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Using The Five Senses – Bringing Your Fiction to Life

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | The Art of Description

Vanessa Gebbie

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Let’s look at the opening paragraph of one of my favourite novels – Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, winner of the Booker in 1997.

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.’

In fifty five words, Roy creates a world in which I can feel the heat, the heavy, heady atmosphere. I can smell scents that are most certainly not in my kitchen (where I’m typing). I am surrounded by colours that do not exist in this room. I can hear those bluebottles. It is a rich setting she paints, in tones that not only make colour explode on the page, but also foreshadow the darkness of the story to come. It is absolutely beautiful, and absolutely stifling. Arundhati Roy was not an ‘experienced’ writer. This novel was her debut.

Although we can’t know for certain, I bet those feelings, the temperature, the oppressiveness, the colours, the scents, the background hum, were things that arose naturally as Roy wrote. Oh sure – she polished the words until they shone – but as she created the scene she was there in her head, experiencing it for herself. She could have written this in an igloo – and would still have created a ‘real’ oppressive world out of her words.

One of our aims as fiction writers is to transport readers into our worlds, and to do that sucessfully, those worlds must live. We need to be really aware of our fictive worlds as we write them, inhabit them, as we weave the threads round ourselves – and then I think we must forget them – as we use the senses there as unthinkingly as we do in life. We live in our worlds when we are lost in our writing – and it is a two-way thing, isn’t it? To get lost in our fictive world it must be a place that lives, for us. What writer would choose to inhabit a monochrome world in which there are no scents or textures, in which sound is muffled or non-existent, and where, when people eat – they eat words? And if that is all we create – how much more will our reader suffer in this two-dimensional place, and hightail it out to a better world, in another book, as fast as they can?

Does this all sound difficult? I don’t think it is. It is a question of being aware, of being open, and slowing down – noticing, in your fictive world, how it feels, how it sounds, and what textures and colours lift it out of monochrome. And weaving it round yourself, clothing yourself in it – living it. So your reader will, too.

But please, don’t go over the top! I’ve heard writers being advised to sprinkle every description with the five senses, so you can feel the writer ticking them off on their fingers, something like this:

‘OK, in this woodland glade the trees are green, and brown. Colour. Tick. The air smells of woodsmoke. Scent. Tick. There is the sound of raindrops on the fallen leaves. Sound. Tick. I need to add the feel of something… um… oh yes, tree bark. Tick. And what was the other thing? Oh blast. Taste. Hmm… maybe my character could lick the tree?’

We use the senses all the time without thinking, if we are lucky enough to have them, and if not – imagination is the greatest friend in the world. But there is also a sixth sense, and I don’t mean the one that sees ghosts. It is good old common sense – the sense to apply the most liberally when editing, to make sure, as Roy did – that your words are doing exactly what you want them to.

What about a writing exercise? Your task is to describe a particular setting. These are the facts you must incorporate: it is December, daytime, very cold and windy, there’s a lot of snow. OK – off you go and set the scene for a story. No, you don’t have to use all five senses, as discussed earlier. It might be a bit obvious and over the top. But how about using three or four of them?

When you’ve done that, count the words used. Now – try to pare the wordcount down, to say, 100. Then 50. Look at Roy’s example above. See, we don’t need huge wordcounts. We do however, need words that are chosen with care, perhaps the care of a poet. Let’s bow to poet Christina Rosetti – who I suspect did not tick off the senses on her fingers as she wrote. But she knew exactly what someone would experience inside this scene. The scene lived for her, and it lives for the reader.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

About the author

© Vanessa Gebbie February 2012

Vanessa is running a fabulous short story workshop: “Short Fiction:  So Much More Than It Seems…” 9-15th June at Anam Cara Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat – to win a place at the workshop visit ourcompetitions page!

Vanessa Gebbie is a prizewinning short story writer, a creative writing teacher, novelist, poet and editor. Her debut novel The Coward’s Tale (published by Bloomsbury in the UK and the USA) was a Financial Times 2011 Book of the Year. She teaches widely, working with writing groups, universities, school students and at literary festivals. In 2010, she was writer-in-residence at Stockholm University, Sweden.

She is also author of two collections of short fiction, Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning(both published by Salt Modern Fiction) and contributing editor of Short Circuit, A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, a collection of essays and writing exercises by prize-winning short fiction writers, which is now in use at many creative writing courses in the UK and abroad.

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