In the real world, we tend to only notice the input of our senses when something is wrong. Typically our sensory perception is passive. Our eyes, ears, nose, and skin are always feeding our brains some sort of signal, but that input isn’t always at our top level of attention.
Right now, your eyes are letting you read this text, but until I pointed it out you likely weren’t thinking about it. Little funky shapes on the screen that trigger predetermined meaning within your brain—they’re not new or novel. Habit and training have made interpretation automatic, so you don’t have to pay close attention. Your attention can be better used on deciphering meaning.
Again, we don’t tend to notice our senses unless something goes wrong, or something unusual and unexpected is happening—we stopped smelling our own perfume or cologne, but we catch a whiff of smoke and we notice. We’ve tuned out the jazz we have playing in the background, but when someone drops a coffee mug and it shatters on the floor, we notice. And when we’re reading or watching television and the power snaps off, we notice.
In the real world, sensory input tells us a constant story, but it’s almost always “Everything is fine, it’s business as usual.” It’s only when something changes that we start paying closer attention.
In fiction, things are a bit different. The reader doesn’t have all of the sensory input by default—there are no real signals transmitting to tell the reader automatically that the protagonist is wearing cologne, or that there is jazz playing, or that the room is a little chilly. The only way they get that information is if the author explicitly tells them.
And that limitation can work to the author’s advantage.
Welcome to the Sensescape
While reading, the reader is in a sort of perpetual fugue state. They’re disassociated with their own reality, to a degree, and are tuned into the reality of your story. And because we humans are so used to sensory input fading into the background, while reading we tend to “fill in the blanks” of all that sensory detail, falling back on default memories of what spaces and places are like, while in them. We don’t notice that there’s no sensory input coming our way, because we’re habitually trained to not notice anyway—no news is good news, when it comes to sensory info.
Basically, writers don’t have to spend time crafting the sensescape of their worlds—the panoply of sensory information that comprises our local surroundings. It’s the environment we only notice when it changes. And in the absence of any new or novel information, we tend to ignore it by default.
The sensescape in the real world is omnipresent, but goes unnoticed because it’s business as usual. We’re accustomed to it, so we stop noticing it. In the written world, that sensescape is missing entirely—sort of. Readers are so accustomed to not noticing the sensory input all around them that they never question its absence on the page.
This is what works to the writer’s advantage most of the time. That absence of a sensory environment reads as “business as usual,” and the reader sort of builds their own, filling in the gaps with that general sense that everything is normal, everything is fine.
We let the reader construct the sensory environment so we don’t have to. And much of the time, we use the power of cliché and stereotype to do the work for us. If I write “Kotler opened his eyes and took in the details of the surrounding jungle,” I don’t necessarily have to explain the sounds or smells or the texture of things in order for you to have a pretty decent picture of where Kotler has found himself. Even if you’ve never actually been in a jungle yourself, you’ve likely seen scenes in films or on television, read about them in other books, or maybe you’ve just extrapolated from and synthesized related experiences, such as walking in a forest near your home, and the sounds, smells, and sights you encountered there.
Without the sensory detail, you’re probably going to navigate this virtual landscape just fine. But with the sensory detail, you may actually reach a level where you experience that landscape.
Consider the following:
Kotler opened his eyes and took in the details of the surrounding jungle. The heavy, musty scent of the soil filled his nostrils, so powerful it overwhelmed him, might have choked him if he hadn’t forced himself to breath steadily. He felt the loamy ground beneath him, grateful for its yielding texture, softening his landing after being hurled through the jungle canopy. It was edging toward dark, and details were scant in the fading light, but he could hear the sounds of the jungle—the mosquitoes, as they buzzed him pre-meal, but also in the distance, the growls and yowls and screams of jungle life that felt far more sinister.
Sensory detail is really getting noticed now! And because of this, we’re starting to get a sense of the space Kotler occupies. We know this isn’t someone’s backyard, for sure. It’s much more threatening than that.
The sensory information in this scene is helping us set the tone, which is dark and foreboding. We can feel the danger that Kotler is in.
But what’s more subtle are the hints of Kotler’s own personality that are revealed.
We Are What We Notice
Just as in real life, sensory information stays on the down-low until something shifts or changes. How we react to that change can reveal something about our character.
