Writing with all your senses
I received an email last week from a writer who felt her pages were flat. This writer (and her critique group) felt that she didn’t seem to generate much depth of emotion for her readers. I asked for a few pages of her current work in progress and saw that this writer, who was working on a romance, limited herself by using only visual descriptions in her scenes. Because she was giving her readers only visual clues, she was missing out on opportunities to add depth and texture to her work, which would draw her readers in.
People have multiple senses that they use to experience the world around them, and so should your characters. Regardless of the genre, including each of the physical senses in your writing helps your reader to interpret the world that your character lives in. This also helps your reader to believe that your character is real and helps your reader to suspend disbelief. Your reader becomes engaged with the story and the characters and has to turn the page. This is a good thing.
I am going to use the romance genre to discuss the physical senses to show you what I mean, mostly because the five senses in romance tend to be exaggerated. If you are not writing romance, you should still use all of the senses to add depth, color, and texture to your writing. Paint a picture for your reader that they can’t put down. Writing with all the senses turns average description into great description.
In our romance, picture our heroine sitting in a coffee shop. She has a cup of coffee sitting on the table. She is contemplating the disaster of last night’s date. We’ve described what the coffee shop looks like. We know what happened on her date. We set that up in the plot structure with scene and sequel. We know how our heroine feels. She is ready to give up on men. Then, our heroine sees a man who has just walked into the coffee shop. He has longish black hair and green eyes that pierce her soul as he glances her way. He is tall and handsome with a chiseled face. He looks good to her. But what else? If she only sees him, and your reader only gets a visual cue, then the writing comes across as shallow. This is why it is important to incorporate all the other senses into the scene.
The five senses
Sight is important. Sight tells your reader what your character sees, what things look like, what color something is, etc. but it is one-dimensional. Our heroine sees the man as he walks in. We know what he looks like. But is that it? Is that enough for her to be interested enough to reconsider dating?
Taste adds a texture and depth to your description. Our heroine discretely watches her hero over the rim of her coffee cup. She takes a sip. Her coffee is slightly bitter but overall it has a smooth and sweet taste of cream and sugar. Suddenly she wonders what this beautiful man’s lips taste like. Will his lips be sweet? What will he taste of? Then she wonders if she has lost her mind. A moment ago she was ready to give up all men.
Smell is a very powerful sense and is a great tool to bring your reader into the scene. Our heroine is holding her coffee cup. It is early morning and the smell of coffee which permeates the shop is warm and inviting. The scent reminds her of her father who always made coffee on Sunday mornings for the two of them after her mother died when she was nine. The smell of coffee triggers this memory of her father who was a wonderful man, her rock, and someone she could always depend upon. She misses her father who died a month ago. The scent of early morning coffee subconsciously reminds her of those warm fuzzy feelings as she glances over at her yet to be met hero. She wonders if he is as nice as he looks.
Sound can add emotional context for your reader. Think of the music that plays in the background of your favorite movie. You don’t necessarily notice the music, but it manipulates you and creates a mood you would miss out on if there were no soundtrack playing behind the action on the screen. Our heroine now hears the hero speak as he orders a latte. He speaks with the twang of a Southern accent and she is suddenly excited that he has the potential to be a perfect gentleman, something last night’s date was not. The espresso machine whooshes as it heats the milk for the latte. The hero’s fingers drum upon his thigh in staccato beats which are counterpoint to the adagio of the music coming through the overhead speakers. She is emboldened by her rising emotions and she moves to stand in line behind her hero so she can order more coffee (and also get a heart-stopping view of his perfect bum). She hears him humming to the music. His voice is deep and sensual and she wonders if he is the romantic type who would read to her in bed.
Touch adds additional depth to the scene. When you see something soft you want to touch it. So does your character. Your heroine sees the sweater that your hero is wearing, and how it clings to his torso as he turns to smile at her. She wants to feel the hardness of his abs beneath the softness of the cashmere. What will his hands feel like as they caress her skin? Will they be rough and calloused or smooth and warm? She can no longer resist his charms. She reaches up, wraps her arms around his shoulders, and plants a big, wet kiss on his lips.
Yes, the above is exaggerated, especially if you are not writing romance, but hopefully you see how using all of the other senses in your scenes can add depth, texture, and possibility. Using the five senses in your writing opens the door for creating great description. Your characters can react to sounds, smells, tastes, and touch, not just the sight.
Go through your work in progress and add the five senses and see what happens. I expect your pages will come alive and you will be surprised by what you discover about your characters, and yourself.
Next time: Scene Setting