Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Sixth Sense: Breathing Life into Fiction with Sensory Details

Repeat after me: My book is a book. It is not a movie. It doesn’t have music and flashy lights. I must give my book life through my language with sensory details.

So often, new authors get caught up in the visual details and lose sight of all the other sensations human beings experience. It’s natural. Our vision is the primary sense we rely on, unless we’re blind.

Visual details are great and you have to put those descriptions in your story, but there are four other senses that bring a fictional world to life that you don’t want to leave out.

Sounds have implication all their own. They can set a mood or a scene beautifully. Is it calm, like birds calling in a quiet forest? Or chaotic, like a crowd of a thousand people screaming in a riot? Describing the sounds “show” the reader your setting without just “telling” them “It was calm”.

Tastes might be a good sense to use sparingly, but don’t disregard it. You don’t need to describe the taste of every food item a character eats unless it’s pertinent in some way. Taste is very primal, tied to our very sustenance and survival. It can be very powerful. Think about it. What taste is in your mouth right now? Morning breath? Garlic from your Caesar salad at lunch? What if it was blood? A particularly distinctive taste might serve as a metaphor for other feelings or themes you want to convey. In Hush Puppy, Jaime gives Corrine a wild blackberry to eat. The berry represents their relationship – sweet, slightly tart, and crushed.

Smells can also set the scene when used properly. Is it the comforting, homey smell of Thanksgiving dinner or burning diesel gasoline your character smells? Tied closely to taste, smells are a primal sense too. Each individual human being has a smell all their own, which can be alluring or repellant. And smells are strongly tied to memories. Whenever I smell perfume and cigarette smoke together, my grandmother instantly comes to mind. That’s her smell and it always will be for me.

Last, but not least, is touch – most basic of all. A human can lose their sense of sight, smell, hearing, and even taste, but I don’t think anyone could entirely lose their sense of touch. Science tells us just how critical touch is to human child development. We need it and it’s just as important in your fiction.

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