Several years ago, while I was attending the Bram Stoker Awards Weekend in Burbank, I went to a writing seminar given by David Morrell, creator of Rambo and the author of dozens of novels. Though it was a condensed version of his normal workshop, I still found it to be a valuable experience.
Of the lessons I took away from that two-hour session, the one that stands out most in my mind was his advice to pay attention to all five senses. We tend to focus on sight and sound, he said, because those are the only senses to which film and television can appeal. A character on the big screen might wrinkle his nose in disgust at a smell, but (absent a scratch-and-sniff card) there’s no way to convey exactly what he is experiencing. At best he might say, “It smells like something died in here.” Or, “That smells like dog poop.”
In a banquet scene—such as the audacious ones on the TV series Hannibal—the characters might show their appreciation for (or dislike of) their food, but viewers can’t truly share the experience. Oh, we might imagine what that slice of liver tastes like, but we have to do all the work. Banal dialog like “That tastes heavenly” doesn’t help. Similarly, someone in a film can caress his lover’s cheek but how her skin feels and how her body responds to his touch is left to a viewer’s imagination.
When I returned home from the conference, I looked at some of my work and discovered that I had been guilty of downplaying touch, taste and smell. I started to develop a vocabulary to describe flavors and aromas, and paid attention to how characters might react to tactile sensations.
This isn’t to say that you should overload your work with sensory descriptions—no more than you would bog down a scene with an excessive amount of visual detail. Deciding what to put in and what to leave out is an art that writers hone throughout their careers. You want the readers to experience a scene as if they were there without bringing an abrupt halt to the action. It’s like adding daubs of color to a painting. Sometimes these highlights are what turn an otherwise flat scene into something engaging and alive.
Bev Vincent is the author of The Dark Tower Companion, The Road to the Dark Tower (nominated for a Bram Stoker Award), and The Stephen King Illustrated Companion (nominated for an Edgar and a Stoker). His short fiction has appeared in places like Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, From the Borderlands, The Blue Religion and When the Night Comes Down. He is a contributing editor with Cemetery Dance magazine, is a founding member of the Storytellers Unplugged blogging community and reviews for Onyx Reviews. His website is bevvincent.com and you can also find him on Twitter (@BevVincent) and Facebook.