WW: All Five Senses

Photo by Amanda Samdlin, via Unsplash. Speaking of smell.

Description With All Five Senses

This might be a little grade school for some of you. Or you might think it’s a little grade school. Frankly, I think we could all stand to be reminded. So there you go.

When you are describing something, it looks a certain way. Yes indeedy. We get that. We got it three paragraphs ago. We got the visual flavor of this city through your description of Corinthian columns, crenellated parapets, vast marble blocks that take twelve oxen a week to tow anywhere useful. Your description of classical statuary was helpful. I am very much educated by your sighting and detailing the French toe on the shoes of that passing nobleman. I don’t know if I needed all that information about the form and purpose of the city’s irrigation system, but there it is.

And yet, with all that detail, I’m still left with a burning question. And that question is, of course:

What the hell does this place smell like?

Is there incense drifting in a leisurely cloud over the temple district? Does the market smell like olives and spices and not-so-fresh fish? Is there a miasma in the air, like that which was present over Victorian London? (You want to learn about the Great Stink of 1858. Trust me, history is awesome.)

And feel. Are the cobblestones uneven, the graveyard ground squelchy? Does the wind blow hot and dry, or humid and cool? Do the stone walls sweat with the weight of the weather?

Is there a spot across from Madame Muessler’s bakery that smells uncannily of apple pie? Are there a lot of people gathered in it, jostling each other, looking for relief from the not-so-fresh fish smell of the rest of the market?

Description, like anything else, is a matter of reactionary chain. People have a spot in a nasty smelling market that brings olfactory piedom. Do they crowd to it, or avoid it? Do they think it’s cursed by the shade of the Mad Baker, who added most of the neighborhood’s children to his pies five years ago, and who was hung hard and long from the Trewithy Bridge when constables found the grisly remains in his garden?

But you know how I feel about all that stuff, if you read my blog. You know I’m going to tell you to ask why, create flowcharts, etc.

I want to keep this as a simple reminder: you have five senses. Possibly six. When describing something important, use at least two of them.

Note: I’m not telling you to cram as much sensory effluvia into your description as possible. This is tiresome. People want description discreetly, and want it to flow along with the story. If you have a descriptive passage that goes more than one sizeable paragraph without some small action occurring, it’s too fucking long.

But when you see your character–or your setting–what else strikes you? What else is important to the scene?

Yes, she has auburn hair and laughing green eyes. I hope her eyes aren’t really laughing–that’s kind of surreal–but otherwise, great.

But what does she smell like? Does she have a tinkling little laugh? Is her voice softer than a baby’s whisper on the private parts of a spiderweb? Is her skin soft and smooth, so smooth buffing with a chamois would leave it red and raw?

Think about what you notice on a day to day basis. Red cars aren’t just red cars–especially not if something’s wrong with their mufflers. Brakes squeak, tires squeal, exhaust leaves a tangible reek in the air. Your supermodel friend might have an incredibly annoying laugh. Your fluffball Persian cat has tangles underneath her topcoat, and every time you try to stroke her, your fingers get caught and she scratches the shit out of you.

Not only does multiple-sense description add to the realism and depth of your story, it’s also an excellent way to foreshadow conflict. A whiff of rotten scent in a beautiful city can hint at the corruption and decadence beneath. A scarred and muscle-bound mercenary with a sweet mild voice might not be such a bad guy after all. Or it might be the precise opposite–maybe he uses his voice to lure people in.

There you go, just a friendly reminder post. Because I keep reading stories that forget: garbage has a smell. A fire has heat. Magic, in addition to flashing lights, would doubtless also have a sound and a stench. I know, I know, we all do a lot of our research online nowadays, and might not be able to pinpoint precisely what gefilte fish smells like, whereas appearance we can see in JPEG form.

But it might be time to leave the internets for just a second. Or–in fantasy context–extrapolate on what you know.


A Note: Did you guys know my book came out a while back? Well, um. Now you know. Read it and weep. No, not literally. Please, not literally–those tears will fry your keyboard.

15 thoughts on “WW: All Five Senses

  1. I have been eyeballing the preview of this post all day in my wordpress phone app, but waiting to read it until after work, when I could bring it up and really see the words here, and jump into the conversation. I love this topic. I agree that you should try to use two senses, with the exception that I think you should be using three or more senses for the important scenes. My favorites to add to sight are smell and sound, although I try to break it up with ‘touch’. Taste is a bit of a special animal, but I think you can get it in there. It’s so easy to toss in a little description of birdsong, or thump of a mug on a table, a bark of laughter whatever, yet it’s an easy thing to miss. I read a blog by Diana Gabaldon where she describes the rule of three, it’s basically what you said, except three senses. Ever since I read that I’ve been focusing on writing my scenes so that if the senses aren’t directly addressed, they’re at least implied. I’d link it here, but I can’t locate the URL. Anyhow, thanks for bringing this up. It’s always a nice thing to think about.

    1. Hah, glad I could bring some anticipation into somebody’s day over there.

      While I agree, more senses are better, I still stand by the fact that using too many can be major overkill. I go more for the woo-woo approach: what do I FEEL needs to be noticed here? Sometimes it’s scent, taste, touch. Sometimes it’s not. My heroine, for instance, is generally described visually (she looks like shit) and olfactorily (she also smells like it). This isn’t because taste and sound and feel aren’t important–though, oh God, even I don’t want to think about what she’d taste like–but because her appearance and scent are what stand out.

      My approach to writing can be summed up as ‘good detail, but not too much’. So I am on occasion prone to understatement. Senses: use ’em if you got ’em. 😛

      1. Excellent point and overall a better approach than the rule of three. It’s so obvious, actually nobody should have to even explain it. Also, I’m not sure you need to describe Jin’s smell. The visual alone is enough to give you a pretty good sense of what she’d smell like. I’m holding my breath just thinking about it, actually.

      2. I think I actually used the word ‘crunchy’ to describe her smell at some point. That’s…that’s probably all that’s needed. MORE than enough. Aurian usually just thinks of sewers and holds his breath.

  2. Hey there! I’m interested in featuring this post on Ryanlanz.com, if that’s something you’re open to (of course, with credit/link/bio). Let me know! : )

      1. Nothing really, other than mentioning that I’ll need to censor the swears. I just needed your permission to duplicate your post. I’ll make sure to have appropriate credit, link, and bio. : )

      2. All right! Thanks for warning me you’re censoring–not a problem, but I appreciate the head’s up anyway. I appreciate this a lot, cleaned up the grammar and stuff a bit too.

    1. Fyi, I scheduled this as a guest post for the morning of June 15th! I’m looking forward to my readers checking out your blog and book. A heads up, I adjusted the title to “How to Write With All Five Senses,” and swapped the image (as I do with all guest posts to guarantee myself that it has been properly acquired). BUT I did give you credit, a bio, and a link to your blog and your book on Amazon. Other than that, no changes, and it’s awesome. : )

      I’ll keep an eye out on your blog for other guest post opportunities. I love your stuff!


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