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Use Your Senses Dammit!

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Author: Michael Bard


Somewhere I once read, or was told, that the author Poul Anderson once said that he tried to appeal to at least three* senses on every page of a fictional work. Of course those weren't his exact words, but the meaning is the same.

And sadly, very few people do this.

I've read a lot of stories recently where the author describes what is seen. All well and good. In fact virtually every story does this consistently.

Unfortunately the other senses are only rarely mentioned.

Hearing is usually only used when somebody says something, or when introducing a new scene.

Taste is virtually only used for a bit of humour: "it tastes like chicken" or any of the many many variations.

Touch is usually used only for the initial examination of a new form as the person touches their new fur, and as a description of an action. "He touched me on the arm."

Smell is virtually never used, and if so only during the first moments in a new form when the odours are overwhelming. After that it's never mentioned again. Which is odd, given that smell is one of the most evocative senses we have.

Finally, even when the other senses are used, rarely are they used other than as verbs. "He heard her." "She could smell his aftershave."

This is a horrible loss to the reader, and a failure on the part of the writer.

And, you're not the only one, published authors are guilty of this too.

Consider the following short examples:

a. He heard her calling him.

b. Her voice rang oddly in her new ears. It was distorted, slightly faded, slightly fuzzy, until he turned his ears and the sound became sharp and shrill. Suddenly it was piercing, almost painful. Instinctively he turned his ears away and her voice faded to a deep silence like the whistle of a train that just passed and had faded away.

a. He inhaled the water, tasting its salt, and swallowed it down and out across his gills.

b. The water wasn't just salty, it was full of life. He could taste particles of grit, sand, bits of shell that were sharp and stung just a tiny bit. There was drifting plankton that teased his tongue and a tiny fragment of weed the slid down his throat. He could even sense each as it passed out through his gills. The taste and scratchiness of sand and shell, the rub of fuzzy mono-cell greenery, the gelatin-like twisting and touching of the weed.

a. His hooves could sense the ground as though he was wearing a thin shoe.

b. He realized that his feet, well hooves now, were not completely insensitive. They weren't shoes that he was wearing. He could sense the ground dimly through them, like looking backwards through a telescope. The ground was soft, a leaf was beneath the rear half of his left hind hoof. There was a rounded rock under his left fore hoof. It was not the clear definition of touch that he still had in his hands, but instead it was a rough classification. He knew the ground was soft, but not whether it was damp. He knew the leaf was there, but not how large or how dry it was. He knew the rock was there, and that it was round, but only roughly how large it was.

a. He sniffed the air, and almost gagged from the density of things he could smell.

b. Sniffing the air he realized that it wasn't air, it was a rich cocktail of thick chocolates and liquors. It was all mixed together, a tangle of individual strands, but he could identify each one. And not by what they were. That one, to his new nose it felt like a pair of socks that had been worn on a two-day hike. And that one was a rough bitterness, like the sharp edge of a hard toffee.

Which of these do you, as a reader, prefer?

Poul Anderson's work is full of little evocations, especially in the name of native life from planets other than earth. But, the best author at this, in my opinion of course [glares at the one person who disagrees who then slinks away] is Lord Dunsany. Most of his work was short evocative descriptions. You can sample some of his work at <http://alangullette.com/lit/dunsany/> or in the TSAT archives at <http://tsat.transform.to/stories/coronation.thomas.shap.html> or <http://tsat.xepher.net/stories/coronation.thomas.shap.html>.

  • Of course, in certain cases this is impossible. If a victim is in a sensory isolation tank and the only thing they can sense is a person's voice, well then there are no others. If a person turns into a creature with no sense of smell, well then there is no smell. In other words, like all other advice, keep this in mind, obey it when you think it's right, and ruthlessly throw it away when you think it's wrong.