In chapter 5 of Writing Fiction, the Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School, Chris Lombardi offers us sage advice on how to catapult our readers and audiences into our fictional worlds through the evocation of the five senses.
Lombardi explains that we read and write with our brains, but we live life through our bodies. We therefore need to convey the experience of our fictional worlds through our five senses. Yes, our running to catch the bus consists of a series of internal events such as irritation at having to catch a bus in the first place, and the worry that we’ll miss it, but these internal states are motivated by the senses—the feel and sound of shoes striking the pavement, the sucking in of breath, the sight of the retreating bus, the smell of its exhaust and the roar of its engine. Experience of the world, in other words, is fed to us through our sense faculties. Our stories should do no less.
Lombardi presses the point: “To bring a reader into your fictional world, you need to offer data for all the senses. You want to make your readers see the rain’s shadow, taste the bitterness of bad soup, feel the roughness of unshaved skin, smell the spoiled pizza after an all-night party, hear the tires screech during the accident. Note that I’ve referred to all five senses. Don’t be tempted to focus only on sight, as many beginning writers do. It may be the sound after the party that your character really remembers. You may find that the feel of the fabric of a character’s dress tells more about her upbringing than her hairstyle does.”
“The skillful use of the five senses is one of the hallmarks of a good writer.”
The following passage from Amy Tan’s novel, “Rules of the Game” is a great example of the senses at work:
“We lived on Waverly Place, in a warm, clean, two-bedroom flat that sat above a small Chinese bakery, specializing in steamed pastries and dim sum. In the early morning, when the alley was still quiet, I could smell fragrant red beans as they were cooked down to a pasty sweetness. By daybreak, our flat was heavy with the odor of fried sesame balls and sweet curried chicken crescents. From my bed, I would listen as my father got ready for work, then locked the door behind him, one-two-three clicks.”
We see, hear, smell, feel, and even taste this world. It’s almost as if we are physically there.
But could we use a sense other than sight and hearing in a screenplay, too? Indeed we could, if a little more indirectly: We could write into the screenplay’s action block a character wrinkling her nose at the sight of some unsightly food on a plate with steam rising from it, we could have a character’s hand stroking the fur of a cat, a horse, a velvet dress, we could describe a closeup shot of a child grimacing at the taste of a spoon brimming over with cod liver oil pressed into his mouth.
You get the idea.
As an exercise write about a character on a dare from his friends to find a perfumed handkerchief hidden somewhere in a spooky, abandoned house. The character is blindfolded and has only a cane to help him/her navigate the interior. Write the scene for a novel or screenplay using only the sensory description of hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Omit any description of sight to force you to concentrate on the remaining senses.
Use the five senses in writing novels and screenplays to catapult your readers into the physical world of your story.