Returning to Our Senses

Creative writing starts with creative perception: it’s a mantra worth repeating. A special alertness to the information coming in through the senses–sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch—will help you texture your imagined world. Rich sensory texture unveils the extraordinary within the ordinary. It also renders the extraordinary in such concrete detail that it becomes absolutely credible. Most important it’s the sensory images in a piece of writing that cause readers to forget they are reading abstract symbols on a page and feel instead that they are having a real experience, whether it’s sitting down to a holiday dinner with a wacky family or tracking a bad guy through an empty warehouse.

Writers collect sensory images the same way they hoard energetic verbs. (Remember that writer’s notebook?) Our visual culture poses a bit of a challenge here: words that convey visual details vastly outnumber words that communicate information from the other senses. Describing how things look is valuable and necessary, but bringing in the other senses will infuse writing with more immediacy and power. Here’s why.

The sense of sight works across great distances—93 million miles in the case of the sun. Hearing requires the proximity between subject and object of a few miles at most, whereas in order to smell something, we have to get pretty close. Finally, taste and touch demand the physical contact that our civilized culture shies away from. Thus when we describe the odors, tastes, and tactile nature of things, we move our written world in on our reader and wrap it around her. The odor of onion grass or engine oil; a cherry pit in a bite of pie; the taste of blood. These will make readers believers.

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