By Carlie M A Cullen
When writing a story, it’s as important for the reader to be able to visualise the surroundings as much as it is for them to connect with the characters.
This doesn’t mean you have to create in-depth descriptions of every room, property or area; it can be done quite simply by using the five senses: sight; touch; smell; taste; and hearing.
Let’s imagine one of your characters is wandering through an old-fashioned market, where livestock are sold – along with hand-made crafts, fresh produce and home-made bakery items.
First of all, think about what time of year this is set as you would expect different items to be on sale dependant on the season and whether a particular holiday is coming up. For the purpose of this exercise, I’m going to use December.
Now, let’s take each sense in isolation.
Other than stall-holders hawking their wares, what other sounds would he/she expect to hear? Probably the gobbling of turkeys, the honking of geese, bells, carol singers, and children’s laughter as they chased and played while their mothers’ shopped. What about the crunch of frost or snow underfoot or the clatter of footsteps and hooves over cobblestones?
Apart from the odours one would expect to come from livestock, what else would your character smell? I would expect the spicy aromas of Christmas cakes and puddings, cinnamon, fresh baked bread and rolls, spiced apples, newly-sawn wood, and fresh paint.
Would any of the stall-holders be offering samples of their wares for your character to try? Were any of the aromas so strong they could taste it on their tongue? Did he/she stop for a bag of roasted chestnuts, a warm glass of mulled wine or a steaming mug of coffee?
Is your character tactile? Would he/she arrive at a stall with figurines carved from wood and run their fingers over the grain, or visit a haberdashery stall with skeins of plush fabrics that cried out to be stroked? Would there be a pen with puppies running around, eager for any show of kindness and love? Would there be stalls of horses for your character to pat?
There are so many different things your character could see, but what would stand out? Would it be the gay colours or the glossy coats of the horses? Would the stall decorations or the costumes of the carol singers attract their attention? Perhaps the beauty of some of the hand-made crafts or the intricate icing on the cakes.
The Sixth Sense:
No, I’m not going into the realms of clairvoyance here, or anything of that ilk. I’m referring to what emotions and feelings the character gets from the whole experience of using their other five senses. Do they find themselves overwhelmed by the powerful assault on all their senses? Do they love Christmas and are filled with joy? Is there a sad event in their lives which means they can’t celebrate it as the memories are too painful? Perhaps they are filled with a sense of wonder, like that of a child, if their upbringing was such that they never celebrated Christmas.
So how do we put this together without being overly descriptive or verbose?
By picking one element from each of the senses, the one which appeals to your character the most, you can craft a couple of sentences which will transport your reader to the exact location.
Sally approached the market with a sense of expectation and excitement. The Children’s Home she’d grown up in didn’t really celebrate Christmas – well the kids didn’t – the staff had lavish meals and treats while they just got the usual gruel.
She stopped just a few feet in; a cacophony of sound competed with the voices of the hawkers, but it was the melodic harmonies of the carol singers that cut through the noise, the music filling her ears. Her eyes tried to drink in everything at once. There were so many beautiful colours and decorations it felt like she’d gone to heaven. Various fragrances assaulted her nostrils yet although Sally could taste spiced apple on her tongue, it was the smell of fresh baked bread which propelled her deeper into the maze of stalls.
A pen containing a litter of puppies melted her heart completely and she knelt on the crisp snow to stroke them. They were adorable, climbing over each other as they vied for the touch of her hand. Their coats were so soft and fluffy under her fingertips, it made her long to have one. However, with nowhere to live and no way of supporting herself, let alone being able to feed and shelter one of these delicate creatures, it was nothing more than a pipe dream. A stab of sadness pierced her heart as she stood and walked away. Despite her longing, she was soon swept up in the wonder of her surroundings and continued on.
The first paragraph sets the scene for the reader (obviously if this was part of a story, most of this would have already been done, but for this exercise I felt we needed some context, hence my including it).
The next two paragraphs allow the reader to use their senses just as the character does and places them firmly in the marketplace with Sally. I could have used a lot more details and description, but I wanted to show how it could be done in just a couple of paragraphs, whilst also showing how Sally felt, thereby giving the connection to the character as well as the setting.
So the next time you sit down to write, remember the six senses – it will help your story ‘come alive’ for the reader.