Human beings have five basic senses, which means that writers who are trying to make readers experience their novels have five basic senses to work with.
But the senses aren’t equal. We weigh them differently.
Seeing is believing. The sense of sight is all about knowing truth, knowing what really happened. “I saw what you did. I’m an eyewitness!” Such claims hold great weight with us. We want to know what really happened. People who saw it with their own eyes know better than anyone. So, as a writer, whenever you want readers to believe something without question, show them what happened.
“I heard that you were going to be the homecoming queen. The grapevine says that you and Ron are an item.” Hearing is not about believing or truth. It is about what the community understands to be the truth. It is about what everyone is saying–about possibilities. Think even of hearing something go bump in the night. It’s a possibility. It’s not the same as seeing a ghost. It’s all about thinking there might be one. It’s all about belief.
Now, let’s think about feeling. Every word for touch is also a word for emotion. Hard, cold, soft, warm, smooth, rough, scaly, fuzzy–the world of touch is also the world of emotion. So, if you want the character to make an emotional bond, have him or her touch something.
Smell is, for humans, a very dulled sense. Walk through the primate house of any zoo, and you’ll understand why. Just to put up with each other, we had to lose most of our sense of smell. What remains is only to tell the goodness or badness of something. If you want to decide whether milk is still good, you might look at the expriration date, but more likely, you’ll sniff the bottle. And what of idioms like, “The sweet smell of success” or “I smell a rat” or “Everything’s coming up roses?” Such idioms show that smell tells us if something is good or bad. So, as a writer, have your main character walk into a room that smells vaguely of rotting flesh. Have the same person walk into a room that smells vaguely of Easter lilies. The effect could not be more profound.
Taste: well, it’s related to smell. It’s about the goodness or badness of something, but it is also about its position in society. Good taste doesn’t mean something that tastes good (for example, bratwurst), but rather something that is approved by the upper classes (for example, cavier). Taste in food, wine, music, architecture, and art start with the good or bad, but end with the high class or low class. So, if you want a character to appear high-class, let him serve a 1963 Italian merlot. If you want him to appear low class, it should be a Boone Farms ripple,
So, before writers even begin to worry about extrasensory perception, they should think about sensory perception. Let people see what really happened, hear and know what others believe, feel in more ways than one, smell for wholesomeness, and taste for social standing. It’s what we all do every day. If characters in a novel do the same thing, readers can live vicariously through them.December 12th, 2009
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