J. Robert King

Sensory Perception

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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6 Responses to “Sensory Perception”

  1. Joshua Says:

    Very interesting about how to deliberately use the different senses in stories. Could have used those tips in high school during creative writing. Thanks!

  2. Rob King Says:

    Thanks, Joshua! I hope you’re still doing some creative writing. With me, it’s a compulsion. Description helps me not only communicate ideas to readers but also experience the story myself.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  3. Curtis Says:

    I have for over thirty years read/heard various writers, writing instructors, and associated gurus attempt to explain “Sensory Perception” in lengthy chapters and long lectures. I early on decided it was the comic relief portion of their offerings.

    You, Sir, nailed it in a single page! I realize such a short article would diminish the length of many a writing book. But, the reader would understand what ” Sensory Perception” was all about.

    I salute you.

  4. admin Says:

    Thanks, Curtis! I’m glad to help. It’s great to hear from someone who appreciates the finer points of writing!

  5. Joshua Says:

    I just read an interesting article by David Pogue (Tech writer for New York Times) about how common analog sounds are fading from our society. It brought me back to this post of yours about how to connect readers to what’s happening.

    Just curious what your thoughts are on this now that new readers won’t have the same association with sounds that were previously part of our daily lives? Maybe a new blog post?


  6. Rob King Says:

    What a brilliant article, Joshua. Thanks for sharing it!

    Yes, when I was first starting out in the publishing industry 23 years ago, I bemoaned our shift from the sounds of industrial age machines to computer-age machines. I had (still have) a 1923 Underwood typewriter that I used throughout college to write my papers, and there was something viscerally satisfying about the scrape and clank of that thing, the ratcheting of the gears, and tink of that tiny bell, the grating of the carriage return. My typewriter had so much more character than my computer, with its plastic keys and its green-glowing screen, the dot-matrix printer that burbled and grunted and then shrieked its way, a quarter of a line at a time, across the page.

    Now, the sounds of that printer are gone, as well. Our modern printers are demure things, only occasionally scraping the next sheet out of the tray.

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