The 5 Senses: See, hear, taste, smell, touch

Good imagery is hard and not that hard to replicate. Let’s look at a specific example from my current reading:

That winter morning, the wind was cold against the collar of Saul Evan’s coat as he trudged down the trail toward the lighthouse. There had been a storm the night before, and down and to his left, the ocean lay gray and roiling against the dull blue of the sky, seen through the rustle and sway of the sea oats. Driftwood and bottles and faded white buoys and a dead hammerhead shark had washed up in the aftermath, tangled among snarls of seaweed, but no real damage either here or in the village.

At his feet lay bramble and the thick gray of thistles that would bloom purple in the spring and summer. To his right, the ponds were dark with the muttering complaints of grebes and buffleheads. Blackbirds plunged the thin branches of trees down, exploded upward in panic at his passage, settled back into garrulous communities. The brisk, fresh salt smell to the air had an edge of flame: a burning smell from the nearby house or still-smoldering bonfire. (Vandermeer 367)

From these paragraphs, I learned it is winter and the character Saul is on the coast, specifically by a lighthouse. There was just a storm and apparently also a fire. Even though these paragraphs richly define the scenery around me, giving me a lot of location and time details, the phrases that matter most to me are driftwood, shark, and blackbirds. These gave me a lot of specific visuals that my mind can attach to, and based on my earlier research, the more specific details you give your readers, the easier they can create an image in their minds – as long as they have that specific detail. (Refer here)

Other details include the muttering complaints of grebes, exploding blackbirds. Here I can hear the birds in his surroundings, and the vocabulary Vandermeer uses gives me the exact conversations he hears – complaints, garrulous communities. There’s a lot of chit chat. So, not only do I get a lot of sound context for the scene, I get the tone of the birds and the character’s interpretation of them as well, giving a lot of voice to the story.

There’s one more detail I want to highlight – the brisk salt and burning smell. These emphasize the third sense in these paragraphs. So far we have encountered visuals, sounds, and now scents. This means the more senses we can incorporate into our imagery, the more realistic scene we create. This is because humans experience their surroundings through a variety of perceptions and shows why this scene is so strong for me.

But, there’s one more dimension to this imagery that a lot of people may overlook. The vocabulary, which can be the hardest part. For this, I wasn’t a big biologist so didn’t catch on to all the different species, but this helped reflect the type of character Saul was. SPOILER: Being the man in charge of the lighthouse, he has to keep watch of his surroundings, looking for fires and animals interfering with his garden or such. That is the type of person he is, which is why he focuses on the fire, the animals.

To summarize our discussion, good imagery includes specifics, it uses as many of the senses as possible, and includes what the tone and analysis of what your character focuses on. If you have a fashion-focused character, she’s not going to be looking at the birds, but what someone may be wearing.

Vandermeer, Jeff. Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Print.


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