Become a Fan
Using the five senses when writing
Making Sense out of Writing
Terri Ann Armstrong
How many times have you read a book that transported you to exactly the place where the characters were? For example: you could literally see the atmosphere, smell the air, hear the sounds, taste the food in a restaurant scene and reach out to touch the velvety-soft petals of a rose.
As a writer it is my job to bring you along for the ride my characters are on. I don’t want to drag you kicking and screaming, I want you to sit back, relax and easily go there without even realizing it. Using the five senses at just the right times is exactly what propels you to follow along, floating on air with your eyes closed, trailing the scent of fresh, backed bread in some family’s kitchen, who, before you know it, you’re having dinner with.
Without the reader even realizing it, the senses are completely intertwined. In other words, if I want you to taste that bread without you eating some to get my point, I would talk about the smell of it or what it looks like, all golden brown right from the oven. Think about it, just hearing the words, fresh, baked bread puts the taste of it in your mouth. And no character has even taken a bite. You can feel the warmth in your mouth and even taste the fresh, creamy butter you would put on your piece or perhaps your favorite jam. I have to move on, I’m getting hungry.
Let’s start with your sense of hearing. This one is a real biggie because without even realizing it, we hear different sounds all day long and we miss most of them. We concentrate on other things going on around us and so much passes by unnoticed…or does it? Horns blaring, people chatting, babies giggling, heels clicking on the concrete, a stack of newspapers that was tossed from the truck as it hits the sidewalk in front of the local variety store; they’re all going on around us yet we miss a lot.
I try to write as if someone is reading it in brail; perhaps it’s someone who’s never seen anything, but has heard everything. In a book I currently have on hold, I wanted to describe what the sound of wind blowing across the top of a lawn that hadn’t been mowed in a while sounded like. I laid my head back, shut my eyes and listened. It wasn’t long before I figured out how I could describe the sound: “when the wind kissed the tall grass, it sounded like paper wind chimes.” Now I realize it’s a good chance no one has ever “heard” paper wind chimes, however, we know what it’s like to hear balls of paper rubbing and bouncing up against each other in a box when we pack something. So we can imagine perhaps, strips of construction paper hanging very close to one another so when the wind blows across them you can hear them touch, much—in my opinion—like tall grass being kissed by the wind.
If I wrote a scene about little kids anxiously waiting for their mother to make them popcorn, I am immediately brought to my mother’s side, with her standing by the stove shaking a big, stock pot with oil and kernels in the bottom. I can hear the pan scrape against the burners as she moves it around so the popcorn won’t burn. I can hear the oil sizzle just before that glorious first “pop” and the instant odor of popcorn attacks my nostrils and makes my mouth instantaneously water. I listen as the kernels start to pop faster and faster until finally the pot is full and the popping slows down telling me it’s almost done. I have had the sensation of it in my mouth as I crunch on each perfectly popped kernel with exactly the right amount of butter and salt on it from the moment the scent of popcorn filled the kitchen. Okay, how did I find my way back to food? Time to move on.
Despite the tasting we’ve done through our other senses, this one is my favorite because along with the sense of sight, tastes are arguably the most vibrant sense that is able to transport a reader to anywhere in the world depending on their personal experience. For example, I can write a scene about a family dinner involving pasta, garlic crostini, parmesan cheese and tiramisu and it is easily imagined for the reader. However, if you’ve ever visited Italy, for example, you know the exact same meal an American family makes and enjoys is completely different if you’ve been to Italy. And I’ll bet that same scene will bring you back to Italy quicker than it will your own kitchen.
It doesn’t even have to involve food. You could taste the smoke from a bond fire if I wrote about; how it lays on your tongue almost weighing it down from the strength of it. It’s such a pungent odor that you actually taste it, which isn’t hard considering the two are directly connected to one another. Hence the reason when you have a stuffed-up nose you have no sense of taste.
Your sense of touch is powerful in its own right. If I were to write a scene where someone is at a gravesite and reached out to touch the engraved name and dates on the headstone. As they slowly ran their fingers over the words and numbers, they could feel each indentation, the roughness of the concrete that was a stark contrast to the smoothness of the back ground. Or the feel of satin sheets beneath a characters naked body; the sleekness of the fabric as it cascades over her thighs that tickled slightly when she moved. A child who attempts to blow up a balloon; you can feel the rubbery texture against the palm of your hands and fingertips as well as the end of it in your mouth while blowing it up.
Imagine using only your eyes to “see” something. The deep green of a plush lawn, the way the colors blend into one another in a rainbow, the soft hue of a perfect, yellow rose; these things and so many more are what makes your sense of sight the pure joy that it is. We take advantage of it while we’re young, adjust it with glasses as we grow and miss it when we have a hard time reading the small print when we’re older that we could see only yesterday. Looking at an aesthetically appealing table set for a holiday meal, speaking of which, the lights and decorations, tinsel and all on a Christmas tree or the lights on the neighborhood houses that scream, “it’s that time of year again!” I personally wouldn’t feel the same about the holiday without seeing all the decorations. And when I write, I bring that in so my readers can see it with me, every color and every sparkle will be shining in their eyes right along with mine.
Last, but not least your sense of smell. This one is particularly intense especially when reading about rotting flesh, garbage, dead skunks or feces to name only a disgusting few. But it goes to the other end of the spectrum as well; the scent of a baby as he snuggles underneath your chin all curled up and warm. The way a puppy smells. Nothing smells like a puppy, whether that’s good or bad is in the eye of the sniffer…so to speak. When you walk into a bakery, your nose is assaulted with hundreds of different smells, each one distinctive and separate. The smell of a freshly mowed lawn, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy that smell; it screams summer which brings you to still more aromas: the ocean, the chlorine in a swimming pool, suntan lotion and the all-time favorite, barbeque. Why do I keep coming back to food? I think my Freudian slip is showing…but that’s another story.
The next time you find yourself with your nose stuck in a book, really think about what you’re seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling and touching; you’ll be surprised at how much more the story comes to life. Happy reading; now go get a snack, I know I am.