Writing descriptions for all of the senses


Photo by Flickr user Darkmuse. Those who have read Monsters will understand the reference.

Great writers have the ability to place us in the heart of their characters’ worlds, often with just a few words. We can see the blaze of day bleeding into night, hear the purr of the vintage car’s engine, feel the boiling heat of Mars’s core. But two powerful and often neglected senses are missing from many descriptions: smell and taste.

Studies have shown that our sense of smell is strongly connected to our memories. For me, the mix of sunscreen, salt, and cotton candy evokes memories of a Jersey shore amusement park that are so strong I can hear the roar of the roller coaster and the screams of its riders as they plunge down the first hill. A whiff of a friend’s hand lotion conjures an afternoon spent at her house years ago. If scent is so powerful, why do we forget it so often when writing?

Monsters. I’ve been pondering this while listening to Ilsa Bick’s Monsters (third in the Ashes trilogy), which makes excellent use of smell to conjure vivid settings and characters. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that one of the main characters develops a heightened sense of smell early in the series which Bick uses to effectively put us in Alex’s head, in her world, and (most importantly, since this is a thriller) in the moment. No other author has made me “picture” a character by his scent or foretold impending danger by a smell rather than a sound or sight so effectively. What really makes this work are the strong ties between smell, emotion, and memory. Of course, this is also backed up by vivid descriptions that evoke the other senses.

The Scorpio Races. I’ll admit, I haven’t yet read a book that used taste in a similar way, though I’m sure it’s out there. Titles I’d like to read that come to mind are Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Joan Bauer’s Close to Famous, and I know there are several food-themed mystery series out there that I assume mention taste a fair amount. Aside from Monsters, the most recent book I’ve seen that stands out for using taste effectively was Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. Though taste isn’t as prevalent in this book as smell is in Ashes, I thought the description of the November cakes was well written, and I could both smell and taste the salt of the island air throughout.

I’m going to make an active effort to include more descriptions using smell and taste in my writing. If you’re looking for great descriptions with smell, and can stomach a fair amount of gore, I highly recommend the Ashes trilogy. (And if you’re an audiophile like me, Katherine Kellgren is an excellent narrator.) What other books/authors have you seen make good use of these senses?


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