With writing, it’s important to avoid ‘White Room Syndrome.’ That’s where a writer neglects the backdrop, making it appear that the characters are standing in a white room, devoid of any setting, while they have a conversation or carry out an action.
Good writing will propel the reader into the story, delighting the senses to the point where the reader can see, touch, smell, hear, and yes, almost taste the action. It will leave no doubt in the reader’s mind as to where the action is taking place and under what circumstances.
It’s good to remember that a reader chooses a book because they want a different experience than the one their daily life provides. They want to be overtaken and have not merely a mental experience, but a sensory one. This is one reason why 3D movies with action seats have become so popular because people are no longer satisfied with a flat experience. (Were they ever?)
So let’s talk about the five senses and how you can work them into your story.
Sight is arguably the most important, and the most obvious sense that writers use when spinning a story. The visual details of a setting will set the tone of a story. Create a scene in your mind. Where does it take place? In a forest? Inside a structure? Wherever it is, try to picture what is present. Using the forest example, imagine the kind of trees around. Do they have moss on them? Are the trees healthy or diseased, or are both present? Are their birds, and if so what kind? Are there other forest creatures? What about insects? Are there signs of human activity around: broken branches, litter, footprints? Help your reader see what makes up the backdrop of your scene.
Describing smell is a fabulous way to plunge the reader into your story. The use of this sense can also work to increase tension in a story. Imagine your character walking through the forest and they notice the sweet smell of wood smoke in the distance. This can be enough to trigger slight unease in the reader, causing a slow build-up of tension, so it’s a great tool to use. Now, think about your setting; what smells are present? What is the ambient aroma of the scene? For example, a house can smell of recently baked cookies, but it can also smell of the wet dog that occupies his bed by the hearth. The house might also emanate an undertone of earthy mould. Think about how the various smells mingle?
Try to actually pinpoint the smell, rather than identify it. For example, “The sickly sweet scent of gardenias floated on the breeze that blew in from the open window,” rather than, “The air inside the small kitchen smelled like gardenias.”
Taste is a rather interesting sense. Our tongue can identify basic tastes, sensations, and transmissions. The basic tastes are sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and savoriness. Sensations and transmissions include pungency, coolness, numbness, astringency, metallicness, calcium, fat taste, heartiness, temperature, and starchiness. Think of all the fun you can have describing some of these in your scenes. Your characters can, directly and indirectly, taste something. If a smell is strong enough, one can also experience it as a taste. Keep in mind that you can also work taste into a scene if a character inadvertently gets a substance in their mouth while working around the substance. This can make for a strong effect, in both a pleasant and unpleasant way.
Sometimes emotions can have a taste. Have you ever experienced the metallic taste of fear? I have and it definitely exists. Next time you are experiencing strong emotions, observe if they have a taste.
Including the sensation of touch in your work is an excellent way to enhance your scenes. By describing the textures of objects, you can add another dimension to your work. Think of both pleasant and unpleasant sensations, the silkiness of a kitten’s fur, the prickle of a burr, the coolness of glass, etc.
Not only do humans directly feel the texture of an object, but our skin and even our internal organs are attuned to certain sensations, like the wind in our hair, the rumble of our belly, the bloated sensation of indigestion, the twitch of a spastic muscle, the pain and tension of overused muscles. These important sensations should work their way into your scenes.
The world is full of sounds and they occur across multiple distances. Right now, as I type this, I can hear the sounds of my keyboard keys, my music playing through my computer, the tag on my dog’s collar rattling as she shakes at the bottom of the stairs, the faint trickle of my neighbour’s fountain, someone’s lawnmower a street away, and the helicopter flying above the hospital a few kilometers away. While it may not be advisable to include every sound, near or far, into your scene, you should be aware that multiple sounds make up the ambient noise that surrounds us daily. Including sounds in your scenes will add to their interest and reveal what is happening in the greater world of your character, which will help set them in a rich environment. You can also use sound to contribute to the mood of your character. Soothing sounds will promote their well being, whereas annoying sounds can set them on edge. Think about how you can use sound to build believable, rich scenes.
Caveats When Using the Five Senses
Now that you’ve come up with some ideas for fleshing out your scenes using the five senses, there are some dos and don’ts you should be aware of.
- create scenes that use at least three of the five senses
- vary the senses; if you used senses #1, #2 and #3 in scene one, use # 1, # 4 and #5 in scene two, and so on
- use descriptions rather than similes when using the senses: “The pungent smell of aged cheese wafted from the container, chased by an underlying sourness that made Jennifer’s stomach roil,” rather than “The cheese smelled like old socks.”
- sprinkle the senses lightly in the scenes; less is more.
- conduct research sessions where you will spend time using your five senses, then jot down descriptive words about your experiences to use later in your scenes
- use all the senses in any one scene or it will become weighed down
- be overly descriptive. All you need are one or two sentences to describe the sensory experience
- use clichés: “the chocolate was sweet,” “the beer was bitter,” and so on. Try to come up with a unique, complex description where possible
- use senses pointlessly; ensure they have a purpose and forward the plot
- forget to notice how your favorite authors have used the five senses in their work
Using the five senses in your writing will not only help you avoid the dreaded ‘White Room Syndrome,’ it will also keep your readers turning pages. And although they may not be able to articulate what makes your book richer than others, if you provide them with a sensory experience, you can bet they will be returning for more.