Sometimes you’ll hear people say that, when you write, you need to ‘paint a word picture’. But this doesn’t go far enough because a picture only includes what you can see and when you write you need to give your reader every sense. Even a ‘word movie’ doesn’t cut it so let me give you a reminder of the senses you should be drawing on when you write.
Perhaps sight is our dominate sense. We use it to understand so much of our world and for many of us the idea of being visually impaired is difficult to understand. Of course, we don’t just see indiscriminately. We can choose to focus our sight on certain objects. Children can be so focussed on something – a ball or pet for example – that they may genuinely not see the car coming towards them. You may physically see things about a person you’re attracted to, that other people would miss – the flecks in their eyes or the highlights in their hair. When you describe what a character is seeing, it tells the reader a lot about them, what’s important to them and their state of mind.
Can you hear the tweeting of a bird or is it swallowed up by the roar of traffic on the freeway? Is your character speaking in a soft voice or a growl? The soundscape around us is just as rich as the landscape and tells us just as much about the character’s environment. It also helps us to communicate emotion. An angry person might yell, or hiss, their voice might be rough or sharp. Don’t neglect what your characters can hear.
We see with our eyes and we hear with our ears but we can feel with every part of our body. Touch/feel can tell us a lot about the character’s environment – the gritty sand or soft carpet under foot – as well as their physical state – burning muscles or stinging eyes. The way you describe how something feels may also change depending on the character or situation. For example, a kiss from someone you care about will be described differently from a kiss from someone you despise.
Smell is strongly associated with memory. The smell of pine-trees takes me straight back to Christmas, the smell of coconut reminds me of my older sister laying out in the sun, trying to get golden brown. Smell is a wonderful sense. And it’s not just pleasant things that we should describe the smell of. Foul smells tell us about decay and disease. They warn us not to eat certain things or go to certain places. If something is green and oozing, chances are it smells putrid too. Let your reader know that.
Babies and toddlers put everything in their mouths. It’s not enough for them to feel, smell and see the block, they want to know how it tastes too. After a certain age though it’s socially unacceptable to stick everything in your mouth. That said, we taste a lot of things beside food and drink. We taste the sweat above our lip, we taste the coffee on our lover’s breath (I mean, I don’t personally, but my character might), we taste the bitter bile rising in our throats. Taste and smell are so closely related that something can smell like something else tastes or vice versa. Don’t under estimate the power of taste, it can add a whole other level to your writing.
When you’re writing you should bring all your senses to play. It creates a richer world for your character and therefore your reader. And it’s more fun for you, too.