When we think of a place, what most easily comes to mind is what we see. When asked to describe a particular place—an office building, for example—most of us will concentrate on what the building looks like: how big it is, what it is constructed of, what color it is, what kind of windows it has, how many stories, doors, and so on. Few of us think in terms of what the building smells like, or sounds like, or even tastes or feels like.
But life is lived in all 5 sense dimensions: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Wherever we are, wherever we go, we are bombarded with sensory impressions on all 5 levels. Yet when we write, we concentrate mostly on sight. The two most important senses, those that most strongly evoke memory and emotion, are scent and taste. But how often are they used in setting descriptions?
To craft scintillating settings, the kind that are vivid and unforgettable to readers, we must incorporate all five senses into them. We must include the same kind of sensory detail that we encounter in everyday life. We cannot rely on one sense alone to convey the true feel of the place, or we run the risk of the setting feeling flat and unremarkable to readers.
How do we learn to include all 5 senses? By rendering the scene 5 times, each time concentrating on one sense only, and then creating an amalgam that incorporates the best of each of those scenes. Yes, it’s a lot of work at first, but after a while you’ll find yourself automatically adding scent and touch and taste and sound to settings you used to render in sight only.
Here is an example from an exercise I did in the writing class I teach. Same scene, rendered from a different sense, then combined at the end. See what you think. How much better is the 5-senses scene than the sight one only? How much more vivid and realistic? Which one would you—and your readers—rather experience?
Sound: The clang of laden metal being plopped onto a hard surface set her heart racing. Skylark, halfway into the room, stopped and looked around. To her left, she could hear a low murmur of voices, and she almost smiled at the covert flirting she could detect in the words. At the table in front of her, someone smacked his lips. Then a slurping sound rose into the air. Paper rattled and crinkled. To her right echoed the ring of a bell and the tick-tinkle of coins hitting a glass surface. Somewhere deep inside the building a voice called out, the sense of urgency in the tone underscoring her own rising fear. Outside, a horn blared and tires screeched. A woman screamed. And Skylark feared she was too late.
Scent: Hot cinnamon hit her nose the moment the door opened and Skylark nearly sneezed. She’d never understood the allure of cinnamon, though to most people it brought a sense of comfort. For her, it felt invasive, an sicky-sweet assault on her senses.
She moved further into the room, searching for her contact who was nowhere in sight. The pungent aroma of dark, rich coffee rose around her as she passed a table, laced with a delicate tracery of vanilla. Her mouth watered. That is more like it, she thought.
As she neared the back counter, a rich earthy scent wafted into the air and corkscrewed into her pleasure center. The underlying bitterness brought a smile to her lips as she thought of the lovely treats that sat on the table at home, awaiting her presence for dessert. She paused beside a towering display, disturbed by the heavy stench of decayed flowers—or so it seemed to her—that shuddered in the wake of the woman ahead of her. An omen, perhaps, considering the commotion that arose in the street just outside the doors. Was she too late?
Texture: The tiles beneath Skylark’s feet felt hard and uncompromising as she strode through the door. She laid a hand on the doorframe, bumpy from layers of years and paint. The cold it had picked up from the outside weather shivered into her. She shuddered. Something was off about this, but she wasn’t sure what.
She moved into the room and paused, ran her fingers over the smooth, satiny surface of a table top, encountering a sticky patch that wanted to take possession of her digits. At the counter, she wrapped her hand around a paper cup. Heat melted into her flesh, bringing a sense of rightness, though her heart didn’t buy it. She felt her fingers sink into the cloying warmth of the Danish she ordered, letting the coarse texture of the bread mix on her tongue with the smoothness of sweet cheese as she chewed.
Her contact wasn’t here. She rubbed her fingers over the cool bumps and ridges of the coins in her pocket, shivering as the coldness slowly warmed to her body temperature, then pulled her hand out, brushing against the plush nubby ridges of her jacket. She ran her fingers through her hair, silken threads that felt as soft as clouds, or satin, knowing she was fidgeting in fear, not boredom. Where was her contact? Had she missed her? Was Skylark too late?
Taste: She could taste cinnamon the moment she walked in the door. With one breath it arrowed deep into her throat and she almost gagged. Damn but she hated cinnamon.
