And yet this actually happens all the time: whenever we read a book or watch a movie. When we sit down to watch a film, the only two senses that will get stimulated are what you see and hear. Okay, sure: you can watch the actors tucking into a juicy hamburger and your stomach will rumble, but that's just tapping into the natural empathy we all carry.
With books, it's even less of a direct stimulation. All the reader sees is words, and from this it’s up to them to conjure the experience within their imagination.
It's a big ask, if you think about it. It puts a lot of the work on the reader. Well, work is the wrong word - if done right it’s a pleasurable experience - but do you know what doesn't help? When the author is limiting the description to only what one should be seeing.
Let me explain. The thing is, when we talk about the imagination and using the power of words to conjure an image within the reader's head, we automatically think of building a picture and a picture only. Perhaps, now and then, we’ll throw in the description of a sound. Now it’s true that these are perhaps the two most important senses required to be transported into a fictional world, but if we rely on using the sight of something or someone to the reader, it can quickly get flat and tedious.
Imagine if you introduced all of your characters by describing their hair colour, their clothes and their eyes. It makes the differences between your characters seem superficial. Now, imagine throwing in the fact that one of your characters reeks of the pungent stench of cheap aftershave, or has coarse, rough skin on the fingertips, then you start to build this much more vivid, powerful image in the reader’s mind as they imagine their own real senses feeling them in the same way.
That’s not to say that one should be bending over backwards to describe every single sight, sound, smell, feel and taste. No, the key thing is knowing when is the best time to evoke what sense, as each triggers certain emotions and taps into the readers subconscious in certain ways.
For example, the sense of touch is how we experience pain and pleasure. If I ask you now to imagine being headbutted in the nose then you may wince a little, because you can imagine that pain – not from the look at it, but from how it feels. Now, if I wish I can add another layer to it by describing the acrid taste of blood on the lips, streaming down from the nostrils. I’m pretty sure you have all experienced the same taste of your own blood, so I’m tapping into your own experiences and knowledge here. Even neutral feelings which are neither pleasurable nor painful, such as running a hand over the soft damp moss on an old headstone, are useful at evoking a certain vibe in the reader.
The sense of smell is great for transporting readers back on a wave of nostalgia. All the writer needs to do is mention the taste of Mother’s apple pie and you get this powerful sense that digs up old memories. But they don’t always have to be nice memories, as it can trigger negative memories in your characters. Perhaps your character may smell the sea from his car window and shudder as he recalls the exact same smell on that fateful night 20 years ago. And of course, unpleasant smells are also useful for building that more complete image of a place. A detective may walk into an abandoned house, and your first priority may be to describe the yellowing walls and the sound of the buzzing light bulbs, but why not also mention the smell of sour milk from the old refrigerator?
Taste is somewhere between touch and smell, as it is another sense which evokes either pleasure or misery, but there’s also an element of digging up old memories to it. Cold custard both conjures up an unpleasant taste as well as reminding readers of their old school lunches, which is fascinating because for your older readers that would be an unpleasant taste they recall, yet a fond memory of a time long ago, so it’s a complex reaction. And that’s a good thing! The sense of taste is probably the one that you’ll use the least in fiction writing, but when it is applied correctly it can be the strongest of any sense, especially when it is the taste of another person’s salty, cracked lips.
Correctly applying the full range of senses pulls your writing closer to the experience of real life, and will make your writing much more powerful and immersive to the reader.