SENSE AND SENSIBILITIES
by Deborah Elliott-Upton
Uncle Billy: Uh huh. Breakfast is served, lunch is served, dinner …
George Bailey: No, no, no, no! – Anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles.
– from “It’s a Wonderful Life”
If you had to lose one of the five senses, which would you choose? It’s a hard choice and a loss I hope none of us would have to experience. Smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing are important in our reading choices, too. What senses are evoked when we see the words
- sunrise, sunset, snow-covered mountain range
- brewing coffee, rain about to fall, whiskey on her breath
- muted voices, jazz, laughter
- dark chocolate melting on your tongue, dill pickles, first coffee of the day
- a child’s hand in yours, chapped lips, a finger on a gun’s trigger
Do the senses sometimes lapse over another? Yes and isn’t that delightful? Well, okay, sometimes it isn’t. Just the sight of vomit sometimes makes others upchuck in some weird sort of empathy or maybe it evokes the memory of the feeling of vomiting or that the odor upsets our stomach and causes a bit of bile to creep up our throat.
Did the last paragraph make your stomach a little queasy? Hmm, mine, too, but it proves the point that words are visual vehicles writers use to convey the senses to our readers.
A good writer implements all the senses into his story, but a great one does it so well, you may not notice at first. The right words create visual images and trigger your memory to familiar smells or tastes, but they also could heighten suspense.
If the phone rang in the middle of the night and a voice from your past says, “Hello,” I’m sure a wealth of emotions and memories would crowd through your conscience enough to waken you quicker. Sounds can soothe or scare us. Consider the theme from “Jaws” – can you hear those opening bars and not cringe just a bit inwardly?
“Hailstones bounced off the Buick like machine-gun fire…”
– A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving
“The night wind moaned in the passes, and the small fire sputtered. The fuel burned down to coals, and the coals were a dull red except when touched briefly by the wind.”
– The Lonely Men by Louis L’Amour
“I passed a knife grinder sharpening a pair of scissors on a squealing whetstone.”
– from Green Slime and Jam by Lila Guzman.
It’s said the sense of smell is the one that triggers most memories. Realtors often suggest home owners bake cookies just before an Open House to put the customers in a good mood. Remember in the movie, “Michael,” that women were attracted to the angel in disguise (played by John Travolta) because he smelled like cookies? (Of course, looking like Travolta can’t hurt.) The scent of cookies usually evokes happy memories and now I always smile thinking of John Travolta.
“A kerchiefed woman threw open a second-story window and yelled, ‘Aqua va!’ as a warning to pedestrians. She emptied her chamber pot into the street. The slop landed several feet in front of me and nearly splattered my shoes. I drew my cape to my nose to lessen the stench and stepped around it.”
– from Lila Guzman’s Green Slime and Jam
“I was conscious of the fresh smell of the pines and of crushed pine needles underfoot. There was a faint smell of smoke from the camp, and I could make out the sound of Indian voices speaking. Inside me, I was still– waiting, thinking.”
– from The Lonely Men by Louis L’Amour.
When I see the word campfire, I immediately have an image not only in my mind of what one looks like, but also the smell. I can hear the crackle of the firewood and inhale the scent of the smoke lifting up into the sky. Memories flood through my mind like a mini DVD playing via auto pilot.
“With his hand, he shielded his eyes for a moment against the harsh, watty glare from the naked bulb over the table.”
– from “For Esmé–with Love and Squalor” by J. D. Salinger
“The occupant hadn’t been a total slob. There were no dirty dishes and the sink was clean. The furniture was old, probably secondhand, the bed wasn’t made, simply straightened out a little, and the small bathroom had a semblance of order to it. The refrigerator belonged in a museum, but it still worked, the unit on its top humming away. In it were two frozen dinners, half a carton of milk, some butter and a six-pack of beer.”
– “The Killing Man” by Mickey Spillane
“Its weathered clapboards, wide and paint-chipped, seemed to hang on the building by sheer determination.”
– from Deborah LeBlanc’s “Family Inheritance”
Visual writing takes the reader into the story. Using the senses well, the author takes us on a ride to a land created just to entertain us for a while. What a magnificent journey. I’m glad we don’t have to choose which of the senses we could do without in our lives or are reading materials.