Writing and Inclusion of the Senses

Quill_Pen_Blue_smallI read a recent blog post about inclusion of sensory details in writing and how it improves one’s writing. In a recent reader’s comments on a scene the reader strongly recommended that I add smells/odors to the scene (I already had sight/sound), and I’ve read/seen many writers who do try to include all the senses in his/her scenes.

Inclusion of the senses when appropriate is definitely a good idea and should happen. In practice, for me as a reader, which senses to include totally depends on the scene. It also depends on what scents/sights/sounds the character would notice. Do you in every day life mentally/consciously note the “normal” sights/sounds/smells or do you mainly notice that which is different? This will depend upon why you are in “X” situation and “Y” place–and that is my point.

For instance if someone is called into their supervisor’s office in a very abrupt and/or unexpected manner which senses might logically be included? (Assuming that having a super-sensitive nose or other sense is not part of the character being developed.) 

All I can refer to are my own experiences. When in a “stress” situation, I don’t notice odors or touch unless they are odd or unexpected. I will notice tone of voice and expressions/body language.  But if all the other sensory input for smell/touch/taste is normal, I wouldn’t/didn’t notice them. However, if the supervisor’s cologne/perfume is super strong OR if the supervisor is wearing a different scent, that would qualify as ‘out of the ordinary’.  I would notice if my deodorant fails. If the chair I was offered had splinters–that would qualify as not expected/normal.

As a reader, if a writer includes normal sensory stimuli being consciously mentioned/thought of by the MC in such a scene, for me that sensory stimuli had best be absolutely necessary for the scene and/or plot of the story. If it isn’t, they’ve probably lost me. I wouldn’t believe the stressed character would consciously note them (unconsciously-yes they would be noted because that would fall into all those things our minds note subconsciously every day as ordinary).  Use those senses or inputs that someone in the situation would consider important.

What do you think? As a reader would it jar you out of the story? Are your reactions to sensory input in crisis situations the same or different? Let me know.



11 thoughts on “Writing and Inclusion of the Senses

  1. I read this book years ago, and when I just checked amazon, I see their is a Revised / 2014 edition out:

    Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively [Kindle Edition]
    Rebecca McClanahan

    I’ll have to find my copy. Has anyone else read this book?

    • I had it/read it years ago — doubt if I still have it though. My memory is that it wasn’t bad–but my memory could well be off.

  2. What a complex question! And, I’m sure there are as many ‘right’ answers out there as there are writers. Some of my thoughts:

    Genre: Some readers expect more sensory details than others.

    Scene: Sensory details enrich certain scenes, and ruin others.

    Character: What is natural for this person? Using sensory details can be a creative way to establish (or remind) the reader about character quirks and traits.

    Writers: Some word paint exquisitely. Some don’t. Know your strengths.

    • Clifford 🙂
      Excellent points all. And yes genre/scene/character all impact the amount of and which sensory details should be included.

  3. I totally agree-it needs to be important to the scene. I do not think about the everyday smells that I experience. Now, if your character is walking into a coffee house I want to know about that delicious smell that hits them as they walk through the door. But do I care about it if they are just going through their daily morning routine? No.
    If my character is starving and someone is cooking something that reminds them of that, yes. Give me the smell. If they are sitting at a diner eating a sandwich, don’t slow me down with the smell of french fries or mustard. 🙂
    I never found either Susan or Belinda lacking in the sensory details. Susan’s characters often find themselves in dire situations on the battle field or facing the enemy. If the smell or taste of something during the battle is important to the scene, by all means include it. But to just try to fit in all the senses? It takes away from the action. That intensity is more important to me.

    • Aubrey,
      I agree, Belinda’s description and details are certainly relevant and not lacking or jarring. Nor have they been lacking or “wrong” (that I’ve noticed) in any of your stories.
      But, I have been tossed out of so many stories by details of smells, sights etc that the character (imo) would not even notice because they are there every day in their lives. That’s the reason utility companies put a (again imo) yucky scent instead of a pleasant/familiar one in the natural gas. So if there is a leak, people will notice the unusual smell.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • Intensity is an excellent focal point. ‘Intensity’ can also mean different things to different writers / readers, but I think if intensity is the goal for the specific genre, the story will be a home run. Thanks for sharing.

        • I don’t see that. Although, I suppose we all have our personal thoughts on our strengths / weaknesses.

          I added a different comment about a book on Word Painting. Curious if anyone has a how-to book suggestion on writing with intensity?

  4. Interesting topic.
    For me, sensory detail can slow a scene down, making the reader focus on the details and (hopefully) let them experience the situation with the characters.
    When two of my characters – a human man and his tree-spirit bride first meet, for instance:
    … the hint of a smile touched the corners of her mouth and so he laid the flower string around her neck. The scent of jasmine and daphne filled the air as the flowers were disturbed and her hair, as pale as her tree bark, brushed like silk across his hands. His breath caught in his chest.
    However, they can also help to place the reader in a tense scene, and (again hopefully) garner extra sympathy for a character by letting the reader experience what that character is experiencing:
    The man who stood in the doorway was a stranger and yet he was also familiar. Like stormy waves, the wide purple borders of his robes undulated as he crossed the floor and came to stand directly before Lesandor’s chair. The scent of expensive oils floated towards Lesandor and stirred him to full awareness.
    From behind, the officer took a fistful of his hair and jerked his head around. He raised his hand –

    I realise that both of these only include sight, scent and touch. Sound and taste can be used equally effectively. However, I suspect it might be a mistake to try to include all the senses to describe one scene.

    • Belinda
      Thanks for commenting and stopping by. I agree about the sensory detail adding focus BUT only if the sensory detail would be something the MC would notice.

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