Laura Smith is here today to talk to us about writing with all your senses! Laura is a fellow YA author whose books include Skinny, Hot and Angry which address eating disorders, dating and divorce, respectively. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and at her website www.laurasmithauthor.com.
Utilizing Your Five Senses for Richer Writing
Imagine Christmas this year without the sharp taste of peppermint candy canes, the creamy, rich froth of hot cocoa, the fragrant scent of pine, the crisp chill of a December morning, the tingle of a snowflake tickling your tongue, a rainbow of twinkling Christmas lights, the warm glow of a cozy fire, the melodic notes of “The First Noel” or the tinkle of bells.
Just as we wouldn’t want to miss a single one of these morsels of holiday magic, we don’t want to deprive our characters, plots and readers of those sensations either.
I’m writing this blog from my favorite cozy coffee shop, with amazing atmosphere, but me telling you it’s “cozy” and “amazing” doesn’t do you much good unless I describe it to you using, you guessed it, my five senses. So, why don’t we find a seat and chat about this writing tool.
We could either sit at one of the tall stools along the ledge, looking out the front window, in the giant orange crushed velvet couch that looks like it came out of a Scooby Doo episode or in my favorite, one of the booths with cracked black, leather seats and glossy, polished wood tables. There. We used the first sense - sight – this one is the best utilized sense in writing. Probably, because it’s what we rely on the most to make decisions. We are drawn to the sweater that “looks cute” in a store window before we know if it’s comfortable, if it fits us or if we can afford it. We often choose the dessert on the dessert tray that “looks” yummiest, before we’ve ever tasted it. Using sight, is as simple as explaining what something looks like. Make sure to use a variety of descriptions -- height, texture, color, spatial references and analogies all work. The important thing to remember is that your description should be relevant. We described the seats we could sit in when we were looking for a place to sit, not the tattoo on the barista’s neck or the signs plastered along the windows. These details might be relevant to a different scene or chapter, but not here.
Close your eyes and listen. I hear the whirr of the espresso machine, the clang of ceramic cups, the buzz of multiple murmured conversations and Sufjan Stevens singing in a raspy, melodic voice along to his acoustic guitar over the sound system. Can you hear them? Can you imagine you’re here? That’s what you want your reader to be able to do -- to immerse themselves in your scene, to feel like they’re actually in your story. Whenever in doubt how to use sound in your writing, do what we just did. Close your eyes and imagine what you hear in your scene, than incorporate it into your text.
Yum! Sorry I couldn’t wait to take a sip of my coffee. Sadly, taste is the most underutilized of our senses in writing. With all of the delicious flavors out there, this is such a shame. I often have writers ask me, how can I use taste if my story doesn’t involve eating? My answer is – writing is a creative process. Be creative. Taste is not limited to the robust, caramel flavor of the Fair Trade Highlander Grogg in my mug. Gum can be cool and minty or sharp and cinnamony. I can walk past someone with a cigarette or a bus with exhaust and taste the foul, thick smoke lingering in the air. Kisses are delicious – kissing a baby on the forehead and tasting their sweet, powdery innocence or kissing your grandma and tasting the heavy, floral perfume, she’s been wearing since before time began.
Brrr. It gets chilly when someone comes in through those side doors and lets in a blast of December Ohio air. I’m shivering a little on this squishy, leather seat. To combat the chill, I wrap my hands around the welcome warmth coming from my smooth, ceramic mug as I cradle my coffee. Touch – There isn’t a scene you write that can’t contain some sort of feeling – and we’re not talking happy, sad or angry, I mean the way something feels if you touch it. Use texture, temperature, weather, clothing, furniture – anything your character’s body comes in contact with to convey this tactile sense.
In this coffee shop there is the obvious bold, rich aroma of coffee permeating the place. I love when I get home and unzip my laptop from its case, and the lingering scent of coffee drifts from the keyboard. But there is also the smell of Panini’s, slathered with butter, grilling behind the counter and the pungent odor of bleach, sharp against my sinuses, when I visit the bathroom. Other customers smell of cologne, patchouli, sweat, cigarette smoke or outdoors as they walk by my table or when I stand next to them in line. By adding the sense of smell, we add a rich layer to our descriptions. The sense of smell is tied to memory and experience.
I’m going to finish my coffee and savor the way my five senses are stimulated in this shop. Where are you writing today? Which of your senses is being particularly stirred, or which ones are you struggling to capture? I’d love to hear.