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Examining the Elements of a Novel: Using the Senses

Copyright © 2014 George Green and Lizzy Kremer. All rights reserved.

Here’s a look at ways in which you can make sure that the story you’re writing has something in it that appeals to all your readers.

Saying to a writer, ‘You need to use the senses’, isn’t very startling. It would be difficult to imagine how someone might write something that didn’t use at least one sense! If you’re a writer, you will almost certainly have written physical descriptions of some sort, which usually tell the reader what the writer is looking at (if it’s non-fiction) or what the writer wants the reader to imagine (if it’s fiction). So, the visual sense is something most people are familiar with and use widely in their writing.

What’s interesting is looking at the other senses. Psychologists say that most people have a hierarchy of senses – they have one sense that they rely on overwhelmingly and the other senses much less so, often in a sort of ranking. So, for example, you might be a very visual person who also relies on hearing a bit, but you aren’t so concerned with smell, taste or touch. The majority of people are visual, with hearing the next most popular sense, though it’s quite a way behind.

The problem that individual writers have is that they tend to rely on their own predominant sense in what they write, too. Doing so is easy, and it comes naturally – too naturally, in fact. By all means write visually if that is your predominant sense, though don’t forget that not only do visual people have four other senses, but there are a lot of people who aren’t predominantly visual, and when they read very visually-orientated writing they say to themselves ‘That’s all very well, but I can’t hear / touch / smell it’. Your writing may be very good, but it won’t ‘speak’ to them.

The point is not to fundamentally alter your writing style but to be very aware of what you’re doing when you write. (This is, of course, a good general rule to observe anyhow.) Some situations are best described visually, with a few nods to whatever other senses are involved – a landscape might be a feast for the eyes, but there may also be the touch of the wind, the smells of flowers and animals, and you might be eating an ice-cream. Such details enrich the overall description.

Describing other situations may be less visually loaded – food, for example, is a visual experience, but most people would also want to know what it smelt and tasted like. You need to run a ‘sense-check’ on your writing. There’s no need to be obsessive about the balance – just make sure that you aren’t heavily favouring one sense at the expense of the others or, if you are, that you’re doing so deliberately.

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