Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sensual Writing and Why I Love the Smell of Smoke

Last week, as I was driving down a winding country road on my way to Bridgewater from Lunenburg, I caught sight of the billowing smoke of a small fire. Someone was obviously doing some roadside autumn clearing.

Without thinking, I slid the window open and inhaled deeply as I passed through the billows. I was preparing to experience the exquisite “taste of home”. As I breathed in the aroma of burning vegetation, memories of outdoor campfires and old wood-burning stoves flooded in from my childhood. A goofy smile slid across my face as I bathed in the joyful innocence of adventure, wonder and the comfort of the hearth. I’d had a wonderful childhood and the smell of smoke brought it back to me in its full glory.

What does this have to do with sensual writing? Everything. That’s because writing is metaphoric. That is what storytelling is: sharing universal truth through metaphor, delivered from the heart, where these lie. Sensual writing doesn’t just involve making sure to include at least a few senses like sight, sound, smell, taste and touch in your narrative--though this is a good writing mantra. To write sensually involves much more than the simple description of a sense, though this is certainly the first step (and something all too often neglected by novice writers).

To not connect a described sense to a memory or emotion is to miss a very important opportunity as a storyteller: that of enlightening the reader on some aspect of the POV character experiencing the sense (things like their history, the quality and nature of their relationships, their viewpoints, education, prejudices, how and what they’ve experienced in their life).

Here’s what I mean:

EXAMPLE 1: Ben walked into the Grand Banker Pub and immediately caught the tantalizing aroma of garlic and pears amid the din of jubilant laughter, cackles and desultory conversation. The amber light enhanced the rich tones of nautical oak. He saw some friends drinking in the corner and sauntered toward them, smiling.

EXAMPLE 2: Ben hesitated at the Grand Banker Pub door, inhaling the exquisite aroma of garlic and pears amid the din of jubilant laughter, cackles and desultory conversation. For a moment he was back on the boat, reliving the party that changed his life. He’d stopped eating pears after that. He caught sight of his friends drinking in the corner, beneath the amber light. Like a sailor seizing a rope, he sauntered toward them, a huge smile pasted on his face.

The first example describes; the second example emotes. The first example describes the place well but it doesn’t provide us with any information about Ben, except that he likes the aroma of garlic and pears. We don’t know why. In the second example, his senses are used to hint at intrigue linked to memories that, in turn, are linked to the associated sense—in this case the smell of garlic and pears. This is the power of sensual writing.

Bringing it back home with the senses.

Other articles I've written here on how to improve your writing appear on the righthand sidebar of this blog. Here are some that are most relevant to this article:
1. The Novelist: Sensual Writing
2. The Novelist: The Importance of Setting

I also give an online course on How to Write Sensually through Check the Online Course Semester Calendar for availability of this course.

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...

Sensual writing is, in effect, highly descriptive writing whichj few authors manage to do. Reading this sort puts me in the scene

SF Girl said...

Thanks, Jean-Luc. I so agree. When the writer includes sense and memory to a place, the scene comes alive as does the character experiencing it.

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Spacerguy said...

This is very powerful stuff you've explained, Thanks Nina. Creating a character for e.g. trying to escape from a burning spaceship will convey a deep "sence" of urgency and panic to paper along with other humanistic qualities such as bravery or cowardice. Using memory is really clever! I'll have to work on that one. Thoughts/sight/smell/hearing/actions are bound intensify the story and will determine whether their spaceship survives. All I have to do now is write a science fiction novel. Merry Christmas.

SF Girl said...

Thanks, Spacerguy! Glad you found something useful there... And nice to see you again! Go for the novel! I look forward to reading it!