Monday, September 22, 2008

The Novelist: Sensual Writing

We have five major senses and several minor ones we aren’t even consciously aware of. The major ones include sight, hearing, smelling, touch, and taste.

In the April 2000 issue of Fiction Writer Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, tells us that we are biologically and psychologically designed “for intense experience in a richly sensual world. But we find ourselves in a senses-depleted world, a world limited largely to visuals, and ersatz ones at that.” She suggests that our readers are starving for sensual information. “For fiction writers, the senses are not only a window onto external reality, but also the gateway into the inner realms.”

As writers we are in a unique position (at least for now) to describe what the visual media can’t (yet). We can provide our readers with a rich spectrum of sensuality such as what a place smells like, the texture of an object, the taste of a food, as well as the nuances of light and sound. Readers don’t just “watch” a character in a book; they enter the character’s body and “feel”.

So, how do writers satisfy the readers need to experience the senses fully? Description, yes. But how cold is cold? What does snow really smell like? What color is that sunset? How do you describe the taste of wine to a teetotaler?

Ultimately, literal description doesn’t quite cut it. To have the sense really sink in and linger with the reader, the sense should be linked to the emotions and memories of the character experiencing it. By doing this, you are achieving several things at the same time:
· You are describing the sense as the character is experiencing it—emotionally;
· You are revealing additional information on the character through his/her reaction; and,
· You are likely creating a more compelling link for the reader’s own experience of the sense.

How is this done? There are several tools a writer may use to achieve this. Here are a few:
· Use metaphor to describe the sense
· Link the sense to memories
· Use synesthesia (cross-sensory metaphor) to describe the sense
· Link the sense psychologically to an emotion or attitude
· Relate to the sense in a different way (e.g., a visual scene from the point of view of a painter)

The most compelling fiction arises when “truth” is portrayed obliquely, when objects or scenes are described through “impression”, or what I call truth-interpreted, rather than through literal description. Janet Fitch recommends that you “come in at an angle, obliquely, the way you approach all things evanescent.” This is where metaphor plays an important role. Of course, it goes without saying that for this to work, the writer must use appropriate metaphors.

The use of metaphor does several things when used to describe an object or place through one or several senses: it adds a dimension of emotion, tone and direction.

Janet Fitch (in Fiction Writer, April 2000) provides a good example of use of metaphor to describe the sky. The richest, most vivid words, she says, are words that use more than one sense at a time. She compares the term “yellow sky”, which provides one sense (vision) to a “lemon sky”, which gives you not only a visual sense but suggests taste, smell and even texture. The metaphor of “lemon” suggests an emotional as well as a vivid sensual description.

Smell and Memory
While all five of our senses can be linked to memories, two of them stand out. Smell and taste let us sample the chemicals around us for information. According to the California Institute of Technology, smell is generally considered the sense tied most closely to human memory, profoundly influencing people’s ability to recall past events and experiences. “Memory lies coiled within us like a magician’s trick handkerchief, and a simple smell or taste can pluck the tiniest corner and pull out the world,” says Janet Fitch.

“Smell is different from all the other senses in a very special way. A smell from your distant past can unleash a flood of memories that are so intense and striking that they seem real,” says Dr. Karl (Kruszelnicki), author of Great Moments in Science (1984) and science host of ABC Radio (Australia). “This kind of memory, where an unexpected re-encounter with a scent from the distant past [that] brings back a rush of memories, is called a ‘Proustian Memory’ ”, based on Marcel Proust’s sensual description of the smell of a madeleine cake dipped into a lime-blossom tea in his book Swan’s Way.

The sense of smell was no doubt one of the first senses to evolve in living creatures; it told us what was safe to eat. The sense of smell also affects behavior, such as finding a mate, synchronizing menstrual cycles, and communicating with the other animals in your group. Dr. Karl tells us that “women can tell (by the smell of swabs taken from the armpit) who has been watching happy or sad movies (men are not so good at this). A breast-feeding baby can differentiate the smell of his or her mother, from any other nursing mother. Dogs and horses can smell fear in humans.”

Ironically, smell, along with taste, is often neglected in our own overt observations and in writing. By consciously attending to these two senses alone, the writer is assured of engaging the reader’s more deeply rooted sensuality.

