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Come to Your Senses

May 4, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 5, 2013

We’re not going to talk about coming to your senses in terms of the mind, but in terms of using the sense elements in your fiction, especially for setting and description, for mood, to enhance your personal style, and as a means of differentiating one character from another.

Some writers go extremely light on anything to do with the senses while others are heavy-handed. You can see that this alone would influence the writer’s style; if characters note scents and sounds and tastes throughout a story, that story will be different from one in which characters relate only what they see.

There’s no writing law that says you must include 2.5 mentions of smells or sounds every three chapters, but logic says that the more you want your characters to be like real people, the more they’ll behave like real people. And real people, at least to some degree, take advantage of their senses to navigate their days.

No two writers will use the senses to the same degree, nor will they use the individual senses in the same proportions. And one writer may feature different senses in each book, depending on the needs of characters and genre and setting.

And that’s all okay.

Writers don’t have to measure out the same number of references to smell in every book or some standard proportion of touch references in relation to the other senses. The proper mix and balance comes under the art part of creative writing. Every writer will be different. Every story will be different. This is one reason for the great variety in execution of plots that might otherwise turn into the same story again and again.

Characters and the Senses
Most manuscripts I see are light in terms of the sense elements. Many characters look and see and often notice with their eyes, and sometimes they hear, but usually only the most obvious sounds. They don’t often smell or touch or taste.

But when characters don’t hear or touch, smell or taste, the reader doesn’t either. To get readers involved, pull them deep by appealing to their senses.

Readers have plenty of leisure options, options that satisfy them on multiple levels. All you’ve got to offer is the story on the page. To compete with real food and sports and action and visits with family and the great outdoors and movies and games, you’ve got to get readers involved and keep them involved. The sense elements can help.

Through your characters, give readers sense cues that get them thinking or remembering. Tap into what you know of people and their reactions to sense stimuli.

What does the mention of the smell of baking chocolate chip cookies do to a reader? How about the sound of a baby’s coo? A baby’s wail? What about the feel of velvet or satin? What about the feel and taste of biting into a coin or something metal?

You can create instant identification for the reader by tapping the senses of your characters.

If a bedroom smells like the funk of a gym, let a character notice. If the bedroom instead smells of the fresh-mowed lawn just outside the windows, have a character notice that.

As with any detail, you wouldn’t need to merely tell us, not simply say that the room smelled like a freshly mowed lawn (although you could). Instead you might write—

Esther closed her eyes and inhaled. Then she smiled. She stepped close to the open window and looked out. There he was, her Adam. Mowing. She inhaled again. There was nothing that said summer had arrived like the fragrance of just-cut grass.

What a character pays attention to reveals details about that character. And the senses the character relies on gives us information as well.

Some people don’t notice scents until they’re overpowering, until everyone else in a room has been knocked flat by the stench. On the other hand, some people smell even the hint of an odor, always sniffing and commenting on what they smell.

The same holds true for the other senses. Some people have more sensitive hearing than others and so may be bothered by sounds from the apartment next door or in the next office. Others either don’t notice or don’t even hear. Thus it would be easier to sneak up on some characters than others. Keeping secrets around a super-hearer would be difficult, would require different measures.

Decide which senses your major characters rely on and which they don’t use. And then put that knowledge to work in your stories. For example, a secondary character or sidekick might need to note the smell of almonds or traces of a poison if your main character doesn’t have a sensitive nose.

Use sense details to reveal your character and establish him in his setting.

And use each character’s peculiar sense reactions to differentiate them. Changing the focus from one sense element to another would be a great way to highlight the change in viewpoint character at the top of a new scene.

Remember to be consistent with each sense for each character. If Andrew can’t hear a conversation in the kitchen, he probably also can’t hear the footsteps creeping up behind him, especially if he’s got a ballgame playing. Yes, he might feel someone walking or simply sense another person in the room, but if you go to lengths to show that a character has either a strong or weak sense of hearing or smell or taste, be sure to logically carry that weakness or strength through the story.

