Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Virtual Workshop: The Forgotten Senses

Writing comes alive when the writer engages the readers senses. This is true, not only in poetry, but in prose as well. Sensory engagement is part of the show, not tell of writing.

Consider this poem:

Scheherazade's Last Tale

It is enough to dry the dishes as you wash,
deft hands flicking water from polished

steel. You offer me the carving knife
handle first, thumb and forefingers shield

the blade. I swipe its sharp surface dry,
slide it with a solid snick in the maple block.

You smooth a wrinkled sheet into a neat
square, laugh as I wrestle unruly corners,

throw the misshapen bundle at your head.
I settle for pairing socks, tucking the boys

into freshly made beds, winter blanket
warm. It is enough to sit in silence, stroke

the dog beside this fire you built for me,
the ringer off, invitations politely refused.

I am the book you read by light
the color of maple syrup gold, the story

we tell for a thousand and one nights
and never tire of its ending.


It is sensory rich with sight, sound, and touch, describing an ordinary scene with specificity. The reader isn't told about the relationship between the narrator and her lover, the reader is shown in a series of images.

The Senses:
We typically think of humans as having five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Technically, we have several additional senses: vestibular (senses motion, acceleration, speed, and direction), kinesthetic (body position, position of body parts related to the whole), pain, and temperature, based on anatomical receptors found throughout the body. A discussion of these 'extra' senses is beyond the scope of this workshop, though it would be interesting in relation to writing speculative fiction and creating aliens whose senses are different than human ones. Here is a link to more specific information on pain and perception.

Our primary sense is sight. We take in more than 75% of our information about the world through our eyes. Our brains are hard wired to react almost instantaneously to visual disturbances by catching or blocking something moving in our visual fields. Our coordination of hands/arms is tied into the sense of sight. Hand/eye coordination is essential for our survival.

In describing the world, it is likely that an author will filter his or her character's observations through the medium of sight. Some of what we see are color, shape, texture, depth of field, distance, and movement. In using sight to describe scene, it can be useful to use more than one or two dimensions of vision.

Hearing is probably our second most common way of processing the world. Our ears translate vibration into what we perceive as sound. Sound has volume, pitch, and rhythm. The listener can also detect if a sound source is moving toward or away from the ears.

Touch is one of our first senses. In fact, the skin, which houses our touch receptors, is the body's largest organ. Our fingers, lips, and genitals are some of our most sensitive regions and get a larger proportion of brain real estate than all the other areas of the body. Touch can be described by intensity, quality, and rhythm.

Taste and smell
are quite closely linked senses. In fact, without smell, taste is almost non-existent. Smell is an interesting sense in that it is closely tied into the limbic system. That's part of our old, more primitive brain, and is vital to processing emotion and memory. That's why smells can trigger such intense associations in a way the other senses do not.

To bring a scene or an image fully to life on the page, it is the author's task to use multiple senses. The more fully engaged the senses, the richer the description. Within reason. As in everything, balance is the key. No one is going to want to read page after page of sensory input without anything else happening in the story.

There is one additional sensory possibility that can be of great use to the writer: synesthesia. Synesthesia is the mapping of one sense on another. A certain percentage of the population are synesthetes. Some individuals 'taste' music, others 'hear' color or 'feel' sounds. Synesthesia probably happens at a brain processing level, but can enliven writing and take description from ho hum to striking.

For example, it is cliche to describe something yellow as being as bright as the sun (also a simile), or the color of butter, but what if the yellow was so intense it made your character's teeth ache? Or sounded like the high note of a poorly played violin? Poets often use synesthesia to create unusual pairing and stand out images.

In comments, feel free to post a brief descriptive passage from your own writing. Notice if you use one sense predominantly. If so, play with adding other senses to the mix.


  1. I loved this post and you've set me to thinking. I've been letting a short story idea brew since yesterday, picking up bits and pieces to use in it, and the idea of aliens having different perceptions gave another twist! Thanks for that!

  2. This was great. I love how you are highlighting your posts with poetry and then showing how to translate into prose. I know I tend to use sight and hearing the most, though I try to add in taste and smell when I can. It feels more awkward with those but I'm hoping the more I do it the more comfortable i'll be.


  3. To know more about synesthesia, check out the "Blue Cats Synesthesia Resource Center", which links to many articles and programs on synesthesia:

  4. Joely--I'm so glad I could spark an idea! Happy writing!

    Shannon--thank you. Smell, particularly, can be used to good effect if you want to weave a brief memory/flash into your narrative, since smell evokes memory connections deep in our limbic systems.

    pat--thank you for the link! I am mildly synesthetic in that I experience sounds and colors as having a tactile feel.