Very often when I’m reading a manuscript for another writer the scenes will fall flat. The primary reason for this is that I (as a reader) am not pulled into the scene. The world feels flat because the only description is a little bit of what can be seen. When you neglect the other senses, the scene suffers. To be plausible, a scene needs to pull in the reader by using all the senses so the reader experiences the world.
So how do you weave in the five senses–sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste–without overloading the scene or the reader? Here are a few tips.
1-Start with the strongest sensation. What would your character notice first? Give that to the reader first, too.
For example, here’s a description from Burn Baby Burn where the heroine, Mackenzie, walks into a building on the edge of purgatory:
No reception desk. No chairs for waiting. Just lots of black marble, and the painful graffiti of demon-Aramaic dripping red across the ceiling and floor. Someone had also turned the air conditioning to ice-burn cold.
The chill crept along her skin as she walked, and it slipped through the soles of her boots.
Notice that the sense here is touch (the cold touching Mackenzie). There’s a little description of what can be seen (people are visual), but the strongest sensation here is of cold. So the details focus on providing that detail, and that sense is used to make the scene more real and vivid for the reader.
2-Be specific. The more specific, the better. If you say, He smelled like the woods. That’s nice. It’s poetic. But woods can smell moldy, damp, or like pine and very fresh and dry, or like a lot of things. And many readers have never been out of the city. So “woods” is not a specific description or smell. You want to layer in details that make the sense specific.
Here’s another example from Burn Baby Burn:
The half dozen other times she’d had to come down to this musty hole—and every time it had been to dig Josh out of his research—she’d thought it looked like the stacks at UCLA’s library. Miles of tall shelves with wide, leather-bound books stretched into climate controlled coolness. It smelled like library stacks, too—like dry, old paper. The place left her itchy. But any memory of college did that.
Notice the words used. Musty. Dry, old paper. A comparison is made to library stacks, so if the reader’s ever been in stacks, this will make the scene vivid. But even someone who hasn’t ever been into any library still gets the details of leather, dryness, mustiness. The more specific your details, the more the reader will “sense” the scene. Or in this case, smell the scene.
3-Go for the unexpected. If you use the usual descriptions this makes the world seem cliche. You want sensations that stand out and catch the reader.
Again, here’s an example from Burn Baby Burn:
Before she could think about it, she had him in her arms and had her tongue tangling with his. She heard his gun thud against the floor about the same time as hers, and she had her fists on his shirt to rip it off so she could get to his skin because she needed to touch him. And, oh, hell, could the man kiss—pushy and demanding, and just enough bite to make it interesting. He tasted of cherries, and if she didn’t get him on the floor in the next ten seconds, she’d die.
The guy Mackenzie is kissing tastes of cherries because he just drank a cherry Slurpee, so it’s logical that the taste would still be on his lips. This also avoids the cliche of him tasking like “man” or something else that would be too vague and not really locked into the scene and the character. Notice here, too, that we have both touch and taste being important, which shows the intimacy (you’re generally more into touch and taste and smell when you are really close to someone physically).
4-Look to contrast senses. A beautiful place that smells bad. A creepy sound along with a sensual touch along the skin. Contrast are always more interesting.
For example, in Burn Baby Burn Mackenzie walks into a beautiful house:
The rooms had a faint scent of lavender, and something else vaguely familiar. Stopping, Mackenzie took in a deep breath, and realized it was mint—with a vague hint of cloves, and something a little off. She’d know the scent of Josh’s charms anywhere, but this smell had a sour tang that made her want to open windows to air out the place.
So the house is described in a way that seems inviting, but the sour tang gives the reader an uneasy sensation that something is off in this place (and it really is).
5-Remember that a reader needs to be introduced to characters and to settings. This is where description is vital, and you do need to provide the right amount of description so the readers can see the characters and the world. This is very important in the first part of any story where everything is new to the reader.
Here’s a character introduction from Burn Baby Burn:
Glancing at the driver, she came up with an alpha silverback gorilla vibe; short hair going gray, and a lot of long-limbed muscle. The black dress shirt, rolled back at the cuffs and open at the throat, added to the image. And his khakis had not come off any rack. Judging by the expensive clothes and the weapon-edged angles to a face half-hidden by reflective aviator shades, she’d go for another line of work as this guy’s main vocation.
Notice that by putting the description in Mackenzie’s viewpoint it shows the reader what Mackenzie is seeing and thinking. That helps the description avoid the “laundry list” of physical assets. Also, this is where you can get a little lyrical and tell the reader a little not just about what someone looks like but what emotion does that look inspire.
Remember, all the senses help to convey an emotional reaction.
6-Use dialogue. The line from Star Wars, “What an incredible smell you’ve discovered,” delivered with sarcasm does more than say that it smells bad.
Here’s a similar line from Burn Baby Burn:
“This house smells of blood.”
The words came out a deep rumble, and Mackenzie glanced at Felix. Was this his way of saying this place creeped him out, too? Or maybe that he felt all homey because of it?
Have your characters react to the world in ways that help realize the world for your readers.