Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Making Sense of Senses

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.
This week's topic: The Five Senses. How do you use them in your writing, how you are inspired by them, pictorial essays, that character with smelly socks, books that have used them well, the ones that are currently missing from your work, etc. 

So here's a bit on my relationship with the five senses and some tricks I've found to work with them in my writing. 

 I really, really wish I had the “skills of an artist,” as Strongbad would say. Whenever I try to sketch the story images in my head to aid my descriptions, they look a right mess, and GoogleImages is awesome but it has its limits. But I have to remind myself that in the end it's about the words. I just need to translate my mental images into words strong enough to create those images in readers' minds. At least until I have the money to hire an artist with a psychic connection to my thoughts...
Trick I use: I’m not great at writing stunning description for its own sake, so I try to frame sensory details through character, revealing something about the person by how they see the world. Does a character compare a certain shade of red to blood or rust or her sister’s hair? Does he know enough about flowers (or fabrics or fish or fireworks or French architecture) to think in terms of that kind of metaphor? Does she see opportunity and adventure in a secluded forest path, or do the tree limbs seem ready to entangle her?  
My husband jokes that I have “princess skin” because it’s so susceptible to irritating textures or extreme temperatures, so I'm often made aware of this sense. 

Trick I use: Plunge a character into darkness so that they’re forced to navigate by touch and their other senses. Really any time your temporarily or permanently take away a sense, the character - and the writer - are forced to pay attention to the rest. 

I was struggling with hearing in my writing just the other day, trying to figure out how to verbalize the sound a tennis ball makes when it hits the court. Coming off of the racket is a thwack, I think, but what about when it hits the ground? And how does it change depending on the court surface? 

Trick I’ve used: Wake up in a new area (or imagine doing so). I moved recently and became instantly more aware of sound because of the contrasts. I used to wake up to endless traffic, the back-up beeps of trucks, sirens (we lived around the corner from the police station), and the stirrings of people in the apartments around us. Now I hear birds, squirrel chatter, lawn mowers, power tools, and a gaggle of adorable hippy children that walk by singing every morning. What would a character waking up in your story world for the first time notice?

I actually describe smells quite a lot in my everyday life. I’m convinced that my husband has an olfactory disorder because he’s always the last person to notice a scent or odor in the air. So there’s a lot of me describing what I smell and repeating “Seriously? You smell nothing? Really?” 

Trick I use: Mostly the husband thing. But remembering the interplay between taste and smell is important too. 

I don’t know whether I’m good at describing taste or not, but I’ll soon find out: my characters are about to encounter a smorgasbord of exotic fruits in the forest of another world.

Trick I use: My culinary vocabulary really improved after I started watching cooking competition shows (Hell’s Kitchen, The Next Food Network Star) where contestants were asked to "prove their palate" by deconstructing meals and describing their different tastes. Plus angry chefs are amusing.

So what are your sensory struggles and tricks? 

And does anyone have an answer to my tennis ball question?


  1. First of all: " “skills of an artist,” as Strongbad would say"


    Second of all: I loved your 'tricks'! I've definitely done the "plunging into darkness" one before. And I think I sat here for a good five minutes trying to describe the sound of a tennis ball. I always think "pock" when it comes off the racket, but I honestly can't think of the sound of it hitting the court.

    Great post!

  2. Thanks! And I like "pock" as a noise, even if it doesn't solve the mystery.

    The Burninator!

  3. Not to be pedantic, but on what surface is your character playing? Grass, clay, and composition would all produce different sounds.
    Clay is more of a thwap (French Open), grass makes almost no sound (Wimbledon), composition is a tap (US and Australian Open). Indoors is more hollow because the courts are usually sprung.

  4. I brought up the different surfaces because they were fun to think about, and there is a bit of flexibility in the story, but I'm mostly considering a standard school court, meaning outdoors and synthetic green.