How To Use The 5 Senses For Authentic Description
It can be difficult to ensure authentic description. We want the reader to see exactly what we see, hear exactly what we hear, and feel the things we want them to feel. But, as Stephen King instructs, no two people ever see things identically. The best we can do is get as near as possible. And one way to do this is to make use of all of the senses when we describe.
The first and most obvious is sight. We often use our visual observations to inform our descriptions because we want the reader to know exactly what it is we’re seeing. This isn’t possible of course, but we can at least give the reader an idea of what’s going on.
With describing the things you see, you can easily fall into cliché. Is someone’s skin really as white as snow? Ask yourself what kind of white? What can you relate it to? You can also use sight to describe things that are more abstract. Take this extract from Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights:
“The idea hovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and she dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else.”
-Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
Using the simile of a bubble to describe the fragility of the main character’s idea works brilliantly. The bubble shimmers in an enticing way, highlighting the importance of it. To create authentic description use sight not just as you see it, but as your character sees it. This can really help build the relationship between the reader and the protagonist. For more tips on characterisation, take a look at this article next.
Whether it’s a busker, someone snoring in the next room, or the click of a door unlocking, sounds can add texture to description. Including what the character can hear grounds the reader to the scene. Give them something recognisable – a whistling kettle, market seller calls – to make the surroundings plausible.
The sounds of the actual words can have an impact on the reading experience too. Just take a look at these from Roald Dahl: ‘Oompa-Loompas’, ‘Loompaland’, and ‘hornswogglers and snozzwangers and those terrible wicked whangdoodles.’ Reading this and saying it aloud is just pure fun. It also adds to the zany quality of the story. Think about the phonetics of the words you choose – particularly ones you’re making up, like place names.
And, don’t forget, sometimes silence can be a very powerful tool for description…
“I loved the afternoons best: the scent of rosemary, the heat, the birds, the cicadas, the sway of palm fronds, the silence that fell like a light linen shawl on an appalling sunny day.”
Call Me By Your Name, André Aciman
Silence described as a linen shawl falling, gives the sound of nothing an added element of calm. This teamed with the sounds of the insects in the grass creates a believable space that the reader can walk around in – an essential part of authentic description.
Sounds can also become a huge part of characterisation. Dialogue, accent, and tone all give believability to the people you’re trying to describe. Imagine the difference it would make to have a ‘chatty’ Mr Rochester.
Describing a particular taste can help bring colour to your writing. Conjuring the sourness of lemons has a completely different impact to the saltiness of gravy. Think about how you can use taste to depict things not necessarily related to food. For example, you can describe words as being sour, or a person being sickly sweet.
You can also use taste to describe something that has nothing to do with taste…
“I made jam sandwiches for breakfast, and they tasted hopeful.”
– How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff
How can something taste hopeful? It can’t, there’s no scientific taste for optimism, but in a literary sense, it works. The idea of something tasting hopeful will be different for each reader, but it will have the same uplifting result for everyone. The character feels nourished and Rosoff makes sure we all know this.
Using taste for authentic description sometimes works best when it’s not about food. It allows you to think outside the box, especially if you’re struggling for an original slant for depicting something. How does the air taste? What do shouted words taste like?
We’ve all been there. Walking along, or sitting down somewhere, and smelling something that’s made us stop. A meal from our childhood or the perfume of someone you used to know can waft by momentarily, but leave a lasting impression. Smell is directly linked to our past, perhaps more than any of the other senses, as Rushdie iterates:
“pickle-fumes stimulate the juice of memory.”
-Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
The use of scents can add another layer of description to your writing. Think about the scene or situation you’re trying to depict along with its relating mood. Are you introducing your reader to a new setting or place? What is it you want to evoke? If it’s a cosy cottage, what might it smell like? If it’s a dark alleyway, what might this smell like?
And smells can have multiple meanings. Take this excerpt on THE book on smells:
“The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter.”
– Perfume, Patrick Süskind
The repetition of the word ‘stank’ has further meaning here of the corruptness of society. Employ the use of smell in your writing to give a 3D experience for the reader so that smell means more than just what travels through your nose.
Touch can add intimacy to your writing. Equally, the lack of it can say a lot too. The feel of things can help the reader grasp hold of the moment you’re trying to describe. The authenticity you build into the descriptions of touch can either be around something physical – the silky touch of Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak, or can be used more metaphorically…
“Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”
-The Book Thief, Marcus Zuzak
The beautiful imagery Zuzak creates here through the use of verbs, emphasizes how precious words are to Liesel. How can you use touch in your writing?
MIX AND MATCH
One of the best things about using the five senses to describe is that they can rescue you from an ideas slump. Just by mixing and matching them, you can come up with new ideas for providing authentic description. Here’s a few to get you thinking:
How might birdsong feel? What does the taste of raspberries look like? Are someone’s words clouds of fluff or rock hard stones?
By using a sense that doesn’t directly correlate with the object, you can open up an exciting range of possibilities. And the reason why the senses give you immediate authentic description is because of their inherently human nature. Ground your writing in things the reader will recognise. You might be writing about the most other worldly, fantastical thing, but that doesn’t mean the reader should feel alien from the writing.
Will you be using the five senses in your writing? We’d love to know what you come up with in the comments below 🙂