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Engaging the senses


Last week’s post about creating a sense of place led me to thinking about how often we are told to engage our senses to create a world the reader can visualise or feel as a real place. I must admit, this is something I don’t always think about, as I’m not one for writing lengthy scenes of description. But in some of my work, I can see that using sensory descriptions is a useful way of getting the story across.

What do I mean by sensory descriptions? I mean using your five senses to show the reader what is going on, or to set a scene without ‘telling’. Show them what you can see, tell them what you can hear, describe scents and feelings and textures to create in the mind of your reader a kind of 3D image, a deep sense of place.

Here is an extract of a story I wrote a few years ago.

The receptionist was efficient and friendly, but still remained sympathetic.  As soon as Gina said why she was there, the receptionist summoned an orderly to take her to the intensive care ward.

He smiled a sad, grave smile and with a little bow left her standing in the doorway with the Sister.

Sister touched her arm lightly, and said, “he’s just along here, he’s been asking for you.”

And so there she was, sitting by the bed, holding the thin, cold hand and the machines all around made the corner of the tiny ward seem crowded.

Now you can tell – just about – from this short scene that it is set in a hospital – but it’s not very clear, is it? When I sent this to betareaders, one person said that it didn’t ‘seem’ like the character was in a hospital. And she was right. Because what’s the first thing you notice about a hospital? Exactly – the smell! And for me at least, the second thing I noticed was the temperature – it’s so hot in those places!

If I’d opened with, ‘The smell of disinfectant and yesterday’s boiled cabbage almost made her gag as she hurried to the reception desk,’ that might have been a better indicator. In my experience hospitals also tend to be very busy, bustling places – you never get from the entrance to the bedside without stepping round about forty people and almost being run down by laundry trains and wheelchairs. Then there’s the tannoy system: ‘Dr McDreamy to Theatre 7, please!’ and ‘We’d like to remind you that smoking is not permitted in any part of the hospital’. And the shops and cafes and the worried people and the crying children, and the white-clad nurses, and the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on the polished floors, and doors banging. And the bright lights and dinging of the lift/elevator. It’s like a city in one huge building.

So there was a lot more I could have done with this vital opening scene.

Ask yourself, what do I see, what can I smell, what can I hear? What do I touch or feel? Can I taste anything? Engage the senses in your writing and you will engage your reader.


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