You may have heard of White Room Syndrome – you know, when the writer fails to describe the setting of a scene. But I bet you’ve never heard of Blank Face Syndrome – mostly because I just made it up. And no – it’s not a Taylor Swift song. Blank Face syndrome is when the writer doesn’t bother to use the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and fingertips of their character to bring the reader into their headspace. Regardless of the point-of-view you’ve chosen for your story, engaging the five senses is a crucial component of letting your reader experience the narrative you’ve built.
This week, I’m sharing how I like to use the five senses to bring your book alive for anyone who cracks open the cover. If you do it right, you’ll have them gasping, shuddering, or screaming right alongside your protagonist.
This isn’t just the 360-degree report of what is in their immediate surroundings. Sense of sight might be limited by injury (such as being blind in one eye), mood (have they been crying recently?), or location (is their vision obscured by the tall skyscrapers on either side of them?). Take all this into account when you talk about what they see. And in the less-literal vein, you can always consider more psychological elements like their dreams, fears, and aspirations. Anxiety can powerfully affect vision as well; that feeling of the walls closing in isn’t made up. Evaluate your character’s headspace to figure out how to best describe what they’re seeing in the moment.
For this one, don’t get stuck just thinking about content; remember to address tone, pitch, frequency, and volume as well. For example, you could mention the staccato bursts of the fire truck speeding down the street, or the awkward, whispered pleasantries of funeral-goers. The options are endless – so don’t sell yourself short. Bring the reader into the body of your characters by feeling the sound all through their bones. Maybe it’s the bass-beat rumbling the floor at their feet in the rock concert arena, steadily rising to their knees. Be creative!
This one is pretty straightforward, but my biggest piece of advice is to not shy away from similes. Smells are pretty hard to convey through a book (that is, unless, they’ve started publishing on scratch-and-sniff paper since I last checked). So your best bet is to connect any given smell to something that your reader has likely already experienced. That way, their memories do the heavy lifting so your writing doesn’t have to! So go ahead – compare the character’s nemesis’ breath to that moldy cheese sandwich they found under their bureau. Or maybe their little brother developed an obsession with gummy candy and forever walks around smelling like the Haribo bear factory. Tell it like it is!
Similar to the sense of smell, you definitely have to rely on similes to drive home your point. But the sense of taste does work in a bit of the touch sense as well. You can always say the biscuits Grandma made were soft and delicious – with the texture and sweetness of a peach fresh from the tree. Lips and tongue sensation matters a lot for this one. How many times do you recall not liking a particular food as a kid because the texture was weird? Heck, I’m still that way about room-temperature yogurt. I love it frozen (which is basically just slightly-healthier ice cream). But I refuse to eat it plain all gloppy and mushy. You taste that?
This one can be really fun – particularly in romance novels (or even just fiction with a romantic side-plot). For more help with that, read this article HERE. After all, touch isn’t just describing the physical texture of something. It’s also how it makes your character feel emotionally. Maybe there’s heat with a subtle caress, or a quick brush that’s begging for more. First kisses? They’re magical. Or maybe your character’s a bit like me – someone whose palms are almost perpetually clammy. And maybe they’re a little insecure about that. Maybe it’s temperature-based, like the cold, wet feeling of a steel surface on a chilly night despite the last rainfall being more than a week ago.
The best writers leave no stone unturned – or detail left out. That being said, you don’t want to have details just for the sake of details – that gets real boring real fast. Instead, introduce the five senses in moments that are relevant to your plot. For example, the color of the awning above a bakery down the street from where your character lives is only relevant if it’s a place they visit. Otherwise, it’s totally irrelevant. That’s pretty self-explanatory, but trust me – once you get used to working in all five senses, you’re going to want to add more any chance you get.