Sense and Sensibility

As writers we sometimes neglect our senses. We spend countless hours absorbed in the two-dimensional worlds of pen and paper, keyboard and monitor, often to the point that we forget the different sensations that the world holds. Our five senses help us to function in the world, but some take precedence over others. Sight and sound are our predominant means of experiencing the world around us, and so we transfer these onto our characters. But what of taste, touch and smell?

The feel of soft velvet, the taste of your favorite chocolate or the smell of a new car, all of these invoke different emotions in different people. As do the taste of rancid orange juice, the smell of a burst drain pipe and the feel or centipede crawling up your leg.They trigger thoughts, memories, emotions and reactions.

Think of fear.

It is strong, primal emotion that affects our bodies as much as our minds. When someone is afraid, their hearts begin to race, they sweat, their hands tremble, they struggle to swallow and breathe. If we step it up a notch, take it to the level of terror, then what happens? On an emotional level they feel helpless, impotent, angry, confused or even a strong sense of disorientation and dissociation from events. On the physical side, their mouth dries up, leaving a metallic or bitter taste, they perspire, they can feel their bowels loosen and smell the warm pee that’s soaking their underwear. Let’s face it, fear isn’t pretty. Don’t be afraid to mention the gritty, unpleasant details when your character has to deal with it.

From a different perspective, consider what your character is confronted with, what is causing them to be terrified. As a writer, you’ll have the image in your mind: a rotting corpse, a Lovecraftian being with flailing tentacles, a crazed killer or a child’s toy wielding a blood smeared knife. Whatever it may be, you can be certain that if that situation were real, smells, tastes and textures would flood the scene. Give your reader a whiff of the decomposing corpse, a taste of blood or make them feel the tightness in their chest as your character struggles to breathe.

Not all senses that invoke fear need to be ‘bad’. That charming little girl next door who has just dismembered your character’s cat could smell of baby powder and candyfloss. The familiar touch of a husband’s caress feels great for his wife, until she discovers the truth about him (serial killer? pedophile? victim of the body snatchers?). The first bite into a fresh apple, the sweet and tart flavors mingling on their tongue, mixing in their mouth as the chew and swallow, only to see half a worm wiggling at the core? The horror of a scene can be intensified by contrasting the every day, familiar and enjoyable with the true nature of the situation.

So go on, give your reader the full sensory experience…

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