Weighing the Senses

The Muses have done a great job tackling this elusive subject of incorporating all five (or SIX!) senses into writing and why it's critical to do so. For my nickle to the pot, I wanted to add about each sense and the weight (or intimacy) they bring. Allow me to explain.

While we experience the world with sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste...these are not experienced in equal measure. Let me illustrate with an example (I'm writing this on the fly, so please don't judge the quality of the work harshly--or do, but don't tell me):

I see her coming down the street, her rosewood hair dangling over her shoulder. Seeing me, she runs and her flip-flops echo against the silent, sleepy houses. I sprint for her. We embrace in front of a fire hydrant. Our hearts ram our ribs as if they too want to hug. Her humid breath washes me in cigarettes and...mint? She cocks her head sideways. We kiss. She pushes me away, leaving a burn of wintermint on my tongue. 

From the above passage, what do you remember the most? Which of the senses stuck with you?

For most, I bet it was either the smell of her breath or the taste of her kiss. These are the most intimate of our senses and are the "heaviest." After all, to do either you must be 1) very close to the person/object--kissing someone or 2) the thing must be very potent--a rotting corpse.

Proximity-wise, obviously touch is also a very "close" sense, though the difference being that we touch things constantly and so we're somewhat desensitized. However, when we do notice touch, it's because it breaks out of the norm. You don't pay much attention to your shoes until the forming blister tells you to.

As it's been pointed out, we are visual creatures. Most of the world comes at us through our eyes. Therefore, this often is the most used and least memorable of the senses.

I've found it a useful tool to use different senses in different scenarios depending on how close I want the reader to the scene.  Using the right tool at the right time is the name of this writing game. So ask yourself while writing (or more likely, revising): "what weight do I want to add to this description?"

To elaborate on Talia's character's reaction to Ireland, she brings in smell and the cutting of the cold. This weights the impression more and therefore, sticks with the reader more than just describing the gray of the gloomy sky.

So should you add a smell to everything your main character encounters? Should every scene include what she's tasting?

By gawds, no.

As a rule of thumb, the more weight a sense hold, the more sparingly it should be used. There should be more visual and sound in a work than smell or taste (unless the character is blind, which is another ballgame). Adding in too many heavy sensory perceptions makes the manuscript feel, well, heavy.

Go forth, friends, and use your weight wisely!


Brett, this was terrific! I automatically picked her peppermint kiss-but then you told me why I picked it. Many thanks. WIll put this post on my writing fiction wiki. Heavy work, man!

I spent a good amount of time haranguing a writer once for not including anything about smell in a piece about eucalyptus trees. No brainer, right? Then I learned she had no sense of smell, and I felt like a jerk. True story.

Thanks, Carol!

And hilarious/sad story, Miller!

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