Hello! Winnie Griggs here and I’m really excited to be back here at Seekerville. This is always such a fun place to visit!
Today I thought I’d discuss adding depth to your stories by using the senses. I’m sure you’ve all heard, time and again, that one of the best ways to infuse your scenes with life and energy is through deft use of the five senses. In fact, if you type senses into the blog search box at the top of this page, it will display for you a number of very well written pieces on just that subject among the Seekerville archives.
So I’m going to give just a quick nod to those basic five senses and then move on to something else.
Quick, before I list them here, how many of you can name all five of the basic senses from memory? They are, of course, Sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste (I always forget touch).
The key to using them effectively in your work is to make certain you don’t just add them in as a laundry list or afterthought. To be really effective you need to show how they color the emotions of your character, mood or setting. You need to see how they touch your character in order for them to touch your reader. Honing in on one or two really key elements in this way is much more effective than providing multiple sensory elements that just lay there.
For instance: As she walked through the park she could smell fresh cut grass, a cigar reminiscent of the ones her grandfather had smoked, and the loamy scent of newly-turned earth. You’ve included the sense of smell here, which can be one of the most evocative of the senses, but you haven’t really given the reader anything to care about or latch on to.
Instead, focus in on the detail(s) that’s going to elicit an emotional response and weave it in with the emphasis it deserves – Wafting over the everyday scents of the park that morning, the unexpected whiff of a cigar caressed her with memories of her beloved grandfather, ensconced in his recliner, puffing away, as she and her brother played at his feet. Oh, how she could use his wise counsel today.
That was just off the cuff, but hopefully you get the idea.
Let me give you a more extended example from one of my books, using one of the times when I included the five senses and think I actually got it right.
This excerpt comes from my book Handpicked Husband. The set-up here is that the hero and heroine have entered into a marriage of convenience. The day before the wedding, the hero learns something the heroine did that he feels is unforgivable but it is too late to call off the wedding. This is the evening after their wedding ceremony.
“I won’t lie,” Adam began. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget what you did.”
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Reggie thought she’d braced herself for censure, but his words still had the power to lash at her.
He leaned back. “However, I realize I’ve acted churlishly and for that I apologize.”
She held herself still, her hands clasped in her lap. He’d apologized - that was something.
“As you said,” Adam continued, “what happened in the past can’t be changed. It’s the present and future we need to concentrate on, and how to make them livable for the both of us.”
She knew those words hadn’t come easily to him and that she should be grateful. He’d offered an olive branch of sorts, a sign of compromise from a man who thought compromise was a weakness. Expecting more from him would be unrealistic. The least she could do was meet him half way. “How do you suggest we do that?”
“We made vows to each other in front of God and your neighbors,” he said. “It’s important that we be true to those.”
“I never planned to do otherwise.”
He gave a tight smile. “Then we’re agreed. It might take some effort, but in time it will likely become second nature for us to get along amenably.”
Amenably. Now didn’t that just sound like the most romantic way to start off a new marriage?
Reggie, stood, needing some activity, some distance from Adam. “You haven’t eaten anything tonight. Let me at least get you some cheese and bread.”
Adam stood as well. “I could use a bite of something.”
She unwrapped the block of cheese and reached for a knife while Adam took a clean cup from the drain board and uncorked the jug of cider.
He stood beside her, so close their shoulders nearly touched. It rattled her for some reason, made her breath uneven.
Did he feel anything at all?
Reggie sliced into the cheese with more vigor than care, then jerked her finger up to her lips, wincing at the metallic tang of blood.
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Adam immediately set his cup down, concern furrowing his brow. “Let me see that.”
She pulled her finger out of her mouth and shook her head. “It’s nothing. The knife slipped. I--”
“Don’t argue.” He took her hand, examining the cut with a concerned frown.
Reggie stared down at her hand in his. A tiny rivulet of blood seeped from the shallow cut, curling around her finger and onto his, like a narrow ribbon binding them together.
Amazing that such large, work-callused hands could feel so warm and gentle without losing their sense of strength.
“I’m sure it’s nothing serious,” she said. “It doesn’t even hurt.” Not a lie since all she could feel at this moment was his touch, his nearness.
“Let’s clean it and get a better look, just in case.” Still holding her hand, he dipped a clean rag in the nearby bucket of water, then slowly squeezed it over her finger. Head bent, he gently dabbed at the remaining blood.
Reggie stared down at his head, so close she could smell the scent of soap and cigar smoke and night air. So close her breath stirred his hair. So close she could press her lips to his temple without moving much at all.
She pulled slightly back at that very inappropriate thought.
His head came up, his gaze seeking hers. “Did I hurt you?”
Not in any way I can explain. She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.
“Well then, I think you’re right. It’s not serious. The bleeding’s already stopped.” He let go of her hand. “You’re obviously tired. Go on to bed. I can fix my own meal.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll clean up when I’m done.”
Reggie nodded and turned away, realizing nothing much had changed. He was talking to her again, but he didn’t care to spend any more time in her company than he had to.
What do you think – did I pull you in? Did I give you an emotional connection to my heroine with those added touches of sight, sound, taste, touch and hearing?
