The Five Senses - #1: Sight

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Appealing to the senses.

What does this mean?

Often, amateur and even more experienced writers forget that we, as humans, do so much more than just see. In our stories, we may describe the room like so: "There was a brown table in the middle of the room and the walls were green. The carpet was some odd type of rainbow-plaid color."

How boring does that seem? So maybe the rainbow-plaid description caught your attention, but in a story wouldn't you most likely just graze over that stuff and get to the interesting part? I know that's what I do.

But before I begin my advice, let me tell you what this chapter's about. The first five chapters in my advice book are dedicated to the five senses we can use in writing.

The first one is:


The most used sense in writing. It's necessary for a reader to be able to create a visual image in their head, and I like it when sight is included in a book. However, there's a bad way and a good way to include it.

Let me take you back to that scene, with the room. (You know, the one with the rainbow-plaid carpet?)  Well, we don't really don't know much about this room at all, do we? It has a table, so it must be a dining room or something. However, why do we care that there are green walls or there is a rainbow-plaid carpet? It does nothing to benefit the story.

So why include details like this?

Because, if you do it right, it can not only come out interesting, but also benefit the story. You know how it can? By making your protagonist react to it. Avoid just stating the facts about the way something looks. Instead, (and this mostly applies if you're writing in first person, but it can also apply for third person) have them react to it.

For example:

"As my foot eased down on the cracked wood, I heard a groan creaking its way out from the roots of the house, as if it was complaining in old age. My eyes shifted around the room as I took another cautious step forward. I had reached the table which sat in the middle of the room, and I slid my finger along the surface. Glancing down, I noticed a thick layer of dust settling on the tip. I took another step. My feet no longer were on the hard floor, but instead on a carpet of mysterious weavings. The colors of the rainbow were knit together in this rug in a complex plaid pattern that made my head hurt to stare at. I finally turned to leave; but with one final glance back. For the first time, I noticed the puke-ish color of the walls, and it made me wonder what kind of person had lived here years ago." Etc. Etc.

Doesn't that sound a lot better? Now, it's not perfect yet, and it could even be TOO detailed depending on your type of writing and story, but I just made that up on the spot. First drafts are never perfect. (That's another chapter in itself.)

I described this whole scene only using sight, right? Wrong. This is why the other senses are important. If you noticed in there the groaning of the cracked wooden floor, then you can tell I used the sense of hearing. If you imagined yourself wiping up a bit of dust, or stepping onto a carpeted floor, you can tell I used the sense of touch. When I mentioned the puke-ish color of the walls, did you kind of taste puke in your mouth? That would've been a slight hint at the sense of taste.

This just goes to show how important it is to use all of the senses, not just sight.

When describing something in a story, it's important not to just mention it, but to mention how it affects something. Instead of saying: "There were bookshelves against the wall," you can say: "The sunlight slipped in through the crack in the window shades and fell gracefully upon the bookshelves, which were filled with dusty volumes of all the old classics."

Did you notice how I subtly slipped in the window shades (and the crack in them!) and the volumes of old classics (Oh, and they're dusty!)? From that one sentence, you can gather so much about the room. It hasn't been used recently, hence the dust. The owner must have enjoyed reading, especially the old classics. Is there anything else you can gather? The time of day, perhaps?

This is how using the descriptive tool of sight should be. It should equip your reader in some way to learn about the story. Placing a bland description in the middle of the story that does nothing to benefit your reader is useless.




How to describe a visible object?

Just saying the brown table, or the orange cat, is so boring. That tells me nothing about the table or about the cat and is not necessary to the story. How about adding in some CREATIVE adjectives, if you must use them?

Instead of the brown table, it becomes the dusty wooden table (naturally wood would be brown, so it wouldn't be necessary to mention the color unless it was stained an odd color, such as pink.). Not just the dusty wooden table though, it becomes the dusty wooden table that is propped up by a stool because one leg went missing. Now THAT'S an interesting table. What happened to it? Why is there a leg missing?

Instead of an orange cat, how about a feisty, pumpkin-colored feline, with a missing clump of hair and snarl always on its face? Yikes, that must be a mean cat.

Do you see what I'm getting at? If you are plain and boring with your adjectives, then your story and characters might be plain and boring too. The reader learns nothing from the "brown table" and is not interested at all in the table. It's the choice of adjectives you use to describe that table that make it interesting and story-worthy.

HOWEVER - Adjectives are something to be careful with. Those examples I used above might not be the best for a beginning writer, because you might be thinking: "Oh, okay, I'll go add a bunch of adjectives to everything!" Please don't. Typically you don't want to use more than one adjective to describe an object, and I'll explain why below. (Even though I used two in the examples....I'm hypocritical, sorry.)

If you're going to use adjectives, use ones that signify something different about the object. That's why I mentioned the brown table. We really don't need to know it's brown, right? Our character isn't going to be tested on the color of the table, so why include it? You should only include the adjectives about something normal like the color of the object if it's unusual or interesting or in some way relevant to the story.

To be honest, if you can avoid adjectives, DO IT! This will help you improve in writing. What many people do is ONLY list adjectives, and that's not what will keep readers interested. That's the same thing as saying 'old brown table.' Old and brown are adjectives, and they're boring, especially when they're alone. Adjectives should be used to further make your point, but you should describe the object in a way that you could take the adjectives out and know it was still an old, brown table. Tell us about the dust, the creaking, the wooden material, the missing leg. THAT'S how you avoid using adjectives, but then once you do that, it's alright to put a few adjectives in, at least in my opinion.

****Another point I need to make: Don't over-describe the scene. Let us know about a few objects, but we don't need vivid details about every single thing the character sees in the room. Remember, it's best just to include the ones that have an effect on the main character or story!****

Don't overwhelm your audience with adjectives. E.g. "The fluffy bouncy white bunny opened its blue sparkling cute little eyes." What just happened? Avoid that, please. Stick with simple. Simple, but creative and effective.

If you have any questions, please do let me know! I'd be happy to answer them for you, and I could maybe even help you with some sentences if you're stuck on what to change it to. However, it's your story and you know it best, so I might not be able to do it as well as you could.

CHALLENGE: Go through your story (at least one chapter) and find any adjectives you put in. Figure out how to explain the noun (person/place/thing) WITHOUT using the adjective. For example, if anywhere in your story you see a sentence with a "brown table" in it, get rid of the word "brown" and find some other way to insert that table into your story! (You can have the character bump into it, or touch it, or fix the stool it's supported by, or something interesting like that.)

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