APPEAL TO ALL FIVE SENSES—WITH EXAMPLES!

I’ve written before about how we want to try to appeal to all five sense in our writing. Not all five senses in one paragraph, mind you, and especially not in one sentence—that would be quite a challenge. But pick and choose from all five as you’re crafting a scene. What is the dominant sense this particular scene might most benefit from? What about the place in which you’ve set the scene demands the POV character first or primarily experience it through one sense or another?

This is one of those pieces of creative writing advice that can be easier said than done, so I thought an example of each, from an author of note, might be useful. Read these and think about how that one sense dominates each of these moments…

SEE

That others were wearing watches hardly surprised him. The water clock had demonstrated that a calibrated timepiece added another dimension to life, organized its energies, gave the countless activities of everyday existence a yardstick of significance. Conrad spent hours in the attic gazing at the small yellow dial, watching its minute hand revolve slowly, its hour hand press on imperceptibly, a compass charting his passage through the future. Without it he felt rudderless, adrift in a gray purposeless limbo of timeless events. His father began to seem idle and stupid, sitting around vacantly with no idea when anything was going to happen.

—J.G. Ballard, “Chronopolis

HEAR

The sound of the gun-fire from the front penetrates into our refuge. The glow of the fire lights up our faces, shadows dance on the wall. Sometimes a heavy crash and the lean-to shivers. Aeroplane bombs. Once we hear a stifled cry. A hut must have been hit.

Aeroplanes drone; the tack-tack of machineguns breaks out. But no light that could be observed shows from us.

We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.

—Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

SMELL

The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat- and snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.

Lingering odors of machine oil contrasted sharply with the taint of harness dressing and leather. Yet somehow, through all that reek of human beings and their associates—dogs, machines and cooking—came another taint. It was a queer, neck-ruffling thing, a faintest suggestion of an odor alien among the smells of industry and life. And it was a life-smell. But it came from the thing that lay bound with cord and tarpaulin on the table, dripping slowly, methodically onto the heavy planks, dank and gaunt under the unshielded glare of the electric light.

—John W. Campbell (writing as Don A. Stuart), “Who Goes There?

TOUCH

He wanted to say: no, Idabel, dear Idabel, I am your good true friend. And he wanted to touch her, to put his arms around her, for this seemed suddenly the only means of expressing all he felt. Pressing closer, he reached and, with breathtaking delicacy, kissed her cheek. There was a hush; tenuous moods of light and shade seem to pass between them like the leaf-shadow trembling on their bodies. Then Idabel tightened all over. She grabbed hold of his hair and started to pull, and when she did this a terrible, and puzzled rage went through Joel. This was the real betrayal. And so he fought back; tangled and wrestling, the sky turning, descending, revolving, they rolled over, over. The dark glasses fell off, and Joel, falling back, felt them crush beneath and cut his buttocks. “Stop,” he panted, “please stop, I’m bleeding.” Idabel was astride him, and her strong hands locked his wrists to the ground. She brought her red, angry face close to his: “Give up?”

—Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms

TASTE

The Negro in the checked suit came toward him in long, loose strides, pressed the gun against his chest, then reached under his coat. His hand came out with Pete Anglich’s gun. He dropped it behind him on the floor. He shifted his own gun casually and hit Pete Anglich on the side of the jaw with the flat of it.

Pete Anglich staggered and the salt taste of blood came under his tongue. H blinked, said thickly: “I’ll remember you a long time, big boy.”

—Raymond Chandler, “Pickup on Noon Street

Did I have to reach a little to find an example for taste? I suppose so. Of our five senses it tends to be the last one we resort to. Let’s be honest, do you taste anything you haven’t already looked at, felt, smelled, and made sure wasn’t making any noises?

At least, not after the age of about three or so?

Anyway, remember that your POV characters are the vehicle for your readers’ experience of the story. The more you can do to make them exist as fully formed humans who do more than see and do, the more real they will become for your readers, and the more real your story will become as a result.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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3 Responses to APPEAL TO ALL FIVE SENSES—WITH EXAMPLES!

  1. Hi Philip! I love that your post talks about this today. Why? A few weeks ago, you told me I could comment and share when my first book comes out. Today is the day, AND the fantasy world of THE WATCHERS OF MONIAH has people with special, enhanced gifts. The Watchers have enhance vision. In books 2 and 3, we meet people with enhance hearing, touch, and truth-telling. I based these gifts on adult learning skills (corporate trainer by day). Anyway, here’s the link to book one. Thank you for allowing me to post here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1648551041/

  2. Not sure why my comment dropped the d on enhanced, but that’s what it was supposed to say.

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