So that’s the five senses we normally think of, and I’m sorry I wasn’t quite as brief as I’d planned to be J
What I really wanted to talk about today was the fact that there are other senses we can tap into and take advantage of when we write. Yes, there are more than five. In fact, some neurologists claim there are as many as twenty-one! I don’t plan to explore all of those today, you can google them if, like me, you find that kind of discussion fascinating. Instead I’m going to explore just the three additional senses that I think we writers can make the most use of.
Sense of Time
How we experience the passing of time, be it seconds or days, is a true sense. Writers use this all the time when we write phrases such as the days passed in a blur, time seemed to stand still, she fell down the slope in slow motion. In doing this we are attempting to pull the reader into our character’s head, have them experience the sense of time distortion with our character.
Here’s an example, from my book Handpicked Husband
The scene unfolded with tortuous slowness. Each detail etched itself in her mind with gruesome vividness - the grim determination on Adam’s face, the bulging muscles in his arm as he strained to turn the tiller, the bone-jarring jolts his body absorbed as the runaway motor carriage careened out of control.
Then the motor carriage slammed into the photography wagon and time stampeded forward again.
Only when Ira’s hand released her did Reggie realize she’d been struggling to race forward. Now she picked up her skirts and dashed toward the splintered mess.
Please God, let him be all right.
Sense of Equilibrium
This is what allows us to keep our balance. It also helps us to perceive gravity and the acceleration and directional changes of our bodies. When this sense isn’t working properly we get dizzy, disoriented and/or unusually clumsy. Often, when in the throes of some strong emotion – grief, exultation, passion – we’ll experience a temporary impairment of this sense. As a writer you’ll want to tap into this.
Here’s an example, again from my book Handpicked Husband
Something inside him, some weight that had been there so long he’d ceased to feel it, began to crumble, then evaporate entirely. His world shifted from one heartbeat to the next, leaving him with a lost, dizzy feeling and he reached for the table to steady himself.
Sense of Space
It’s how we perceive distances. And while this might, on the surface, seem to be fixed, we all have our own unique sense of space. A small vehicle might seem cramped to one person might feel comfortingly cocooning to another. We all have a different sense of our personal space so that when I (being southern) greet you with a hug, you may feel I’ve overstepped a boundary of sorts. And a stressful situation may make you feel like the walls are closing in or like we’re caught in a vacuum. Again, you want to use this sense to create an emotional experience your reader can relate to.
This example, taken from Second Chance Hero, weaves in both the senses of time and space.
For an agonizing heartbeat, as the wagon bore down on her daughter, time stopped. Verity felt every irregularity in the pebble that bit into her palm, could taste the tang of blood from where she’d bit the inside of her cheek when she fell, could see the dust motes hanging in the air before her.
Please Jesus. Please Jesus. Please Jesus.
She wasn’t sure whether she was uttering the frantic prayer aloud or if it was just shrieking through her thoughts.
From somewhere a woman screamed, but all sounds, save for the wagon’s relentless rumbling progress, seemed to come from a great distance as her world shrunk to only the space between herself and Joy. How could mere feet comprise such a life-or-death distance?
And still Joy didn’t move.
Then, from out of nowhere, Mr. Cooper shot past her, and time sped up with a whoosh. He dove toward Joy, reaching her a heart-stopping split-second before the horse’s hooves would have trampled the child, and pushing her out of the way.
Without remembering having moved, Verity was suddenly kneeling in the road with her weeping daughter clutched tightly against her. Her heart thudded painfully against her chest and her breath came in near-gasps. She’d come so close to losing her precious baby. She could still feel the stab of keening desolation that pierced her the moment she’d realized she couldn’t get to Joy in time, couldn’t cross those few feet that might as well have been a chasm.
This time the prayer she sent up was one of thanksgiving.
So there you have it, three additional senses you can think about and weave into your work when you’re trying to layer in those emotional nuances that are so important.
What do you think? Do you consider Time, Equilibrium and Space true senses, and should they be added to your writing toolbox? What other senses do you play around with when you are adding layers to your work? And as a reader, do these kinds of details draw you in?
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After a life of drudgery on her family's farm, Cassie Lynn Vickers relishes her freedom working in town as a paid companion for feisty Mrs. Flanagan. When her father suddenly demands she come home, she has no choice. Unless she can find a husband. If only she could convince handsome town newcomer Riley Walker to marry her…
Riley is on the run. He's desperate to keep his niece and nephew safe from his crooked half brother. But a delay in Turnabout, Texas, shows him everything he didn't know he was missing: home, family—and Cassie Lynn. Can he find a way to become her Prince Charming…and build a real family with the children and Cassie Lynn?
~~~~Born and raised in the bayou country of southeast Louisiana, Winnie Griggs moved to the opposite corner of the state when she married her college sweetheart over 25 years ago. She and her husband, along with their four teenage children, reside in Plain Dealing, a small community nestled in the piney hill country of northwest Louisiana.
With a BS degree in mathematics and a minor in Computer Science, Winnie has held an 8:00-5:00 job in the Computer Programming/Information Technology field since she graduated from college. But her first love has always been reading and writing romances. During the years preceding her sale she submitted to numerous writing contests and won or placed in many of these. Her biggest thrill, however, came in May of 2000 when she received that dream-come-true call heralding her first sale.
Winnie belongs to numerous writing organizations, including Romance Writers' of America and several of its local and special interest chapters. She is active in these groups as well as in her church - after all, she's a firm believer in the adage that you reap in proportion to what you sow.