How to Use Senses Other than Sight to Create Tension and Build Character.
“If you rely only on your eyes, your other senses weaken.” Frank Herbert
When you’re writing, it’s easy to only use sight as the main way of describing scenes or characters. Most, if not all, writers do this at some point early in their careers. But in order to to bring your scenes to full, rich life, you NEED to include ALL of the senses. Your readers don’t only see so your characters shouldn’t either.
I write novels but I also write Described Video scripts for television and film and while often a challenge, it’s certainly stretched my writing skills. A useful exercise is to write a short paragraph for the vision impaired. With no visual context, the other senses must be used.
“Her father radiates a thousand colors, opal, strawberry red, deep russet, wild green; a smell like oil and metal, the feel of a lock tumbler sliding home, the sound of his key rings chiming as he walks.” Anthony Doerr
Read this description of a generic main character: he had dark wavy hair, smelled like a forest, was tall with a deep voice v short with whispy hair, overweight, and a high voice.
What does each desc suggest about the char?
How did you react to each character? What assumptions did you make?
How can we, as writers, take advantage of this bias? This is an important consideration! (By the way, Disney has been doing this for years, as has history (in the Middle Ages the belief was that physical deformities indicated an absence of moral fibre.)
Smell: a person (bad, good, familiar); a setting (forest), or random to provoke a memory in your character.
The nose is connected to two brain areas responsible for emotion and memory. Sight, sound, and touch do not pass thru these areas.
Smell: the smell of dryer sheets may make your MC think of childhood, good or bad.
Smell can be a way to transition to a memory for back story or necessary history.
“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.” Nabokov
“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Helen Keller
“Smells have layers, like sounds have frequencies.” E.E. Giorgi
Try closing your eyes and writing a description of the smells in the room.
Sound: pure description (deep, mellow, high, light); use to build a character (subconscious bias again: loud/deep vs soft/light).
Sound can also be used to create a scene – door slamming, raised voices = more stressful/tense; lower voices, light music = calmer.
Poe used an old grandfather clock chiming to dampen the mood of a party.
Poe again: “Now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” He adds to this staccato sentences and fragments – like a ticking clock – to further create atmosphere.
How do you react to this sound-based desc? What effect would it have on the reader?
Close your eyes again and describe the room by sounds. Can your reader guess your location by the sounds alone?
Taste: food, drink, lover’s lips, the air, MC’s own mouth.
Don’t just say ‘it left a bad taste in her mouth’ – tell us what the taste is – slimy rotten fish? Medicine? Copper for blood is a bit overused but you get the idea.
Taste can also provoke memories but not as strongly as smell.
Use of metaphors is useful here: lemonade tastes like jumping in a creek on a hot summer day.
If describing the taste of something exotic, use a description the reader will understand.
Touch: the feel of a person (soft skin, hard muscles); air on face (gentle, biting); grass on bare feet; a pet’s fur.
Touch: the heaviness or itchiness of a wool sweater; the hardness of a chair.
“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.” Margaret Atwood
I hope you found this useful!
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Copyright K Evans 2022