Friday, July 25, 2014

Fuel for The Fire

St. Thomas Aquinas said, The senses are a kind of reason. Taste, touch and smell, hearing and seeing, are not merely a means to sensation, enjoyable or otherwise, but they are also a means to knowledge – and are, indeed, your only actual means to knowledge. This is all too true for writers. To create characters and worlds that resonate, writers must make them real, which means using the senses. 

How does one better use the senses in writing?  Differentiate between types of smells such as pipe smoke versus cigarette smoke. Use sound words that denote feeling like “argh” for frustration, “uh” for hesitation or “Whoowhee!” for excitement. Incorporate physical actions which active touch imagination such as a slap to the face or a kiss on the mouth. Write about smells, which activate taste sensors like the smell of chocolates as someone walks through the mall. Use specific adjectives such as a red, black, and green plaid shirt, as opposed to simply a colorful one, or a bumpy, crack-filled, pot-holed road instead of just an old road.

What to avoid:  Drop overused adjectives, like interesting, nice, and amazing. Use sensory language but don’t overdo it. Write about the senses only when it’s appropriate. Refrain from only using specific sensory words. Remember that you can activate the reader’s emotional sense when you describe a child studying a bandaged cut after his first fight.  And don’t forget that simply expanding upon a visual image can activate many senses, such as the image of a student face down on a cafeteria floor covered in crushed potato chips and sticky chocolate milk.

An author’s goal is always to keep the reader interested, which means incorporating concrete, significant details into our stories. What exactly are concrete, significant details? Details are anything specific and not general; for example Elizabethtown, NY, versus a town in upstate NY. Details become significant when the image conveys something important; for example the difference between torpedoing into a room versus walking into a room.  Details are  consideredconcrete when they evoke the senses and are not simply abstract concepts; for example simply stating that someone is infatuated, she likes Bill very much  versus a description of what a girl might say, feel and do when she sees a boy she likes, she blushed and ducked her head whenever Bill walked in.

Utilizing concrete, significant details through the use of sensual language involving smells, sights, sounds, touch and taste helps readers form connections in their minds, fueling the imagination….


The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell – as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope.  And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish.  But mostly it smelled of hay, for their was always hay in the great hayloft overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.

            E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web, Picture by Garth Williams

 Paula Castner is a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative as well as a freelance writer and workshop facilitator. She receives emails at


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