With movies, advertisements, TV, etc., it’s obvious that humans are very visual. As a result, our writing is often full of visuals. It’s absolutely important to be able to see the story, but too often, the other senses are neglected. What about sound, touch, taste, and smell? What does the shag rug in the living room feel like? Sure, that wedding cake’s pretty, but what how’s the flavor? We urge writers to explore all of the senses, and this exercise is designed to help you play around with them. Under each step of the exercise below is an example, should you so desire to read it.
1. Write a scene with only visual description. Pretend you’re a camera filming the scene, and you can only capture what you can see. This likely won’t be too difficult, as we often default to writing visual description anyway.
The park was busy, bustling with kids in fluorescent party hats, young adults running the perimeter as they glistened with sweat, and dogs playing fetch with their people as their tongues lolled out of their mouths. Jonathan was at a far end, away from the trees and the crowd. He watched his dragon kite fly high above him. The orange, zigzagging streamers flew behind it, getting higher and higher.
2. Rewrite the scene with only sound (see where we’re going with this?). You can’t see what’s going on, but you can hear it. We’re pretty good at tuning out what we don’t want to hear—white noise, the scratching of pen on paper, our own breathing. Don’t tune out the sounds of the scene. Capture them.
Children laughed in the distance, getting loud, then quieter, then loud again. Tennis shoes rose and fell against the concrete with the rhythm of their owner’s breathing. Dogs yipped and barked as their owners shouted encouragement to them when a Frisbee sliced through the air. Jonathan didn’t hear anything other than the wind dancing in his ears as it fluttered the streamers of his kite.
The grass was cool and soft between the children’s toes as they ran. The heat of the afternoon sun soaked into the runners’ skin, and came back out of their pores as sticky sweat. Dogs returned to their owners with what they’d fetched to be greeted by an affirming rub through long fur. But Jonathan gave all of his attention to the kite, to the subtle movements of the coarse string between his thumb and pointer finger.
Buttercream smears painted joy on the faces of the kids as they ran around, fueled by sugary juice and soda. The exhaust of a passing car filled a runner’s mouth before he licked his upper lip to replace the pollution with saltiness. A dog returned to his person with a tennis ball dripping with saliva and ecstasy. Jonathan’s mouth had gone dry, as it hung slightly open, full of awe at the sight of his kite above him.
5. And now, my personal favorite, rewrite the scene using only smell. Scent is an extremely powerful sense, one that is intimately tied to emotional memory. A simple smell can take us back ten years and bring up emotions that feel as fresh as the first time we felt them. Don’t underestimate the power of the nose.
Chocolate filled the children’s nostrils before they powered through their cake. A runner on the edge of the park got a massive whiff of exhaust from a passing car, but even that didn’t cover up the tanginess of her BO. A dog returned to his owner with a ball, who then wondered where the dog found something akin to rotting earth to roll in. The scent of new plastic and nylon floated down toward Jonathan off of his kite whenever there was a downward gust.
6. Finally, go through all five versions of your scene. Pick out the strongest visual, strongest smell, etc. and rewrite your scene as a multi-sensational (see what I did there?) piece of awesome.
The park was busy, bustling with activity. Buttercream smears painted joy on the faces of a group of kids as they ran around, fueled by sugary juice and soda. The heat of the afternoon sun soaked into the skin of the runners, and came back out of their pores as sticky sweat. Dogs yipped and barked as their owners shouted encouragement to them when a Frisbee sliced through the air. Jonathan was at a far end, away from the trees and the crowd. He watched his dragon kite fly high above him. The scent of new plastic and nylon floated down toward him off of the kite whenever there was a downward gust.
How does this scene compare to the first draft you wrote, with only visuals? Which sense do you have the hardest time with? Which one are you the strongest with? The level of detail you want to describe to your reader will of course vary based on the needs of the story. However, knowing which senses you need to practice will help you become a well-rounded writer. Your readers’ senses are just waiting to be evoked; you can take them to another world, and isn’t that what writing’s all about?
By Madeleine Mozley
Images from FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Image credits in order of appearance: Gualberto 107, Salvatore Vuono, graur razvan, John Kasawa, Stuart Miles.