Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, sense impressions draw your readers into a story and make the world on the page come alive. While we need to be careful not to overload the reader’s senses (think about how perfume or cologne starts to all smell the same once you’ve sniffed too many bottles), using all five senses strategically will add a new depth of richness to your writing.
Today I wanted to start with the three senses we tend to overlook: smell, taste, and touch.
Without even noticing it, you probably associate certain smells with memories, people, or places. I know when my husband visits Tim Horton’s because the scents of dough and coffee cling to his clothes. I hate the dentist office because it smells like burning hair. The smell comes from the singed protein teeth being drilled, and I associate that smell with pain. If I’m stressed, the warm scent of a clean dog will calm me down because I associate it with the comfort I find in my Great Dane when I throw my arms around her after a hard day.
Think about your own life and what smells evoke memories and emotions. Why do they have that effect on you? You don’t need to duplicate that precise smell in your fiction (you should find one unique to your character), but by paying attention to how smells weave throughout your life, you can learn how to build them into your fiction.
In Ted Dekker’s The BoneMan’s Daughters, the serial killer is addicted to Noxzema. I think about it every time I wash my face. That’s the staying power of a smell. For non-fiction writers, you can create the same lasting memory by finding the one key smell to grab your readers. It could be the difference between a forgettable article and motivating your readers to act.
Are you writing an article on motherhood? What smell defines motherhood for you? Are you doing a news story on the local track meet? What does the locker room smell like? Or the air in the early morning before the meet starts?
If you want to use the five senses to draw your reader into the world of your characters, you’ll need to decide when naming a food or a taste is enough and when you need to go deeper. Some tastes are potent enough in themselves. Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. A cinnamon-flavored toothpick. Your dental hygienist’s latex gloves.
A foreign taste always needs a description, otherwise you’re just placing an empty word on the page. In the historical romance Lisa and I are writing together, Ares drinks a glass of kumiss, sour milk with an almond aftertaste. Even though you’ve likely never tasted kumiss, can you imagine the bitter tang, like buttermilk gone bad, and then just as you finish swallowing, the slight sweetness of almond lingering on your tongue?
One trick to bring tastes to life when you’re not sure how to concretely describe them is to use metaphors or comparisons:
“The wine tasted like liquid sunlight” (Oakley Hall, How Fiction Works).
“She spoke of fruit that tasted the way sapphires look” (Toni Morrison, Paradise).
By its very nature, touch is an intimate sense. You can smell a scent carried on the wind, hear a sound from a mile away, look at stars through a telescope. To touch something, you need to be within arm’s reach.
Touch is one of the most multi-faceted senses. You can touch and be touched. You can be touched by another living being, by the weather, or by an inanimate object. To convey touch to your readers, think about temperature, texture, pressure, and intent.
The most important thing for touch, though, is to know how your character will interpret it. A woman whose love language is physical affection will interpret a hug differently than will a woman who was sexually abused as a child. How will a germaphobe handle touch? What about an aging musician whose fingers are going numb?
What writers do you think use smell, taste, and touch well? We’d love to hear your favorite passages.