The five senses and why they’re important. As someone who has been writing for over fifteen years even now I still have to remind myself to go back into a piece of writing and add in a sense I’ve missed off. When developing characters and the story itself the five senses shouldn’t be ignored. This isn’t to say you need to describe every one in every new situation or for every character. Pick your senses and add them in where it counts, like character descriptions (I’ll do in another post). It’s important not to overload the reader and to give them the opportunity to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. What does a bunch of snufflous mushroom smell like? A wet foot. Someone is chopping onions, which brings about a stinging of the eyes. Here there is no need for a smell descriptor, or the texture of the onion as your audience already knows what they are. Weaving these senses in and out of your writing is an art form, lets briefly go over what each one can cover:
Sight: What the character sees and how they interpret it. You as the author know that there is a grand castle down the road, over the hill and through a densely wooded forest but your character may not and they definitely can’t see it from where they’re standing.
Smell: This is the simplest of the senses and my favorite because you can have a lot of fun with it. Get creative with your smells, everyone receives a smell differently and one persons lily is another persons bad apple. Think what makes sense for the character- how do you want their personality to develop? Are they quirky or rebellious, disillusioned perhaps? Is your character a straight line business man who enjoys the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans in the morning?
Touch: The way things feel, a smooth metal banister, a soft and warm freshly baked brownie. Someone falls to the ground and grazes their hands on the tarmac, the texture like sandpaper. The way things feel to the character comes through touch, as well as how they interact with those things according to how they feel. Your character may run to get the kettle off of the hob but then jumps back because it’s scalding hot, touch adds depth to all of these interactions.
Taste: What is your characters palate? Does it change over time? Were they forced to eat raw beetroots as a child and so can tolerate the undertones of dirt and the bitter aftertaste now?
Sound: Is it a big sound or a small sound? does it reverberate? How does it affect the scene/characters around your protagonist? Sound can be used to change the tempo of the story and can inflict all kinds of emotions from fear ‘the sound of something discerningly dead could be heard crawling towards them’ to happiness ‘her tinkling laughter could be heard wherever she went’.
Having read the above you may have noticed two types of descriptions, the obvious and the stealthy. Adding senses in a way that doesn’t expose them makes for better writing and allows your descriptions to flow. That’s not to say they aren’t tools to be used for highlighting a sense as well, i.e consider this sentence ‘the overpowering smell of stagnant sewage water made him double over and vomit out his insides several times’. The focus here is the smell, lets see that again in stealth mode ‘He approached the entrance to the sewer, which wreaked of stagnant waste’ one can imagine that smelt bad but not so bad that it became the focus of the scene.