Coffee, she thought as she made a bee-line to the counter, searching for her contact as she moved. The heat burned her tongue and the roof of her mouth as she let the nutty flavor swirl its way down her esophagus, erasing the sicky-sweet taste of the intrusive spice. She ordered a breakfast Danish to go with the coffee, something quick and sugary and slick tasting that made her lick her fingers when she finished. She loved the pasty aftertaste it left in her mouth, the lingering cloy of vanilla, but she didn’t love the fact that her contact hadn’t shown up. What went wrong? Had she arrived too late?
Sight: The aluminum door frame had warped, leaving a gap where the lock met the peeling wood of the building. Not an auspicious start to the day, Skylark thought as she pulled the door open. Why had her client wanted to meet here, on the downturned side of town?
The renovated interior of the place surprised her when she stepped inside. A clean, retro black-and-white tile floor stretched on a diagonal from from to back, neat diamonds gleaming in the overhead lights. Glass topped tables had been strewn across the room, their accompanying wrought iron chairs sporting seat cushions upholstered in bright primary colors. Half the table were occupied by a wide variety of patrons, from droop-panted, dreadlock bearing teens from the projects three blocks over, to suited and coiffed business men and women on temporary leave from nearby offices.
Counters ringed the side and back walls, their shelves filled with delicious looking goodies: cinnamon buns, doughnuts of all shapes and flavors; mouth watering fruit pies; an entire bank of breads in loaves and rounds, adorned with egg washes, seeds, garlic, rosemary, even a variety of cheeses.
To Skylark’s left, an aproned clerk stood behind an old-fashioned cash register that dinged with a pleasing regularity as the line of sweets-worshippers dwindled steadily. Four other clerks served those still making their choices at the counters. Skylark stood searching for her contact among the coffee drinkers at the tables, and those with bags heading for either the register or the front door. To the right, swinging metal doors hid the business side of baking from view, and Skylark wondered if perhaps he were in there. Or was she simply too late?
Combination: The aluminum door frame had warped, leaving a gap where the lock met the peeling wood of the building. Not an auspicious start to the day, Skylark thought as she pulled the door open. Why had her client wanted to meet here, on the downturned side of town?
She could taste cinnamon the moment the door opened. With one breath it arrowed deep into her throat and she almost gagged. She’d never understood the allure of cinnamon, though to most people it brought a sense of comfort. For her, it felt invasive, a sicky-sweet assault on her senses. Damn but she hated cinnamon.
The renovated interior of the place surprised her when she stepped inside. A clean, retro black-and-white tile floor stretched on a diagonal from front to back, neat diamonds gleaming in the overhead lights. They felt hard and uncompromising to her feet as she stepped forward, in stark contrast to the brightly colored cushions on the wrought iron ice cream style chairs that ringed the glass topped tables scattered around the large room.
Counters lined the side and back walls, shelves full of sweet delicacies. An aproned clerk plopped a laden tray onto a counter top. The deep clang of the metal set Skylark’s heart racing. To her left, she heard a low murmur of voices, and she almost smiled at the covert flirting she could detect in the tone. To her right, someone smacked his lips as he slurped from a cardboard cup. The scent of dark, rich coffee rose around her as she walked past the table, laced with a delicate tracery of vanilla. It made her mouth water, and she remembered she’d skipped breakfast today. If she could ignore the cinnamon assaulting her senses, she just might take a few of those chocolate covered doughnuts home with her.
Near the entry doors an old-fashioned cash register dinged with a pleasing regularity as the line of sweets-worshippers dwindled steadily. Skylark searched through the gathered people— droop-panted, dreadlock-bearing teens from the projects three blocks over and suited and coiffed business men and women on temporary leave from nearby offices—but found no trace of her contact. Had she not arrived yet? Or was Skylark too late?
Skylark sighed and moved to the back counter. She pulled a quarter from her pocket and traced her fingers over the smooth ridges of its face as she ordered a cheese Danish and a cup of hazelnut coffee. The soothing motion calmed her nerves, though her gaze kept roving the crowded room. Something felt wrong here. Off somehow. As though it were all staged for her benefit: the deep voice calling from within the bowels of the building, where the business end of the bakery went on unnoticed by customers; the cloying sweetness that rode the warm air; the contrast of the splintery wood exterior and the slick modern interior; the almost manic grins on the clerks behind the counters.
Where was Kelley? She took a sip of the coffee, hot and pungent the way she liked it, then almost dropped the cup when outside the store a horn blared and tires screeched. A woman screamed. And beside Skylark a menacing hulk rose to block her way.