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Writer-Talk Tuesday: The Five Senses

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

As part of my ongoing series of posts sharing comments I’ve made on past contest entries I’ve judged, today brings us to the five senses.

Do sensory details (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) enhance each scene?
This is one of those skills that is super hard to get right—to make it natural instead of make it feel like you added something other than sight and sound so that you’re fulfilling this element. So, as with description, setting, and all other non-story/character elements of your narrative, make sure it flows naturally with the story. A character isn’t going to be thinking about the way something tastes when her boyfriend is breaking up with her over dinner. But when she’s on a boring first date, the flavors and textures of the food may be the best part of the evening for her.

Here are a few examples from my own work:

    . . . . The heavenly aroma of garlic, basil, and oregano mixed with the unmistakable yeasty scent of fresh bread and wafted on the cool air that blew in her face when she opened the door. Her salivary glands kicked into overdrive and her stomach growled. She really needed to stop skipping lunch.
    (from Stand-In Groom)

    . . . . Meredith cut another small piece of the braised lamb. Cooked with honey, garlic, onions, and topped with crumbled cabrales cheese, the strong flavors burst in her mouth. But nerves kept her from enjoying it as she should.
    (from Menu for Romance)

    . . . . His thumb made slow, soft circles on her palm.
    (from A Case for Love)

    . . . . Charlotte pushed the orange stuff around on her plate, trying to figure out what it was. She scooped up some of the mush and put it in her mouth. The odd combination of soft, fibrous texture and sweet, earthy flavor almost made her stomach revolt. She managed to swallow the small amount and then reached for the glass of wine to wash away the flavor, even though she knew the wine would not be to her taste either.
    . . . . “That is disgusting. What is it so I can be certain never to eat it again?” She wiped her mouth, but would rather have wiped her tongue.
    . . . . Salvador laughed heartily. “It is called a yam. Roasted yams are very common on tables throughout the Caribbean. You’d best accustom yourself to them. Occasionally when we cannot put in somewhere to resupply, all we have to eat are yams.”
    . . . . “Then you’d best leave me ashore next time you put into resupply. Because I am not eating those again.”
    (from Ransome’s Quest)

And, as promised, here are some notes I’ve made on past contest entries:

This reads well—the scenes flow well, the POV is strong, though not a lot is revealed about the setting or characters through anything other than a little bit of visual description. What does the baseball game sound like? What does the inside of the ice cream shop smell like? What are the sounds and smells of the summer day in the backyard when she’s envying the dog’s contentment?

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There isn’t a lot of sensory detail other than sight and the internal thoughts about the sounds surrounding [the main character]. She does react to the hero’s scent when he first comes in, but there needs to be more of that kind of sensory reaction. Right now, there’s so much emotional introspection that the excerpt doesn’t give the reader a chance to experience what’s going on through [the character’s] five senses.

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By including more of [the main character’s] internal life, more of her internal reactions—not direct italicized, first-person thoughts, but more of a stream-of-consciousness, third-person narrative—to what’s happening, you’ll find that you’ll start including more smell, touch, and taste sensory elements, rather than just sight and sound, which is all you have right now.

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The thing with the green beans seemed forced—would she really be thinking about what they taste like when she and her friend are talking about the hearing coming up to try to regain custody of her son? When she’s sitting out on the porch swing, what are the ambient sounds around her? What does the breeze feel like on her skin? Is the sun out, warming her? What do the surrounding woods smell like? That’s where you can start creating the setting as another character as well as having her notice it through her five senses.

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Further reading on incorporating the five senses:
Showing vs. Telling—Do You See What I See?
Showing vs. Telling—Do You Smell What I Taste?
Stir Up Your Setting – Part 2: Using All Five Senses

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