This article was written by Maxwell Traenor from UFOP: StarBase 118
We as writers are used to “painting a picture” with our words. Setting a scene that our characters inhabit is arguably the most important part of our writing in order to immerse the reader fully into the universe our characters live and breathe in. But, the phrase “paint a picture” can be deceptive. It implies sight, as in describing how the world looks through our character’s eyes. But sight is far from our only sense. Utilizing all five senses can be surprisingly effective to really hook the reader and help them empathize with your characters’ experiences.
One little trick that really makes the reader stop and take notice is the transposition of one sense to describe another. Though it needs to be used sparingly in order to not seem overly contrived and even possibly confusing, this strategy to really implant the experience you are trying to describe can be used to great effect. Let’s take a look at an example:
“He listened intently to the mournful caramel notes of the french horn as it swelled through the crescendo of the piece.”
Note the use of the word ‘caramel’. What does caramel sound like? Nothing really, I’m willing to wager, and at first blush it would seem to be a strange word to use to describe a sound. But then, what type of sensory memories does ‘caramel’ evoke? A sweet, buttery taste; a rich, warm color; a thick, soft, sticky texture… And when you apply these types of descriptors to the sound, you can start to appreciate how the character feels about the sound he is hearing, and better still, can start to relate. Even if you’ve never heard a french horn, you can already imagine how it would feel to hear it.
Why does this work? It is because we as humans inherently use multiple senses to form an experience of any stimulus. A great example is eating your favorite food. We immediately think of taste. However, there is also sight, as in the presentation and eye appeal. Ever heard the phrase “We eat first with our eyes”? There is the scent, that mouthwatering aroma. There is touch, as in mouth feel, or even the heft of it as we bring it to our mouths. There is even the sound it makes as we cut into or break it, or as we are chewing it. How about explosions, such as fireworks? Of course there is the dazzling sight as stars of colors flood our eyes. But there is also the loud cracking sound of the blast, the percussive feel resonating through our bodies, and even the smell and taste of acrid gunsmoke in our nose and at the back of our throat.
For the sake of ease and brevity, we as writers often refer to the dominant sense stimulated by the item or event that we are trying to describe. However, to really flesh out and brighten the descriptions that you are trying to convey, try implementing several senses, or even novel and unexpected juxtaposition of senses to really hook the reader and sell your setting.