Sunday, August 23, 2009

Escape into Sensation

The senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch are all represented in Giuseppe Recco's Still-life with the Five Senses. Mary Reed McCall suggests using all of them when writing romance:
One of the best ways to bring a scene to life is to employ the six senses. And yes, there are six! All too often, authors seem to focus on the two most common of these - sight and sound. Perhaps this happens because most of us tend to rely on our eyes and ears most in our own lives. But what about taste, touch, smell - and instinct? [...] The use of sense powerfully ties readers to your characters, because it is what allows them to empathize - to "remember" those same experiences through the perspective of your character.
Laura DeVries has written that she
heard a best-selling author admit she doesn’t consider a scene complete until she’s included at least a mention of all five senses. She has gone so far as to write the words see, touch, hear, taste and smell above her computer screen. I know another writer who found herself stuck on a particular scene until she decided to try to write it with her eyes closed. The technique worked. By closing off the most over-used and familiar sense - sight - she had opened her imagination to the other four. What she learned was that by restricting herself to the visual representation, she had been missing the other sensual aspects important to that scene. The richness those other sensations added to her writing astonished and delighted her.
Evidently many romance writers make a particular effort to engage their readers' senses. But how do readers respond?

Jessica's got a very interesting post up
about "escape" in the context of the romance genre in which she describes the reading process:
reading a novel requires the exercise of imagination. Your mind has to take authors’ descriptions of smells and tastes and places and people, and work them up into something real. Together, readers and writers create a unique sensory journey with every book.
Given that Tumperkin, writing about Sherry Thomas's Delicious, said that
I know that I've read food descriptions and references galore in other novels - but unless it's woven into the emotional heart of the story, I don't think it makes more than a passing impact on me.
it seems that perhaps some readers respond more strongly and more frequently to descriptions involving the senses than others do. Some of us may not respond to them much at all. It wasn't until I got to secondary school that I realised that for some people the phrase "the mind's eye" actually had some meaning, and was a good way of describing the way in which they could visualise images which were not directly in front of them. Some people can hear music playing in their heads, even when there's no external source of music to listen to. Yet others can recreate the tastes of food they've sampled, long after the meal has been digested. I haven't yet met anyone who can imagine smells, but perhaps, given what she's written, Jessica can.

I don't escape, via books, into a world of colour, sights, smells, sounds or tastes. I wonder how this shapes my reading experiences. I'm sure it must do, at least to some extent. How do you feel (and see, smell, etc) about the reading process?


Edited to add: At her own blog Jessica's written about the sense of smell in particular and she has some advice for romance authors:
When I started reading romance, I used to be very jarred by the keen senses of smell our heroes and heroines possess. Apparently, every lover has a bouquet, and our h/hs are always — always – connoisseurs. [...] Some smells are overused (sandalwood, I’m smelling at you), and some are just lazy (”man”, “woman”. I’m waiting for the truly liberated romance h/h who thinks, “Hmmm. Smells like person!” Or even more inclusively, “Smells like living organic matter!”).

But here’s where I draw the line: the trend of h/h’s being able to smell psychic states. I don’t care how in love or turned on you are. You can not smell states of mind.


  1. I tend to see books as films (sometimes animated, sometimes not). So colour and sights - yes. Sounds and smells - no.

    I see my own books as films, too, though I also try to incorporate more senses than just sight and sound. However, smell and taste present a bit of a problem, don't they? After all, in normal life we don't really notice smells unless they're particularly pleasant or unpleasant, or simply different from what we are used to.

    Descriptions of taste and, hence, food are even trickier in some ways. After all, in most cases we (as authors and readers) don't really know what food tasted like in the past (fermented Roman fish soup, anybody?). Regency hot chocolate, for example, would have been very different from hot chocolate today and, I guess, most of us would find the greasy pools of cacao butter floating on top of a cup of Regency hot chocolate very unappetising. Such details are typically glossed over in (romance) fiction. Most authors rather tend to emphasise the familiar, which also makes it easier for the reader to enter the fictional world.

    The only fictional food I remember is Rosemary Sutcliff's honey-cakes. And, of course, the Ankh-Morporkian rat-onna-stick. Who could forget that?

  2. "in normal life we don't really notice smells unless they're particularly pleasant or unpleasant, or simply different from what we are used to."

    I notice when there's a new smell. It doesn't have to be particularly nice or horrible, just different from what's already in my vicinity. Smells bring back memories for me in a much more immediate way than any other sense, I think. There's been some research done on this:

    Whole memories, complete with all associated emotions, can be prompted by smell. This is entirely unconscious and cannot necessarily be prompted voluntarily although countless studies have shown that recall can be enhanced if learning was done in the presence of an odour and that same odour is presented at the time of recall.


    Despite our belief that sight and hearing are the two most important senses to our survival, from an evolutionary perspective smell is one of the most important senses. To recognize food or to detect poison, smell is the sense that almost all other mammals use. Because of this basic feature yet vital role, smell is one of the oldest parts of our brain. Trygg Engen, a psychology professor at Brown University notes that smells serve as "index keys" to quickly retrieve certain memories in our brain. This primitive yet essential role is probably why smells trigger memory more than does seeing or hearing.

    That said, writers can't evoke smells for me, but then, they can't make me see, taste, hear or touch things either.

  3. I've just come across something about this topic in Essie Summers' Season of Forgetfulness, so it seemed fun to mention it here. The heroine's working as a secretary for a writer-hero, and they're discussing words and writing:

    I've read that in writing, the sense of smell, described, is the most evocative of all. That it's better to say someone paused by a lilac than by a bush. The reader gets the perfume. (59)

    Summers, Essie. Season of Forgetfulness. London: Mills & Boon, 1983.