11.12.17

Your High School Science Teacher was Wrong (and your writing instructor, too)


Writers must think about description. A lot. We're told to paint a 
 unforgiveable picture in words, then we're told not to overdo it and bore the reader. We're told to write vivid prose, then we're reminded to remember pacing. It's drilled into us that three pages of scenery description worked in Victorian novels, but not today. But there's one piece of description-writing 
advice we hear above all: Remember the Five Senses.

Closeup of hands enjoying and playing with cool beach sand in a bucket on a picnic table royalty-free stock photo


What many writing instructors really mean by this is to get out of our knee-jerkism regarding visual descriptions and dip into those other big four: sound, smell, taste, and touch. Many of us are diligent about it. Every meal in a novel becomes a sensual, olfactory, mouth watering experience or the opposite, the heroines are so down, even melted chocolate and fresh Turkish coffee cannot cheer them.
Turns out your high school science textbook and writing workshop advice needs a reboot and this is great news for your writing. There may be as many as seven or twenty-one human senses. There are whole worlds of senses to integrate into our descriptions, and no reason to recycle the same old five on every page.
Why harp on touch when you can go for itch? This is a completely distinct sensor system from touch. We read hundreds of pages in which characters 
might be itching to get out of a room, but are they so itchy, they can't think ?

What about incorporating equilibrioception (our sense of balance) into one of your characters? Magnetoception anyone? This is the ability to detect magnetic fields, which is truly handy when you don't know where you are. There are a myriad of ways these senses can be used in sci-fi, fantasy, horror or realism.

Is your character oblivious to time? Many of us have an unbelievably accurate sense of time passing. Something to consider in character description. Short and long passing of time probably come from two different parts of our brain. So who in your novel has which one? And what are the stakes? I remember one participant in my class writing an entire story based on this. The couple felt they had to leave their time-conscious American culture for Mexico because they just couldn't fit in. Ouch! Speaking of pain, pain receptors are separate from our overall sense of touch. How about a character with a very high or very low 
sense of pain?


Blindfolded woman walking through lightbulbs searching bright idea royalty-free stock photo
Proprioception is the ability to distinguish our body parts from the rest of the world and move them. Consider a character who lacks this sense. She can't scratch her back because she can't find it. 

This doesn't mean you should ditch our old description companions, the five senses, but do expand your ways of thinking about them. 

Many of us were taught that humans have a relatively weak sense of smell (compared to dogs or elephants, for example). That's a myth and humans can smell over one trillion scents.
So, break out of the "my character can only pick up on overpowering smells like coffee and baked bread" and explore subtle scents your character can notice, without worrying that it's unrealistic or some sort of super power, if that's not 
where you want to go.
As for taste, ditch the incorrect notion that there's sweet, sour, salty and bitter. 
We have savory to add (cheese, meat) and maybe even fat and calcium. Scientists are split on that, but we don't have to be. 

Go ahead. Make your heroine bite into that sandwich and be disgusted or charmed by the fatty taste. It will make your story that much more fresh and delicious to read.   

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