As we head into autumn, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, the Prime Writers are turning their attention, fingers, tongues and noses to the senses – the lush, the plush, the squelchy and all the rest.
Today, we join Andrea Bennett, author of Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story, to examine what the senses can add to our writing.
Do you think story-telling has changed since we became glued to our TVs? Is there an emphasis on the visual, even when it comes to written stories? I contend that there is – that and SPELLING THINGS OUT – and I want to fly the flag for the senses – all of them – and the role they play in our individual understanding and interpretation of the world and its stories. I say: let the senses illuminate the story, use words that make the reader imagine, and leave room for interpretation.
After all, if as writers we want to do our best to stick with “show, don’t tell”, what better way than engaging the senses to examine how our characters feel and react, and to elicit a response from our readers? I, for one, want my readers to feel, and respond – through gut feelings and emotions, with laughter, tears and the odd ‘Yuk!’
Here is the opening sentence of Chapter 13 of Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story to demonstrate:
‘Mitya wiped his face with the proffered towel, and felt the wet ghost of someone else’s ball sack smear across his mouth and nose.’
See? I haven’t described what the towel looked like, it’s colour, it’s smell or anything, but the reader knows what it feels like, and smells like, and knows that Mitya is in quite a bad place…Hopefully. He’s not having tea round at Nana’s, anyway.
For me, a sensual description adds to reality and gives it another layer of meaning, without needing to become purple prose. When describing an event or situation, we need to look at it from a deeper point of view so that it makes an impression, elicits a feeling or illuminates a character. For example, if you didn’t know what an abattoir was, and I described one to you, just what it looked like from the outside, you’d probably think it was an ordinary kind of innocuous manufacturing building. But if I described the sounds of the abattoir, and the smells, you might put together a very different picture, and it may not be a building you’d be happy to go inside. And I could do that without telling you what it looked like at all.
After all, what something looks like can sometimes give us little clue as to its true nature, and the same goes for people. It’s only when we use the full range of our senses that we get those so-called gut feelings that are so important. It’s the same for portraying character and emotion in a story.
It’s also fascinating that the way we interpret messages from our senses is different depending on how old we are, previous experience and what is ‘normal’ for us. When I was little I had a favourite teacher. He was young and energetic and really encouraged my writing – even though I was only 7. This teacher had a very specific smell, which was always with him. To me, it was like Cornish pasties, and I liked it, because I liked him, and I associated the two. Another teacher, a bit older, smelled very specific too: spicy, like old wood. I liked that smell as well – it was ancient and wise. It was only once I was older that I realised my favourite teacher smelled of stale sweat, and the other teacher reeked of old pipe tobacco. Now that you and I know those things, dear reader, do we make a few assumptions about what those people were like, and their personal hygiene habits, at the very least? I think we do. As a child, it never crossed my mind.
I keep coming back to smell because it is such an amazing sense and it can be so evocative. The other day I smelled a smell that took me right back to a hotel I’d stayed in with my parents when I was 11. And that was 1980, so we’re talking a long time ago. It was the EXACT SMELL and was so clear it gave me goose bumps. It was a physically creepy feeling, because it was almost like magic – you can time-travel with the right smell. And as writers, how can we say no to time travel?
So next time you’re writing and you need to describe some building or person or event, stop and consider the following for a moment:
- Your favourite person / pet in the world – when you cuddle up with them, do you close your eyes and breathe in deeply? Of course you do, because you love their smell, and it makes their presence the realist real
- Your favourite piece of clothing – it probably looks OK, but isn’t it the way it feels on your skin that makes it your favourite?
- Think of a favourite taste from your childhood. Are you smiling now?
- Which is worse to step on in bare feet, and why:
- A slug
- A wasp
My advice is: feel the magic, do some time travel and use the senses to give your characters, and your readers, a breath of real life.
Andrea Bennett is a novelist, short story writer and playwright who lives in Ramsgate, England. Her first novel, Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story, was published in the UK by The Borough Press in 2015. Her second novel, Two Cousins of Azov (or You Can’t Pickle Love) will be published in June 2017, also by The Borough Press.