Your High School Science Teacher was Wrong (and your creative writing instructor was, too)

Friday, December 15, 2017
by Gila Green

Writers must think about description. A lot.

We're told to paint in words, and to use vivid prose. But there's one piece of description-writing advice we hear most: Five Senses.

What many writing instructors really mean by this is to drop the visual emphasis and dip into sound, smell, taste and touch. Mostly, we're diligent about it. On paper every meal becomes a sensual, olfactory, mouth watering experience, or the opposite: even hot Turkish coffee cannot perk our wilted heroines.

Turns out this old-school advice needs a reboot and this is great news for your writing. There may be as many as seven or twenty-one human senses. There are whole worlds of senses to integrate into our descriptions, and no reason to recycle the same old five page after page.

What about incorporating equilibrioception (our sense of balance) into a character? Magnetoception anyone? This is the ability to detect magnetic fields, which is truly handy when you're trying to get somewhere. There are a myriad of ways these senses can be applied to fantasy, sci-fi, magical, horror or realism.

Is your character oblivious to time? The ability to perceive long vs. short periods of time passing may come from two different parts of our brain, but either way, it's a great sense to manipulate in your writing. Who doesn't have it? What are the stakes? One class participant based a story around it. It was about a couple who longed to move to Mexico because they couldn't fit into their time-conscious American society. Ouch! That brings me to pain receptors that are entirely separate from our overall sense of touch. How about a character with a very high or very low pain tolerance?

Proprioception is yet another sense you may not have heard of. It's the ability to distinguish your body from the rest of the world and move it (i.e., we can scratch our feet without looking because we know where they are). What about a character that lacks proprioception? She can't scratch her back without help. She can't find it.

So, should we ditch the five senses? No. But do add to your writer's toolkit when it comes to description. Even the ones we know can sport a new look. Take smell. Many of us learned humans have a weak olfactory system (compared to dogs or elephants, for example). That's a myth. We can sniff over one trillion scents.

Say goodbye to "my character can only pick up on overpowering smells like coffee and baked bread" and explore this sense without worrying that it's unrealistic or reserved for super powers.

As for taste, sweet, sour, salty and bitter are so yesterday. We have savory (cheese, meat) and maybe even fat and calcium. Scientists are split on that, but we're not. Go ahead. Make your heroine bite into that sandwich and be disgusted or charmed by the fatty sharp calcium taste. It will make your story that much more fresh and delicious to read.


Want to make your story come alive for the reader? Join Gila's latest WOW! Women on Writing class: Writing Fiction: Setting and Description, a four week course starting on Monday, January 8, 2018.
Early registration is recommended!

Gila Green's  young adult novel No Way Home is forthcoming from Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Her first novel, King of the Class was released by NON Publishing (Vancouver, 2013). Her short stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines in the US, Canada, Australia, Israel, and Hong Kong. Her collection, White Zion, is a finalist for the Doris Bakwin Award (Carolina Wren Press), and her work has been short-listed for WordSmitten’s TenTen Fiction Contest, the Walrus Literary Award, the Eric Hoffer Best New Writing Award, and the Ha’aretz Short Fiction Award. Her short stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines including Fiction Magazine, Akashic Books, Many Mountains Moving, The Saranac Review, Jewish Fiction, Pilot Pocket Books, The Dalhousie Review and Noir Nation. Please visit:


Joanne said...

Fascinating article. Thanks for widening my world. Will point my students to your blog post.

Amy Willoughby Burle said...

This is so interesting. I just saw something about this online in passing but didn't have time to stop and think about it. Of course as a writer the fleeting thought in my head was, wow that really opens a lot of doors. Thank you for putting this into words in such a great article. What a wonderful sense of internal atmosphere tapping into all these other senses can be in a story.

Margo Dill said...

I really enjoyed this too! I agree with everything Amy said here!

Gila Green said...

Thanks so much for letting me know. I'll consider a follow-up post.

Renee Roberson said...

This is so useful! I remember my daughter reading "A Mango-Shaped Space" by Wendy Mass, where she described synesthesia, which results in a person experiencing crossed responses to stimuli. The main character could "see" sounds and even letters in the alphabet appeared to her as a different colors. I thought it was a great premise for a book, and then Therese Walsh wrote an adult novel called "The Moon Sisters" which involved the same topic. There are so many ways you can play around with the senses--thanks for the tip!

Angela Mackintosh said...

This is an excellent post, Gila. This is a timely topic for me. I started an essay a couple months ago about my cat who died at sixteen, and I titled it, "Senses of Noodle" (Noodle was her name). I had each section and story about her labeled to each sense, and I realized that five was not enough to tell all the stories I wanted to tell about her. So I looked up other senses and boy, was I surprised! I included recognition, thermoception, equilibrioception, proprioception, nociception, and I'm not done yet. ;) Thanks for the post! You always have mind blowing advice. :)

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