A woodland trail lined with clusters of ferns stretches before you. Sunlight streaks through a canopy of leaves to dapple the forest floor with a soft play of light and shadows. Small birds sift for morsels: worms, fallen red berries, an occasional bug or two. Chipmunks dart and bushy-tailed squirrels scamper. A stone wall runs parallel to the path. You stroll along, your dog romping and nosing ahead of you, a smile upon your face. What a glorious day. You're glad you'd decided to take a walk that afternoon.
Easily visualized, right? Of course. But don't you feel cheated, just a little bit?
Many new writers make the mistake of relying solely on sight to tell their tales. Sight is important, no doubt, but so are the other senses. A world, no matter how decorative, will still feel 'flat' if these vital details are withheld.
Take our world, for example. Our world is alive; it pulsates with different sounds, tastes, smells and textures. Thunder booms and lightning crackles. Unsweetened coffee nips at the tongue, hot and bitter. Sulphur burns the nostrils. Hedgehog spines prickle and sweat itches on a hot day. A cornucopia of stimuli surrounds us all the time. Take these away and what do you have? A lack of depth in sensory detail. Our world doesn't rob us of its splendour, so why should you deprive your readers of your story world's delights?
Immersing them in a world rich with sounds, tastes, smells and, yes, even touch, is easier than you might think.
Go ahead, close your eyes. What do you hear? Maybe birds singing or children playing. Cars or construction along a nearby highway. A busy office or a crowded street. All right. Now close your eyes again and really listen.
What do you hear now? Twitters and chirrups, whistles and caws? Giggles and squeals from children, the rhythmic squeak-creak, squeak-creak of swing chains? Perhaps a rumble of cars and the clatter of trucks, the roar and groan of lumbering machinery. Keyboards tap or clickity-clack and papers rustle, rip and tear. Hurried footfalls clomp and stomp. A gathered crowd mumbles and murmurs.
Quite different, isn't it? Yes, because you really listened.
Hearing and listening are two different things. One is the perception of sound through the ear, while the other involves concentration and processing. Writers are in luck. Reading is done mostly with the mind, so the battle is already half-won. We can complete the victory by choosing the right word to express a clear message.
A convenient way to do this is to dabble in onomatopoeia, or the use of words that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to. Crash. Pop. Bang. Splat. Crackle. Ring-ring, ring-ring. There are a ton of them, readily available and all for the taking. They're strong and can easily convey sound without a lot of description.
Paul Stewart of The Edge Chronicles fame is top-notch at using these words to draw his readers into a world of sound. On page 99 of his book Into the Deepwoods, he writes: “The chamber was all but empty when Twig climbed to his feet. He paused. There was another noise. PUFF-PANT, it went. SQUELCH, CLATTER. And again. PUFF-PANT, SQUELCH, CLATTER . . . Twig gasped with terror. Something was approaching. Something he didn't like the sound of one tiny little bit. PUFF-PANT, SQUELCH, CLATTER, G-R-O-A-N!”
Without these words, the obese creature presented later would not be as grotesque as Stewart would like you to imagine. He wanted to push the limits of your mind, wanted you to feel the weight of the upcoming character. And he succeeded. You can do this too, if you take the time to really listen to your story world's sounds. So sit back, close your eyes and concentrate. You might be surprised by what you discover.
Here's something to chew on. How do you get your readers to 'taste' the written word? Short of asking them to lick the page (which would be both silly and fruitless), you might want to build upon familiar tastes. Trust your reader to have a stockpile of them waiting to be coaxed to the forefront of their minds.
Pick flavoursome words.
Sour, hearty, overripe and burnt. Peppery, gingery, oily and crisp. Buttery, spicy, fishy and hot. Bitterness bursts from unsweetened chocolate. Juice flows sweet from the flesh of an apple. Lemons and limes bite the tongue with their tang. Suggest familiar mixtures to describe uncommon combinations: liken beef tongue and leeks to liver and onions, or a kiwi crumble dessert to strawberries and melon. Be creative. Mix and match. Try some unusual ones that contradict your reader's ingrained perceptions. Unflavoured stew? Cardboard. Steak? Leather. Earthworm? A crunchy shoelace. All right. Not many have eaten earthworms, but you get the picture.
Originally, Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, wrote for and read to a specific audience: children at a school for the blind. His stories are therefore laden with 'tasty' descriptions, particularly feasts. Mice and otters, badgers and bank voles alike partook of “tender freshwater shrimp garnished with cream and rose leaves, devilled barley pearls in acorn puree, apple and carrot chews, marinated cabbage stalks steeped in creamed white turnip with nutmeg.” (Redwall, page 22) Raspberry cordial. Hotroot soup. Candied chestnuts. Elderberry wine. Deeper'n ever turnip 'n' tater 'n' beetroot pie. Mmm . . .
Mouth-watering, isn't it?
Chances are you've never tasted any of these concoctions, but because Jacques plays upon familiar tastes, he's able to create something entirely new and entirely delectable. In fact, he's done this so well and so often, that a recipe book based upon common Redwall meals has graced the bookshelves. And I'm happy to say that these meals are indeed delicious.