Decide if a story will focus on one sense or if you’ll be even-handed with them all throughout the story. You never want to overwhelm, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a character who sees, hears, touches, tastes, and smells everything. And comments about it all. Of course that could be annoying for the reader (as well as other characters), but that might be the point. I’d caution against going too far—annoying readers can lead to them throwing a book against the wall. But don’t be shy about pushing a bit to see what character reactions you could stir up.

Sense in Setting and Description
Use sense elements to set up the setting and to describe locales. But make a point to go beyond what can be seen. Give the reader something memorable in terms of sounds and smells. Yet don’t overplay the references each time your characters visit the same setting.

For example, while you wouldn’t need to note the smell every time your characters visited a paper mill, you would want the reader to subconsciously be aware of it. So make the first mention a memorable one and then make vague references to the odor in other scenes.

A character could pop mints or spray a handkerchief with cologne and dab her nose every so often. Or maybe when she returns to her car, a woman might blast the A/C on high.

Yet when the tension is high and events pile on top of one another, a character might not notice the smell at all. As you are with other fiction elements, be aware of what’s going on in the story, the pacing and events. Setting details, especially common ones, need to take a back seat when the story starts to move.

But perhaps it’s a change in the smell that introduces that next level of intensity, that points to a shift in tension or focus. Remember to consider the senses and character reactions to the sense elements from all angles in order to make the best use of them.

Use sense details to establish a full setting, a multi-dimensional one.

Characters shouldn’t walk through a place, especially one new to them or one that is suddenly different, registering only what their eyes see. Real people don’t. If we’re prone to notice sounds or scents or the feel of objects, we’ll make note of those, not only details we can see. And while it’s true that sometimes we walk around clueless, not noticing what we’ve seen thousands of times before, we do notice the new and different.

We process information from our senses all the time—we turn up our noses at burned bacon or toast, we smile at the sound of a lover’s car in the driveway, we smooth our fingers down the fur of a sleek cat, and our hearts race at the crack of gunshots. Give your characters the same opportunity to react to their setting and the objects in it. And don’t forget reactions to the absence of sounds or scents—characters should respond to missing or expected sense elements.

Enhance Mood with Sense References
You can establish or alter a story or scene’s mood—what the reader picks up, the atmosphere—with references to the senses.

Creaking stairs and moaning trees, at night, create one mood, while a gentle breeze whistling through a stand of birch trees with the sun high overhead creates a very different mood.

The use of color, noted through sight, can create heavy or light moods, can establish the fantastical. Can highlight the comical.

The mention or description of the odor of blood can instantly darken a scene. The sound of a tolling bell or the notes of “Taps” can introduce melancholy. Even the echo of a single set of footsteps through an empty building can evoke mood.

When you want to change mood from one scene to the next, introduce one of the sense elements.

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You don’t have to focus on the senses to the same degree from book to book or in the same book from chapter to chapter. You don’t particularly have to focus on the senses at all, especially if your lead character is oblivious to them (though not every character would be oblivious). But not including them on purpose is far different from being oblivious to them yourself.

Make deliberate choices regarding the senses; don’t simply forget references to them. Use of the senses can strengthen fiction at many points in a story, especially in the ways characters and readers respond to the sense elements. You don’t want to overlook such a simple way to both create 3-dimensional characters and pull readers under the spell of your story world.

Come to your senses and introduce the sense elements to your novels.

Engage characters and readers.

Write fiction that can compete with a world of sounds, scents, sights, touches, and tastes, and infuse your story world with the same elements that make our real world so dynamic and arresting.

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Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

6 Responses to “Come to Your Senses”

  1. Ridge says:

    Thnx… :-) I love this blog….. The topics are very helpful.

    I hope you add “Send to Kindle” button in share/save list..

  2. Ridge, I hadn’t even known about the Send-to-Kindle button. I’ll have to check it out—thanks for the tip. And I’m glad you love the blog.

  3. I found this site to be very helpful to me. I am writing my first novelette and I learned much here. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Lawana, I’m glad you found something useful, and I wish you great success with the novelette.

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