It might be useful to list some of your favorite or most powerful smells that you can remember. Here are some that my family members and I came up with over the dinner table:
· Freshly cut grass
· My lover’s neck
· Cold snow
· The interior of a new car
· Baking bread
· Wood burning fireplace
· Forest just after a rainstorm
· Freshly shampooed hair
· My own pillow
· My cat when he just comes in from outside

Synesthesia is the use of one sense to describe another. It is a powerful tool in the hands of a skillful writer and at the root of compelling and imaginative metaphor. Also called cross-sensory metaphors, examples include “loud shirt”, “bitter wind”, or “prickly laugh”.

In her article in Fiction Writer (April, 2000), Janet Fitch suggests an excellent example of synesthesia: wine reviews. I admit that I like the “foxy nose” of a King David Concord, the “crisp laughing notes” of a zinfandel, the “rich buttery bouquet” of a C Blanc du Castel, the “silky richness of caramel” and “exotic layers of burnt sugar” of a 40-year old Taylor Fladgate tawny port.

Psychology & Attitude
How a sense is interpreted by your protagonist relies on his/her emotional state, memories associated with that sense and their current attitude.

Using baby powder as an example, Fitch suggests that you can “describe it literally: sweet, chalky, talcy, dusty, sneezy; or you can use synesthesias: smells pastel, smells tender; then move to the psychological element. Take an attitude on that smell: insipid, cloying, stultifying, like diaper rash, airless. Try a different attitude: sad, lost, vulnerable, hopeless.” You get the picture; we are using a sense-impression based on a memory or emotional experience pinned on that smell to create an entire sensation. What this does, of course, is reveal a great deal about the character in a seamless and powerful way, while establishing a rich setting to the story.

Different Point of View
Again, Fitch provides some good advice on this with the example of how to view objects. She suggests “seeing” through the lens of a photographer or the palette of a painter. What this does is several things:
· It evokes the use of different vocabulary, and metaphoric language (always richer than literal description)
· It avoids the static nature of a literal physical description
· It provides additional revelation on character and tone of the scene

Fitch recommends reading books on art for vocabulary. Because light “flows”, using it to describe something visually gives motion to the description too. Light moves like water: it “streams across a room”; it “bathes a landscape in russet tones”; it “plays chiaroscuro notes on her face”. Fitch describes light metaphorically as a painter or sculptor: it strokes, it daubs, it burnishes.

This post is an excerpt from Chapter S of The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! published by Starfire, 2009). It is also part of a writing class and workshop series The Writer's Toolkit that I give throughout North America and Europe. "The Writer's Toolkit" will be available for purchase on DVD in summer 2010. Look for it on my site

Fitch, Janet. 2000. “Making Sense”. In: Fiction Writer, April 2000.
Dr. Karl (Kruszelnicki). 1984. Great Moments in Science.
Munteanu, Nina. 2008. "Get Sensual...And What About SEX?" In: The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. 264pp.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

I had no idea you were publishing a book on this, Nina. I thought you were just researching for that next sci-fi book.

SF Girl said...

HAR! I have many projects on the go, Jean-luc! I have never stopped writing non-fiction and this book, The Alien Guide to Cool Writing, is actually just the first of a series of writing/guidebooks which I am writing and co-writing with several people, all by Pixl Press. It is very exciting! You've already read excerpts of other chapters on my blog previously (see writing tips on the right side-banner). Beginning writers should find lots of good tips in there.

rubenh ( said...

sounds interesting

SF Girl said...

Hope so! :) This book is a labor of love and draws from many years of learning about the industry as well as the craft of writing generally. It might even be entertaining! ;)

Footsteps said...

Great preview, Nina! Looks like another "must-read"...

SF Girl said...

Thanks, Heather! I think it will be a handy book for apprenticing authors in this or any other galaxy (LOL!), something I would have liked to have when I was starting out.

blackburn1 said...

I'm in. Want a heads-up when it's out.

I see the descriptive element here and there, not nearly as much as one would expect, particularly in best-selling and popular titles.

Loud and proud when it's ready, ok? =]

SF Girl said...

You're on, Blackburn! :) I'll be letting you know when it's out. I'll be doing panels at Vcon, Vancouver's science fiction, fantasy, and gaming convention on October 3-5 and will talk about my various books. I'd love to see you there!