I don’t remember when I picked up this laminated card, but I have it taped to my monitor because it’s a good reminder.
Often when critiquing the work of others, either I or others in the group begin asking the writer (being critiqued) questions such as these:
- What does your character hear when she approaches the house?
- What does your character see when he enters the house?
- What does your character smell when she enters the room?
- What does your character feel when he touches the door?
- What does your character taste when offered a drink?
To write a scene where you simply list a character’s movements and actions may get the reader from point A to B, but it doesn’t pull the reader into the scene. Readers of fiction want to be there with the characters, surrounded by the sounds, sights, and smells. To give the reader less isn’t fair.
Let’s take a scene from A KILLER PAST
Jack, the police officer investigating the incident where two teenaged gang members were put in the hospital, supposedly by an old woman, arrives the next morning at the warehouse that is now the temporary police station.
I could have written:
Jack stepped into the building, and immediately went over and turned up the heat. The building had a large window that faced First Street, and a dividing wall behind the receptionist area. On the other side of that wall were the officer cubicles, two temporary holding cells, and a booking area. There was one enclosed office in the far back corner, probably originally built for the warehouse manager. The chief now used that room. Jack, with twenty-four year’s seniority, had been given the largest cubicle, back by the chief’s office.
That paragraph gives you all the information you need to know regarding where Jack works and what the area basically looks like. But it’s like a shell. It doesn’t give a “sense” of his work place. We can’t “feel” the site.
This is what I ended up writing:
I’ve only used sight and smell in the above example, but I think those two senses, along with Jack’s reactions, help give life to the scene.
Of course, there is always the danger of over-writing a scene. Most scenes don’t require using all five senses, but some might. Consider this one:
The moment she stepped inside, her ears were assailed by loud, grating music, and she could barely see, a haze of smoke hanging low over the crowd of men near the bar. The smell of spilt beer and sweaty bodies brought a surge of bile to her throat. She might have turned around and left, but she saw him then, at a table across the room, snuggled up close to a blond. Fuming, she started that direction, ignoring whatever it was sticking to the bottoms of her shoes. Totally focused on the two at the table, she wasn’t prepared when a monster of a man grabbed her arm. “Dance?” he asked, his sweaty palm sliding down to her hand.
Okay, I think I used all five senses, And, I think it gives a “sense” of what this bar is like.
So, no, you don’t need to use all five senses in a scene, but as you write, think of ways you can use those senses to make your writing more vibrant.