Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sight, sound, touch, smell and taste in writing fiction

There is one thing that can set apart a good book from a great as far as the reader is concerned and that is an exploration of the senses. It adds a little spice to the list of events a tale can be reduced to.

Sight and Sound
Humans have three main senses they rely upon for almost everything. These are touch, sight and sound. Still, sight and sound are used far more in writing that touch. In all fiction, sight and sound are dominant and readily expressed just so that a character can move through a world. A character moves about the environment and notes sights for the reader, explaining the world in words that express colour and shape. Sound is drawn on the most to express a dramatic situation but is expressed throughout to one extent or another. Good writers reference sound a lot.

Characters touch things all the time, just as we do, but we don't note how important touch is to the creation and continuation of a character near as much as we do in our own lives. Touch is incredibly important to maintaining stability in our lives, keeping ourselves from being too hurt, repairing what damage is done to us, recognising when to escape a situation and what needs attention or we'll incur irreparable damage and so on and so for. That doesn't even cover any of the pleasant side-effects of touch and I'm not talking about sex here so minds out of the gutter. I'm talking about general tactile sensations that keep you aware that you're made of flesh and blood and happy for it. Touch is a constant so write it wherever possible to ground your character in the world you've created for it.

Smell warns us and draws us in, depending on what the smell is. We're aware of it and then we automatically lose it to avoid over-saturation which would lead to disorientation. Smell is constant but our awareness of it fluxes and wanes just as our recognition of any particular scent. Despite this, smell is one of the senses most powerful in fiction as it is rarely explored and often poetically evocative when it is. The nicer smells are mentioned more than the nasty but referencing both rounds out a world to near reality.

Taste, like smell, tells us of danger in foods and substances. By danger I mean poison and disease. Also, like smell, taste brings out the poetry in language and is as evocative. And yet it is rarely used properly. Meals, the most obvious instances of taste, are often written by use of cataloguing the items on a plate instead of what they taste like. Then comes instances such as vomiting up a meal. People mention bile but not bitterness or burning and they almost never mention the sweetness of the corn as yet undigested (for example). Blood is copper, another often mentioned taste but skin is mildly salty and dries the tongue. If possible, write the tastes and make them strong or poetic. They have great impact no matter how they're used.

The best stories are those told using all five senses but that is not to say to forget the emotions or thoughts and replace them with the senses (although I'd love to read just one book based solely on the senses - so that the reader has to interpret what is going on). Emotional responses to the senses are what makes the five senses make sense (as it were). Emotional responses lead to thoughts and thoughts lead to full characterisation. Consider the senses as the building blocks of your character's past, present and future mentality.

No comments:

Post a Comment