Vision: A Resource for Writers
Your Senses Beyond Description
a recent issue of Vision (Issue
12), Lazette Gifford discussed the importance of including all your senses
when you describe a setting. Now
that you've had a chance to try it, consider that you can also use those senses
to both deepen your character development and heighten or create a scene's mood.
brains are giant warehouses holding, among other things, all our memories.
And just like a good inventory database can search for an item in a
warehouse based on its brand (Fisher Price), its name (Sound N Lights), or its
type (baby monitor), you can access (remember) certain memories based on a key
sense. When you store the memory of
your daughter's wedding, you may not realize that along with the sight of her
standing under the blooming apple trees and your emotions, you also store the
scent of those apple blossoms, the sound of bees buzzing about the flowers, the
taste of the spring air and the champagne in your hand.
Later, when you look at the pictures, you may recall not only how you
felt that day but also all the things you heard, smelled, and tasted.
minds work in strange ways. As
visual creatures, and especially as writers, we tend to feel like memories can
only be triggered by something we've seen; photographs are an especially sharp
example. But our other senses can
trigger memories too. Years later
you may breathe deeply as you pass a blooming apple tree and be suddenly
overwhelmed by the sadness, pride and joy you felt on the day of your daughter's
of us have these types of memories, and each sensory memory can recall certain
emotions that we can feel almost as fully as when we stored the memory.
Giving our characters these types of memories will help fully flesh them
out, and give you more tools as you write your stories.
this example from my life: As I was
growing up, my parents fought constantly. On
weekend mornings, as I lay awake in bed deciding whether to get up or read a few
more pages, occasionally the smell of coffee wafted down the hall to my room.
I'd hear spoons clinking against mugs and the sound of low conversation muted
through the walls. My entire body
relaxed as I listened to the conversation I couldn't understand and the slow
clink of the spoons. At these
times, my parents were in harmony enough with each other to simply talk over
say I give my character (we'll call her Sara) this same memory.
Just giving this memory (or other sensory memories) won't do much good if
I don't let the reader know about it. But
I can't simply say, well, Sara always relaxes when she smells coffee.
I've got to use the memory effectively to both advance the plot as well
as show us a little something about Sara at the same time.
How can I use it? I can use
the sense as a trigger allowing me an opportunity to show it to the reader, thus
giving the reader more understanding into Sara's motivations. I can also use the sense to create the mood of a scene.
If Sara always relaxes while smelling coffee, the reader is likely to
relax as well.
a look at this example.
knows someone wants to kill her but she doesn't know why. She is hurrying along
a narrow street lined with small shops and homes.
It's raining and she's forgotten her umbrella.
As she stumbles off the curb, she notices a brightly lit shop just ahead.
She passes the shop just as a customer leaves, letting the heady scent of
freshly brewed coffee drift out; she hears snatches of conversation and the dull
clinking of spoons. She relaxes
near the shop's window. She leans
her head against the brick wall and just pauses, basking in the warmth of her
I haven't yet shown you Sara's childhood memory, the sensory trigger (smell of
coffee, clinking spoons) is an opportunity to do so.
Done skillfully, I can avoid the appearance of infodumping while setting
up a response from you (relaxing as Sara relaxes) the next time you stumble
across Sara's sensory trigger. In
this instance, Sara can remember a particular morning her parents drank coffee
together, perhaps interrupted by a stranger at the door.
Remembering this particular morning provides Sara with answers about her
if I have already shown you Sara's memory, I can expect that you may relax with
her, and then I can have some fun. This
brief respite may give Sara the strength to go on and you, as the reader, a
chance to relax from the tension I've been building.
But it may also give Sara's attacker a prime moment to strike while both
she and you have your guards down.
up sensory memories can be challenging, especially if you aren't familiar with
your own. Memory is very tricky,
and it can be hard to know whether something will ring true to your reader. Basing your character's memories on your own can help provide
that verisimilitude, but it's very difficult to rifle thru your memories
checking, well, will the smell of vanilla trigger this one?
To get in touch with your own sensory memories, try these exercises:
if you choose not to provide your character with sensory memories, you can still
use senses other than sight to create mood in your scene.
Many people share similar responses to common scents, tastes, sounds, and
touches. For example, most people
find the scent of baking cookies or bread comforting and relaxing, reminiscent
of home, regardless of whether their parents baked anything.
(Ever go shopping for a home to discover the real estate agent pulling
cookies from the oven? She knows you're more likely to remember the home she's
showing if you associate it with the smell of chocolate chip cookies.)
Most people find the smell of urine disagreeable.
The smell of vomit implies sickness or drunkenness.
Very bitter-tasting unknown foods feel dangerous or poisonous.
Most people feel alarm when they hear a siren.
Most people feel comforted or excited by a lover's touch and apprehensive
by a stranger's.
these types of sensory images that tend to cause a similar response in many
people can help pare down a long visually descriptive scene.
A single scent can often more clearly show the mood of a place than a
whole mess of visual details. And
it tends to work better than telling the reader, "It was a dark and stormy