“Take me there. Paint me a picture by any means you know how. Magic carpet, perfumes, spices and strange sounds or maybe just a few words in the right order.” – Rose Mason
Authors can drug, hypnotise, lull and electrify with no potions or spells simply by manipulating 26 letters. Worlds, atmospheres, periods, characters, environments, threats, opportunities and experiences are drawn only in words, yet appeal to every one of our senses.
Here are a few striking examples which attracted me and what I learned from each. None claims to appeal to a single sense – we rarely experience an event through an isolated channel – but all play on a sensory impression.
Visual: The Shark by Edwin John Platt
His body was tubular
And as he passed the wharf
And snapped at a flat-fish
That was dead and floating.
And I saw the flash of a white throat,
And a double row of white teeth,
And eyes of metallic grey,
Hard and narrow and slit.
Then out of the harbour,
With that three-cornered fin
Shearing without a bubble the water
He swam—That strange fish,
Tubular, tapered, smoke-blue,
Part vulture, part wolf,
Part neither—for his blood was cold.
The choice of precise words – smoke-blue, shearing, flash, teeth, throat and the underlining of threat in the final line brings this impressive yet sinister creature into sharp focus. Not only can I see it, I feel the writer’s awe.
Auditory: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
There’s the clip clop of horses on the sunhoneyed cobbles
of the humming streets, hammering of horse- shoes, gobble
quack and cackle, tomtit twitter from the bird-ounced
boughs, braying on Donkey Down. Bread is baking, pigs are
grunting, chop goes the butcher, milk-churns bell, tills
ring, sheep cough, dogs shout, saws sing. Oh, the Spring
whinny and morning moo from the clog dancing farms, the
gulls’ gab and rabble on the boat-bobbing river and sea
and the cockles bubbling in the sand, scamper of
sanderlings, curlew cry, crow caw, pigeon coo, clock
strike, bull bellow, and the ragged gabble of the
beargarden school as the women scratch and babble in Mrs
Organ Morgan’s general shop where everything is sold:
custard, buckets, henna, rat-traps, shrimp-nets, sugar,
stamps, confetti, paraffin, hatchets, whistles.
Read it aloud to understand the delight Thomas takes in sound. Onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhyme and rhythm seem a higgledy-piggledy cacophony but his skill blends them all into a symphony. Every writer and reader should listen to the whole of Under Milk Wood one day.
Tactile: The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
I want you to trace he fingertips of your left hand gently across your right palm, noting the way your skin registers the lightest touch. If someone else were doing it, you might even be turned on. Now slam that sensitive, responsive hand directly onto that glowing element.
And hold it there. Hold it there as the element scorches Dante’s nine rings right into your palm, allowing you to grasp Hell in your hand forever. Let the heat engrave the skin, the muscles, the tendons; let it smolder down to the bone. Wait for the burn to embed itself so far into you that you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to let go of that coil. It won’t be long until the stench of your own burning flesh wafts up, grabbing your nose hairs and refusing to let go, and you smell your body burn.
A book all about feeling, Davidson’s Gargoyle hacks away at the outside to get at what’s within. Here, the alignment of skin sensitivity and the character’s horrific injuries make us understand with shocking clarity the sensation of being burned.
Gustatory: Syed Ali “Porkistan”
I ate bacon for the first time when I was eleven years old. My best friend Jorge lived a block from my house, and I practically lived at his house during the summer. Bacon was a fixture at breakfast, sizzling in a pan and drying on paper towels. Before I even knew what it was, I wanted it. Bacon is intoxicating. The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease is seductive. Fat popping in a hot pan. It even looks beautiful. Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy. The word “bacon” is plump and satisfying.
Jorge’s mom, doling out servings of bacon, asked me every morning if I wanted some. On one particular morning, I gave in and held out my plate. I wanted to lick the greasy paper towel. That afternoon I went home and ran past my parents, straight to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth over and over, but the smell was still on my fingers.
I thought I would be found out. It was in my hair, my nails, and sweating through my pores.
This extract is so charged with guilt and cultural influence, it could serve as a multi-sensory example, but the real beauty here is that nowhere does he describe the taste. Yet we, the readers, know exactly what he means.
Olfactory: Perfume by Patrick Suskind
In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease.
I couldn’t leave Suskind out, even if it is an obvious choice. Two things strike me here – he ranges across all aspects of city life evoking smells in every corner and uses two powerful verbs, surrounded by select and accurately described nouns.
If you have any examples of fabulous sensory writing, let me know. And look out for the Writing Sensory Detail session in the upcoming Triskele’s Creative Spark – an online creative writing course – no sign up, no cost, no catch. Starts 1st July.
Thanks to JD Lewis for all these beautiful images. Check out more of her work here.