We all know senses are important, right? Sight, scent, taste, sound, and touch are as important to our characters and stories as they are to us. Our senses allow us to take in the world around us, but they also help transport us into memories. What does the smell of rain or the sound of a train mean to your character?
Senses enrich scenes
Just as beats help break up and give flesh to the bones of dialogue, senses give clues to atmosphere and the character’s state of mind. “Elsa perched on the edge of the chair as her hostess poured tea,” is clear enough. But “Elsa perched on the edge of the chair, hoping the proffered tea was pungent enough to mask the medicinal smell of the sick room” gives us a completely different impression. Or “Elsa perched on the chair as her hostess poured tea, the scent of which brought her back to her grandmother’s kitchen.”
Other senses could work the same magic. Perhaps the hostess has tremors our character notes, or she’s wearing a floral dress that reminds our character of someone from her past. Is there a mantle clock that chimes or does the heated porcelain of the tea cup trigger a response?
Senses invoke memory
Some great flashback scenes begin with a sense that sweeps the character into a memory. “Tom remembered that day clearly” is a statement. “The heat from the asphalt rose through Tom’s oxfords and produced a shimmer on the horizon, just as it had that day when…” Or “The hot pavement and heated air brought her face clearly to mind. “Let’s go swimming,” she had said.”
Scent is a major player in memory recall, but so is music. The right song or snatch of lyrics easily transports me to a moment in my past and does so for characters as well. A certain touch can also bring the past sharply into focus, especially if the memory is an unpleasant one.
Senses improve recall
Police and therapists use a technique called “the cognitive interview” to help victims and witnesses to access their memories with greater detail. In this type of interview, the person is put into the scene by recalling what their senses were registering at the time. Once the memory of time and place is firmly established, the recall of the interviewee is usually sharper and smaller details are more easily remembered. You can try this yourself by recalling what your senses told you in a particular memory before the main event happens. If your character is a witness, victim, or investigator, this is a tool you can use.
I would argue that there are other senses important in the scheme of things. The sense that air pressure has changed could indicate a door or hatch has just been closed or opened. Temperature, air flow, gravity, motion, and others also affect your character. We are aware of more than we realize and adrenaline heightens that awareness.
Try to give a specific when using a sense. Rather than tar smelling hot, does it smell oily, burnt, or heavy? Tea can be delicate, flowery, herbal, pungent, earthy. Touch can be grazing, reassuring, frightening, directional, or emotional. A sound can be grating, grinding, soft, metallic, sighing, startling, or out of context/unexpected. Taste doesn’t only relate to something put on the tongue. Defeat can taste bitter. Fear might taste metallic. Lemonade could taste like childhood.
Sight is the sense we use most often with our characters since we are essentially reporting what they are seeing and doing. But sight is richer when not used alone, and how your character process what is seen is unique to them as well as mood dependent.
If you (or your character) had to lose one sense, which would you choose and why?