So go ahead and 'taste' your story world. Sample from the kettles and pots of its kitchens. Steal a piece of fruit or a basket of bread from its market. Order a fancy meal at a restaurant situated along its busy main street. And remember, taste isn't limited to food alone. Be adventurous. What can you uncover?
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in . . . deeply. What do you smell?
If you live in the country, you might detect the aroma of wildflowers, newly cut hay or freshly mowed grass. City dwellers might catch a whiff of street vendors' fare, a hint of sulphur in the subways or the stink of vehicle exhaust. At the ocean, a salty breeze mixes with the smoky odour of bonfire embers and the foetor of beached sea life. No matter what the location, it's bound to be rife with smells. Try to recapture them.
Oftentimes, smell can trigger vivid memories; people are transported elsewhere through a familiar scent. It can bring to life times past and places long gone. A writer can play upon this. Take a passage from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, for example:
“It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell—as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish.” (page 19)
For those readers who know the smells of a barn, this paragraph carries them somewhere they'd been to before; the world of Zuckerman's farm is a more complete. However, White also pieces together some familiar smells with unfamiliar ones—rubber boots, new rope, fish (familiar) to the perspiration of horses, the breath of cows, harness dressing (unfamiliar)—so as not to isolate those who have never been to a farm. He trusted the reader to have a catalogued range of smells connected to certain ideas and he used them to his advantage.
But what about the absence of smell? This can be just as important as its presence, especially when that smell is prevalent; it can work to signal the reader of something amiss. A character who arrives every night to a house filled with the delicious aroma of a home-cooked meal would be unnerved, or at least confused, if he stepped through the door and smelled nothing. He would sense something wrong, and this would ultimately goad him into discovering why.
Now revisit your story world's kitchens, markets or restaurants. Venture into the deepest crevasses, the hottest deserts, the widest oceans. Take a trip to the nearest woodland or civilization. Once there, breathe in deeply. What scents can you use to transport your reader?
Touch is physical. Touch is real. Touch is an integral part of our lives. But as a writer, it's impossible (if not downright freaky) to sit beside your reader and dole out the necessary tactile sensations. So, what to do? Consider this.
In Stephen King's short story "Autopsy Room Four" (part of the Everything's Eventual collection), a man receives a paralyzing snake bite and is assumed dead. He's conscious, but unable to communicate and he's about to be dissected. For this, King has conjured up an interesting batch of simulated tangibles for his readers to enjoy:
“I can feel them [my lips]—and my tongue, lying on the floor of my mouth like a stunned mole—but I can't move them.” (page 19)
“My eyelids are like blinds on broken rollers.” (page 22)
“The tie, tickling across my forehead like a feather.” (page 23)
“My teeth open and close at the rough urging of his hand; my tongue rises and falls like a dead dog riding the surface of an uneasy waterbed.” (page 24)
A stunned mole, blinds on broken rollers, a feather, and a dead dog on an uneasy waterbed. These bits of description add 'feeling' to their respective sentences; it's not quite enough without them. Mood-setting images connect the written word to the sensation, and help the reader to perceive them more easily. In "Autopsy Room Four," King aimed to elicit feelings of defencelessness and vulnerability. He managed to do just that.
Similes, like those above, can create strong tactile sensations, but so can action verbs. Silk scarves can glide through fingers and tight shoes can pinch feet. Burlap sacks can scratch and knife points can pierce skin. And who says that words related to touch are out of the question? Elastic, fleshy, fragile and furry. Spongy, steamy, sticky and warm. Bumpy, smooth, slippery and sharp. They're there, why not try some out?
Reach out and 'touch' the various things in your story world. Plant yourself in one of its rooms. Pick up and handle the objects there. What do you feel? Try unique ways to convey these to your reader.
Let's go back to the forest.
Along the woodland trail, you pause for a moment and close your eyes. Gone are the streaks of sunlight and the play of light and shadow on the forest floor. Gone are the clusters of ferns lining the path and the long stone wall that runs parallel to it. You stand alone, sightless, yet the woods around you comes alive.
The sun warms your skin. Twittering birds rustle through a carpet of dead leaves as they sift for morsels: worms, fallen berries, an occasional bug or two. A stray breeze wafts the earthy aroma of moist soil to your nose. You catch a whiff of something sweet, much like honey-lemon tea, and recall honeysuckle vines sprawled across the stone wall. Ahead of you, a wet sploosh! sends a handful of squirrels into a whirlwind of confused chatters. Now you're really glad you'd decided to take a walk that afternoon. You would have missed so much.
A spongy nose presses into the palm of your hand, drawing you from your reverie. You open your eyes. There sits your dog, drenched to the bone and reeking like a swamp, a smell that sticks to the back of your throat. You pull a face. Ugh. Disgusting. But he's happy. He pants—h, h, h, h, h—a fat pink tongue lolling from his mouth. And you can't help but smile.
Sound, taste, smell and touch. Used in conjunction with sight, these four senses can help create depth and breathe life into a story world. A writer shouldn't be afraid to flesh it out as much as he would any character. Sensory description, portioned out in just the right places, can do more than enhance a reader's enjoyment of the world; it can envelop him.
So be brave, go ahead and tickle your readers' senses. They're sure to delight in your attention to detail.