To make a scene vivid, to make it truly come to life, there needs to be sensory information. Senses transform words into three-dimensional worlds. The basic human senses are: seeing, hearing, touch, smell and taste. However, don’t forget the many other senses we have, the temperature, our sense of balance and so forth.
Authenticating the scene with the senses
The experiences of the senses should be realistic and believable in order to work. Grandma’s home probably doesn’t have the sterile smell of a hospital. Apple pie doesn’t taste meaty. Or worse, describing the character eating the apple pie without tasting it at all. Weave the senses seamlessly and naturally into the backdrop of the setting, thereby activating the senses of the reader. Remember that the point of view character is also the camera through which the reader experiences the sensory world.
The senses, in order of importance
Sight is your main sense, and conveniently also the easiest one to embed into the story for any writer. Humans naturally rely on their eyes more than their other senses. The tricky part is using the telling details needed to convey the right vision to the reader.
Light for atmosphere
- Reveals time of day
- Reveals setting (light source)
- Creates atmosphere
When describing light, be sure to show both quality and colour. Time affects both, it is sharp at noon and pale in the late afternoon. It is yellow at noon but colourful at sunset. Use verbs to make light come to life, make light do something.
Example: the streak of light revealed a spider
Example: the light flickered
Example: the snow glistens
Stick to one sentence per description and show the light at the start of a scene or when light changes.
Colour for mood
Colours can be presented in different ways. Each colour affects mood. Rose colour = calming whereas bruise-colours are alarming.
- Chocolate brown eyes vs piss yellow
- The grey of wash-out jeans vs the green of a stagnant pond
- vomit-coloured vs ketchup coloured
- as white as snow vs as black as charcoal
Remember that different characters experience colours in different way. White for example:
Chef -> flour white
Maid -> fresh sheets
mason -> plaster
Secretary -> paper
A blind man will feel his way through the world. He feels the angle of the ground beneath his feet as he carefully steps forward, his hands stretched out in front of him, protecting him from walking into a wall. Touch details can be as big as feeling a fist punch your face, or as delicate as feeling the texture of sand between your toes, feeling the softness of the dog’s ear or… feeling the pressure of your full bladder urging you to seek a bathroom. Touch details need to be sprinkled strategically in every scene, without calling attention to itself.
People tend to be tactile, always fidgeting, poking things, groping. There is always some tactile experience in every moment. Even if it’s just feeling the fabric of your clothes on your body or the cold stone tiles beneath your feet as you stand naked in your bedroom.
Interpersonal touches indicate the level of intimacy between people. It differentiates lovers from friends, parents from teachers and so on. It is also very telling of your character, for example someone with a history of (sexual) abuse might not like anyone to come into their personal space and even avoid hugs from the persons they love.
Don’t forget other touch-bases senses, such as air movement.
Avoid using the word “pain”. Describe the sensations (agony), the effects (his muscles ripped apart, snapping in two), the cause (knife slices into his stomach) and the consequences (screaming, fainting). Focus on the character’s reaction to the pain more than on the description of pain itself.
Smell adds realism
Use scents immediately after the point of view character arrives or at the moment he enters a new space. Smells trigger subconscious associations. This is especially handy when you want to keep your description short, since a smell can reveal more about a place than several visual cues. Keep in mind smells are stronger in warm environments than cold environments. Use up to two or three smells at a time.
Example: It smells of roses, freshly mowed grass and coffee.
Scents are closely related to emotion. Smelling rotting flesh will definitely make you feel disgust. It is extremely rare for someone to lose his ability to smell things, so your characters should smell things too. To make your reader dislike a character, smell is a valuable tool. A stinking broad man will sooner appear like a bad guy than your average Joe.
Scents evoke memories. Smelling the inside of your parental house will make you feel at home. Because of the close relation of smell and memory, you can use smells as the trigger for a flashback.
Sound adds excitement
Sound is an essential tool to create setting. Sound creates atmosphere, tone and mood. Sound easily differentiates between a coffee shop and a living room or a library and an abandoned street at night. Chose a sound characteristic of the setting but unrelated to the action of the character to create atmosphere. There are two categories of sound:
1 Props interact with the setting, creating sounds. Best to create fast-paced action rich scenes.
Example: The door bangs shut.
Example: The fast clicking of heels on the stone floor.
Use verb to bring the sounds to life.
Example: The car roared to life.
Example: The birds twittered restlessly.
2 Background sounds. People talk, giving a buzz of conversation.
Example: Happy music, the clinking of cups and laughter create the ambience of a cosy pub.
Example: Prayer and the sound of chains create a sense of doom and a feeling of sadness.
Good moments for soundscape:
- A character is waiting (time passes)
- There is a pause in speech (crickets)
- Emphasis on the moment (the crowd roars)
- raise suspense (he hears his heart in his throat)
Food is an important part of life. Sharing meals is an effective way for people to bond. Realistic people eat, and often gather to do so. Real people generally have at least three meals a day and steal a lick of cookie dough if the kitchen is rich with sweet baking scents. Taste provides amazing opportunities to explore feelings and interactions. A depressed person will find chocolate chip cookies tasteless or even disgustingly sweet. A man asking his wife to taste the soup he’s cooking, shows his importance on her opinion and creates a moment of tension about the degree of honesty and its consequences.
Other senses, easily forgotten
- Your sense of balance
- Feeling the temperature of your surroundings
Hall, R. (2014) Writing Vivid Settings