Being a Better Writer: The Five Senses

Welcome back readers, to another installment of Being a Better Writer! We’ve got a pretty nifty topic ahead of us, but before we hit that, there’s some big news we’ve got to discuss. News which I’m sure many of you have already guessed at. It’ll get its own post tomorrow, as to not interfere with today’s BaBW (I’ve learned my lesson there), but it’s big enough news it needs it’s own spot heading today’s post (since today is the first I can get to it). So here goes.

Jungle is now available for Pre-order!

Jungle CoverYes, you read that right. Jungle, the massive sequel to Colony, is now open for pre-order in advance of its November 19th release date. If you’re the kind of person who absolutely must have the newest book the moment it comes out, or if you’d rather order it now so that you don’t have to worry about it later, well, you’re in luck! All you need to do is click this link right here or the cover image to the right there and you’ll be taken right to the pre-order page so you can place your order.

Jungle is the long-awaited (and at last almost here!) sequel to Colony, coming November 19th!

Okay, take a moment to recover from that bit of news. It’s big, I know. Once a year kind of news.

All right, heart-rate stabilizing, breathing returning to normal, pre-order made … Everything’s taken care of. So let’s talk writing!

Okay, I expect that some of you are looking at the title for this particular BaBW post and thinking something along the lines of “The five senses? He doesn’t mean those five senses, does he?”

And, well, yeah I do. The five you learn as a kid when you’re in a grade school, or from your parents, or maybe an older sibling (though the latter usually comes with either the wrong number, or a made up sense because older siblings messing with younger siblings is a time-honored tradition).

But yes, we’re talking about those five senses: Sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Specifically, we’re talking about using those in your writing. Why?

Well … I noticed something a few months ago (yeah, this topic’s from a while back) when I was both editing Jungle and reading through a book from my local library. Now, this happened long enough ago that I don’t remember exactly how the topic came up, but if I recall properly, it had to do with a comment an Alpha reader left on Jungle that served a sharp contrast to the book I was reading at the time. Sharp enough that I suddenly stopped and thought to myself “When was the last time anyone smelled anything in this book?” Meaning the book I was reading, not Jungle.

Believe it or not, this question stumped me. And I starting thinking even more heavily on the topic, running over the last few books I’d read in my head and thinking about, well, smells. The more I thought about it, the more odd the last few books I’d read felt to me. Why? Because it was as if scents didn’t exist in their world. In fact, I’m pretty sure one of them never once mentioned any smells at all.

Which, when you think about it, is a little strange. Maybe not that strange, depending on the book, but still … It’s not normal, you know? And so I started thinking on this topic even more, and looking back over a lot of the books I’d read over the last month or two, with the context of looking at how they used the five senses in mind. And you know what? There was a common thread in some of the books that I found a bit weaker: they didn’t use the senses.

Okay, so let’s back up. I’m not saying that every scene should have a note on how it smells. What I am saying, however, is that when we’re writing a descriptive moment or scene, we shouldn’t neglect our five senses, or rather, the senses of our protagonist/viewpoint character. Scent and smell just happen to be one of the areas where I noticed this tendency to overlook a sense cropping up the strongest. Unless, of course, it was an afterthought scent. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Let’s again look over that list of the five common senses: Sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Now, it’s pretty easy to work sight into our writing. Describing what a scene looks like, after all, is bringing the sight of the viewpoint character to the reader. So barring an instance where our viewpoint protagonist cannot see (a fun challenge, actually, so I do recommend it), sight is generally a sense that we’re going to take care of. Any issues here usually come from problems of perspective (such as accidentally switching viewpoints, describing something a character shouldn’t be able to see, or describing something twice, etc).

Hearing as well is usually taken care of. Dialogue and other sounds, like sight, are practically taken for granted as they’re written into the text, to the point that again, like writing a blind character, sound really only becomes something that doesn’t work it’s way into the text unless we’re specifically writing a moment in which it doesn’t (either because there’s no sound for some reason, a character has lost their hearing, one sound has overwhelmed all others, etc).

Now, that said about these two senses, both of them being the “average” senses every story touches on, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about them. While they both will come fairly naturally as part of the process of writing any scene, there are particulars with both sight and sound that you should think of when writing.

How? Why? Well, let’s look at a practical example, using your own self. That’s right: You. Imagine you are the viewpoint character of a scene. And this scene? You’ve just walked into a food shop somewhere. Whatever kind of food shop comes to mind. Now, with yourself as the viewpoint character, now ask “What will I see or hear first?”

See, depending on the store and you, what you notice first may be very different from what even your best friend notices first. For you, it might be the song playing over the shop’s speakers. Or it might be first who’s standing behind the counter. Or, if you’re there looking for a particular item of importance, it might be the menu you hope to find it in.

Or it might be the couple arguing over the price of lunch. Or the television in a back corner blaring a news or sports article.

The point is, each of us will notice these things in an order that is important to us. So it is with each of our characters. Jacob Rocke, the spook, for example, will notice different things and in a different order than Hawke Decroux, the shaman, will.

