Taking Your Senses Beyond Description



Vision 14


Taking Your Senses Beyond Description


Valerie Serdy

Copyright © 2003, Valerie Serdy, All Rights Reserved



In 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.

Character Development

Our 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.

Our 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 wedding.

All 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.

Consider 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 coffee.

Now 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.

Take a look at this example.

Sara 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 childhood memory.

If 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 killer's identity.

But, 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.


Setting 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:

Pictures. Pick a dozen pictures taken around very turbulent times in your life (adolescence is always good, as is marriage/divorce or the birth of your child). As you look at each picture, try to remember everything about it. What was happening in the picture? What was happening in your life at the time? Now, try to go a little deeper into the scene. What sounds, touches, smells, tastes do you feel while you gaze at your picture? Now try to recall any times you may have experienced those senses and then remembered the scene depicted in the photo. Injuries. Recall any major injuries or surgeries you've had. Do you immediately remember the moment of the injury when you or someone else touches the injured site or when you bang the site against something? (This isn't as odd as it sounds. If you've broken your arm, banging your elbow can recall the moment when you broke it.) Food. Recall your favorite foods, their taste and scent. Then your least favorite, those foods you simply loathe. Why are they your favorites? Your least favorites? I love alpine lace swiss cheese. I finally realized that my grandmother always served it when we visited her, and eating it reminded me of her great fluffy hugs (she was very fat).


Even 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.

Including 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 night…"