Words into Worlds
“The best descriptive writers are the best observers—of sight and sound, smell and taste, of texture”
- Adam Sexton in Master Class in Fiction Writing
Have you ever found yourself walking down the street, alone at night when no one else is around? Or maybe you were taking a walk through a busy city park in the daytime? Maybe it wasn’t a park but a food market... an exotic food market. Maybe you weren’t even in your home country, maybe you were on an adventure. Could you describe it to me using sights and sounds, smells and tastes and even how things felt when you touched them?
The senses are visceral. We all (mostly) have them and we operate with them daily, most of time without thinking about it. When we smell burnt rubber while driving by the woods, chances are we know it was a skunk. The stench is real, tangible, and very, very disgusting (for most people.) We know it because we have experienced it first hand. For those who have never smelled a skunk, the way a person who has smelled it describes the awful stench can bring it to life in a very real, tangible and disgusting way. Another example would be food. Some people inhale their meals, only enjoying the taste briefly. Others will let their food linger in their mouth so they can appreciate both texture and tastes, of which there are so many to try—salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami, spicy, and so forth. What happens when you try to tell someone about the most delicious meal you ever had. Would you just say- it tasted good. Nothing against ‘good’, but when it comes to description it doesn’t tell us very much because it is too general, too vague. Even just using the word food is non-descript. What kind of food? How did it taste? What did it smell like? What did it feel like when you touched it, put it in your mouth? Was there an aftertaste? The best writers examine all angles of the senses to create memorable descriptions.
“Creative writing isn’t about the writer. It’s about the reader, having an experience... it serves readers... creative writing is about seeing” (Sellers). When you use description to paint the scenes for your readers, you need to ask yourself- what do I want them to see, to hear, to taste, to touch, to smell? What senses do I want my reader to employ while reading and how can I make sure they do so? Adam Sexton tells readers in his book, Master Class in Fiction Writing, that “the best descriptive writing is primarily concrete. It appeals to our senses first, and then to our emotions and thoughts” (85). He suggests that a writer should “strive to include at least one intimate sensation in every scene” (86). Intimate sense are the sense of smell, taste, and texture (touch) while what we see and what we hear are require less proximity to experience. A good writer will learn to use all the senses, but they can only do that through observation. “Stop, look, and listen. Smell. Touch. Taste. Observe” Adam Sexton pleads (84).
Once you have stopped to smell the skunks and spent time observing the way the wind blows trash down the street, then you can focus on describing it to your reader with precision. It won’t just be something you try to imagine, you will have some personal experience to back it up. Obviously, this cannot work for every situation that one might write. I can’t truly know what a dragon would smell like or feel like, seeing how there are no real dragons alive today. However, I can experience what a snake or gator or other lizard-like creature feels or smells like and then create my character off of something that I can describe in more concrete terms. “Specific concrete nouns and clear action verbs intensify images” (Sellers) When writing fiction, especially about unknown things (worlds, races, plants, etc.) there must be something similar that you can tie these objects to in order to capture them in accurate, descriptive detail. Spend time out in the world, around people and things, and see what inspires you.
For more practice you can go HERE and check out the description worksheets available to download for free.
I also challenge you to practice writing with the senses by using flash fiction stories. Try focusing on one of the senses, maybe one you have never tried before, and see if you can take the same scene and write it through different senses. Let me know how you faired by leaving a comment in the box below.
Happy Writing Tip Tuesday!
Sellers, Heather. The Practice of Creative Writing. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2013. Print.
Sexton, Adam. Master Class in Fiction Writing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Print.