So even though sight and sound are by default the most straightforward senses to write into our work, that doesn’t mean that we can simply let them slide into the background of our process entirely. What one character sees will be different than what another character sees. Or hears. And while small minutia like this may seem like they’re not a big deal, those small details can add up. As I’ve said before on BaBW, the small details matter, and often make the difference between something ordinary and something that’s incredible. A small detail like what a character sees first walking into a shop says a lot about their mental state, or their interests, or their fears. That’s showing character to the degree that you don’t need to tell a reader who the one doing the looking or the listening is, because they may already know.

So, even though a good majority of our stories will naturally be composed of these two senses, they’re still worth giving some attention to. But what about the other three? What about smell? Touch? Taste?

Well, of these three, taste is the one you’re probably going to use the least … but that doesn’t mean you can just forget about it. But before we get into that, let’s talk about touch and scent.

Above I mentioned “afterthought scent,” or more accurately, “afterthought senses.” Scent and smell, to me, fall into this category (and to a lesser extent taste, but we’ll get to that next). In other words, when I thought back on the instances of scent and touch in the last few books I’d read, most of them were, well … the same.

For example, one book I read recently had plenty of mentions of scent. But they were all the same three scents: either the smell of gunfire, the smell of rotting flesh, or “unwashed bodies.” Every. Single. Time.

It was a zombie apocalypse book, and honestly not a great one. Part of that was the phoned-in felling to the smells. As I said, they were afterthoughts. You’d get a description of something, and if there was a scent at all, it was at the end, and it was one of the above. And usually about as evocative as I’ve made it here.

To be honest, a lot of books kind of do this with scent and touch both. How many of you have read a book where someone touches a “cool soda can” or smells “acrid smoke?” It’s almost a cliche way, really, of fitting those senses into a story.

Now, I want to to point out that some cliches are fine. A cold soda can, for example, is something most people can relate to or understand, and is a good instance of physical sensation. However, don’t let it be the only sensation your character ever experiences. Don’t let “unwashed bodies” be the only thing your character ever smells.

Think back to the food shop example from above. What sort of scents would you notice walking in there? Maybe it’s a Columbian Bakery, with the crisp, warm scent of bread. Or maybe it’s a liquid-nitrogen ice-cream place, where the sweets scents of the cream and sugars mix with the cold. Or maybe its a barbecue joint, with smoky, sweet smells and odors.

Smells are wide and varied. Not only that, but they’re something we notice! Think for a second, how someone else’s house smells different from yours. Not bad or good, just … different. Or how a hotel or an arena may smell like industrial cleaning chemicals and artificial “tropical” scent spray.

Smells are a part of our everyday life, and they’re vastly varied. Same with touch. Again, a cold soda can isn’t a bad sensation to read about, but how often do we consider the other sensations our characters might have interacting with something? Is the chair they just sat in stiff and hard, maybe uncomfortably so, or is it soft. Too soft, maybe? Is the wooden door they just grabbed unsanded and rough? Or varnished?

Little details like this aren’t crucial to the story we’re telling, no, not usually. But they are fantastic at making a scene feel alive and real. Which is why it’s a shame that so often both touch and smell are regulated to these “afterthought” sensations. What does it say if the first thing our protagonist notices walking into a place is that it smells spicy? Or gross? What about if they sit down and their hands touch something sticky?

Again, these may not be critical to a story, but they can serve to bring a scene to life and make a setting feel much more real. Which is something all should be striving for in their writing. Don’t just fall to the “afterthought” sensations of smell and touch. Go further and think about what your character will feel and smell!

Alright, now the last sensation: Taste. This is probably going to be your least-used sense in writing, excepting a few specific moments or genres that might move into it. But unless your character goes around licking everything, taste is going to be a sense that doesn’t come up often.

That said, however, this doesn’t mean taste will or should be nonexistent. Going back a bit to scent, have you ever been in a situation where something smelled so strong you could taste it? That’s a thing that happens. Not often, but the bitter taste of smoke on a character’s tongue as they try to escape a burning building can meld well with the smoke burning their lungs.

Naturally, the one thing that most of us think of with taste in anything written is food, and yeah, you can make use of that too. Might make your readers hungry, but it can still serve to bring a scene to life and make it more “real” for the reader.

But outside of a few uses … no, you probably won’t use taste much. Which is why I saved it for last. Again, though, that’s not the same as nonexistent. Taste is something our characters will experience like anything else, and we shouldn’t forget that when we’re writing a scene where it may be important.

So, let’s go over things. First of all, don’t forget that your characters have five senses (assuming you’re not writing a character that has less or even more). Sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. Of those five, sight and sound come pretty naturally, but that doesn’t mean that you should just forget about them since they’re so natural. Don’t let them just “roll.” Think about them, about how your characters will perceive the world.

Smell and touch, meanwhile, shouldn’t be “afterthoughts” only brought up with the same sensation over and over again. Let them live a little. Think about the scene you’re writing, and what the viewpoint characters will notice. Again, these won’t be nearly as dominant as sight and sound (normally) but they should be present.

Last of all, taste. It won’t be used that much. But where it’s applicable, it can add some nice “flavor” (pardon the pun) to a scene. You won’t use it much … but that doesn’t mean you should forget it.

All five senses matter, even in a balance. So next time you’re writing something, consider sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. See what they add, or how acknowledging them can change the way you write a scene.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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