Sorry to mislead you, but this isn’t a treatise on Jane Austen’s classic novel pitting one sister’s passion against the other sister’s sound reasoning, although that might make for an interesting post some day (Kait, you interested?). Full disclosure: way back when during high school, my English class was assigned Sense and Sensibility to read, followed by a book report. When school ended for the day I high-tailed it downtown to Cooper’s News Stand and the spiral rack which held Cliffs Notes for many of the classics. Fortunately, there were two copies available. I think I paid about three or four bucks for it, but it was worth every cent to spare the fifteen-year-old me from over three-hundred pages of drudgery (my opinion at the time). But I digress.
A few days ago I was reading through a blog listing URLs on numerous topics helpful to writers. One that caught my eye was about using the five senses to enhance our fiction: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. I’ll admit to thinking, How mundane. Any writer worth his salt knows that, even most beginners. And then it struck me—what a pompous ass I was to think that! Mr. Know-it-all-Author, how often do you use the five senses to enhance your own fiction? And so I decided to put it to the test, using my first Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Catch, as the guinea pig.
I grabbed a copy of the book and opened it to Chapter One. With bated breath (oh, the drama, the tension!), I put myself to the test and began reading:
A quick flick of the wrist and the lure flashed in the rising sun, arched thirty or so yards alongside the grass flats and landed with a quiet splash barely a foot from the edge.
Much to my delight (and surprise) I was able to scratch off the first two of the five senses in just the second sentence of the novel. Not bad, if I do say so myself.
“flashed” = Sight.
“splash” = Hearing.
Whoopee! So far, so good. I wondered if my luck would hold. I ventured on. At the bottom of the first page and on to the second page of Chapter One, I read,
The lure wiggled and skirted the grassy edge for ten or fifteen feet when I felt resistance.
“felt”—Hurrah for me! I now could scratch off sense number three, Touch. I’d only reached the top of the second page of my mystery and I already had used senses one, two, and three. Heck, I was—“The Natural,” to borrow the title from Bernard Malamud’s 1952 classic baseball novel. Would my luck continue? I scanned on down the page.
About halfway to the target a light breeze rose and drifted my way. That’s when the stench hit, almost gagging me.
Hot damn! “stench” certainly qualified for “Smell.” Four out of five senses used in the first two pages of Deadly Catch, and in order as listed on the blog I’d read, no less. Was it karma, or merely coincidence?
I could hardly contain myself as I ventured to the following page in search of the next—fifth— sense. Could I possibly go five for five, a perfect batting average of 1.000, or would my streak end at a very respectable .800? I took a deep breath and plunged ahead.
A couple pages into Chapter Two I found this:
I fished a roll of breath mints from my pocket and popped a couple in my mouth.
Hmm, does that qualify? The sentence doesn’t directly state anything about taste, but the implication is there. Mac had polished off a six-pack of beer while waiting for the Florida Marine Patrol to show up after he’d discovered the decomposed body he’d hooked beside the grass flat. It’s not a direct reference, but I think it qualifies. But not to worry: I didn’t score five for five. In between the “smell” and the “taste” references were other mentions of the previously used senses. So, no perfect five for five. But hey, batting .800 ain’t bad at all—just ask any baseball fan.
So, what’s the moral of this post? Well, I believe good writing will always include the five senses placed here and there throughout the story to enhance the reader’s enjoyment. Not on every page, or every other page. It just happened to occur in Deadly Catch. I had no idea of that when I reopened the book for the first time in many months. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. I don’t recall consciously planting the five senses in the opening pages of the book. It just happened. And that fact boosts my confidence in my writing.
Lesson learned? Using the five senses in fiction makes Sense and Sensibility.
What about you? If you’re a writer, does your work include these five senses to help enrich your readers’ enjoyment? And as readers, do our favorite books and authors employ the senses to widen our experience as we travel through the pages? Grab a book from the author of your choice and see how far into the story you get until you find all five. It’s fun, and a good way to test your reading chops!