Helena Fairfax 

Bob Rich

Posted by: Skye Taylor AT 12:02 am   |  Permalink   |  4 Comments  |  Email
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