Every Friday, I am going to post something about how my writing skills are developing, or not(!). Tuesdays will be writing practice – mainly narrative from song lyrics.
The purpose of this is to get into the discipline of writing and blogging regularly and to keep track of my progression. Hopefully, you’ll find it interesting and maybe even useful – to watch a newbie blossom…
Writing the senses
I keep a list of senses beside my desk. Just a short and simple list to remind me to incorporate them into my writing.
This is the easy one to write about, and the most common. It seems our brains are programmed to record what we see quite naturally. Mostly it’ll be scenes like:
Mike walked into the waiting room and spotted her in the far corner. She was reading a magazine, smartly dressed, likely to be going on to work after the appointment. Immediate dilemma, he thought, sit next to, sit opposite, both options open. He chose opposite.
We write what we see because we can capture more distance than any of the other senses (unless she was shouting and our attention caught that way). So it’s a natural way to start a scene.
But then it’s too easy to forget the other senses that are so important to round out what is going on.
He picked up a newspaper and smiled across at her when she looked up. There was a faint aroma of fresh flowers. His body reacted to the familiarity of it, the same perfume used by his girlfriend, and he felt his face flush slightly embarrassed at the effect it had.
Writing smells is challenging as they need to be referenced to some other familiar smell or situation. Usually they remind us of somewhere or someone, there’s an instant connection or flash, and it really helps to capture that into the scene in some way. Here, he’s meeting someone new, yet she has something in common with his girlfriend. It’s telling us he’s attracted, but also that he already has a girlfriend.
Perfume is perhaps a bit of an obvious one when meeting a person but there are other situations where smells can be very powerful. Entering a room and smelling the coffee, or the dog! Some smells remind of childhood – candy floss, farmyard smells, paraffin, log fires – it depends on your character’s childhood.
The main point is that describing the smell serves two purposes:
- It’s evocative of the situation you are writing about
- It prompts a memory in the character that helps in rounding out his/her history or background.
She had her earphones in, the white flex trailing down to her handbag. He could hear a strong beat and watched her swing her crossed-leg to its rhythm, the stylish tall shoe hanging loosely from her foot. (not sure where I’m going with the foot thing there! – let’s stick to the listening!).
He tried to recognise the sound but it was not strong enough, perhaps some party music. He wondered how she’d hear the doctor summons her through.
Describing sounds can again help prompt memories (music etc) and can also be used to show perhaps the age or interests of a person. It doesn’t have to be music – it could be the sound of the car engine, or the noises in the countryside that provide setting. Street noises, shouting, sirens, car alarms, builders, hammering, birds, air-con humming, elevators, warning messages – everyday noises we hear all the time help to set a place. If you’re writing about someone in a railway station, make sure there are some platform announcements.
Taste is similar to smell and can be difficult to bring into a scene. It triggers memories of the past in a similar way, or provides an instant kick of pleasure or perhaps revulsion. Taste implies a proximity that smell doesn’t have. Writing taste can be pretentious (e.g., wine tasting) so tread carefully.
He shuffled his feet as he waited to be called. He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a packet of Polos, slipping one under his tongue as he challenged himself not to crunch it. The sweet syrup of mint filled his mouth causing him to smile. She put the magazine back on the table and uncrossed her legs, this time smiling back at his smile. He reached across and offered her a Polo.
He felt a surge of connection between them as the coldness of her fingers traced across the back of his hand, then wrapped around his wrist to steady the sweet packet. ‘Thanks’, she mouthed as the music continued to blare in her ears.
Touch, like taste, can be the most intimate of senses and can convey a strong emotion. The electricity of touch can actually be real. Touch is also useful for situations where you are describing the texture of the setting, the roughness of wood, the smoothness of marble. Let the character reach out and touch it, then describe the effect.
His diary flashed before him, Thursday free, Saturday free. Dare he? He could tell she was interested, why else take a Polo? He read her eyes and her eyes said yes. She was daring, spontaneous, reckless just like him.
The doctor called for Miss Gorgeous. Mike indicated to her to go. He’d wait for her. He knew she’d wait for him.
Using all 6 senses in a scene can add depth and be used to show a great deal more than just describing the surroundings as they are seen. It’s just a case of remembering – keep that list by your desk as a prompt.
What are your experiences with writing senses?