Consider this scene:
Liz lounged on the sofa, reading a novel, enjoying her time off. She sipped coffee as she read, savoring the flavor and the aroma. A new blend. Something Kotler had given her, from one of the shops he’d stumbled across in his travels.
The dogs started barking.
She glanced up and sighed. They always went nuts when the UPS guy dropped off packages, tucking them behind the big column on the front porch. They’d calm down eventually.
The barking wasn’t coming from the front of the house—the dogs were jumping and scratching at the door to the back patio. They were yelping and whining, growling and barking. The sound of their scratching on the door was constant and loud.
Liz put the book and coffee cup on the side table and rose slowly. She watched. She listened.
The first bit of sensory info we get is Liz tasting and smelling the coffee. That’s a relatively benign sort of reveal—it’s a common enough experience that the reader can easily identify with Liz. It’s so normal, in fact, that it sends a signal to the reader’s brain: Everything is fine.
That’s an important setup. Because drama and tension come from upsetting the expectations of the reader. We’re controlling that, in small part, by telling the reader what expectations to have. People smell and taste coffee all the time. It’s normal. It’s safe. And because it’s a safe and normal activity, we feel safe and normal in the scene.
Then we disrupt that sense of safety and normalcy by turning another safe and normal event on its ear.
We tell the reader that the dogs barking isn’t really a big deal. They do it all the time, freaking out when the UPS guy swings by. Millions of us own dogs, and we know what this is like. Even if we don’t own dogs, we’ve experienced them enough to know that barking is a common behavior.
But here’s the twist: Liz expects this sensory input to come from the front door, so when she realizes it’s coming from the back, it triggers an alarm. Something isn’t right.
The fact that Liz would give more notice to the dogs barking at the back door than to the front door is a detail that we can use to tell the reader something about this character. For one, we know she’s not particularly worried about people approaching the house, except from this one direction. We know she trusts the dogs to look out, but she is aware that they may overreact. She’s used to it.
We also know, without explicitly stating it, that whatever or whoever is at the back door, it’s unexpected for the dogs to be so excited over it. It’s unusual activity, and we know that because Liz notices it.
Without actually saying it, we’re able to tell the reader that the character is experiencing some anxiety, which tells the reader that they should be experiencing that, too.
Looping back to our scene with Kotler in the jungle, we find that the things he pays attention to give us some insight into his character as well. We don’t know how Kotler found himself flung through the jungle canopy to land on the jungle floor, but he doesn’t seem all that surprised by it. He’s more focused on taking in details: The loamy ground, the musty smell, the buzzing of insets and the distant sounds of jungle life.
Kotler is analytical in orienting himself to this environment. He’s taking inventory of where he is, and because of that we readers share in some of his sense of foreboding. Those distant jungle sounds, in particular, have us worried, because they clearly have Kotler worried. And we know they have him worried, because he assigns some emotional context to them: “…the growls and yowls and screams of jungle life that felt far more sinister.”
That brings us to another aspect of sensory perception that’s important for characterization.
The Sixth Senses
Touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell—the five senses that make up our everyday experience. And when we talk about a “sixth sense,” we’re usually talking about something paranormal in nature—extrasensory perception, or ESP. Psychic impulses. Information that comes into our brains that doesn’t have a natural source we can explain.
I’m not going to try to convince you that psychic powers are real (I knew you’d ask…). But in terms of characterization, I’m going to lump it in with other forms of information that could be considered sensory, and that can help us to better understand a character.
Along with ESP, let’s toss in instinct, intuition, gut feelings, and all those other cues what we seem to understand as humans but can’t quite explain.
Our impression of the world around us, as filtered through these “extra senses,” can be problematic in the real world. You may be someone who falls back on gut instinct and intuition while navigating life but allowing it to make all of your financial and investment decisions may not be the best plan. We temper gut feelings with facts and logic, when we can, to safeguard us against doing something foolish.
But those instincts and feelings are sometimes all we have when we’re suddenly confronted with a new or strange scenario. And for our characters, we can use those gut feelings to reveal a bit more about who they are.
If a Broadway actress who has rarely ever left New York finds herself having to navigate the darkness in a lost Mayan Temple, late at night with no one around, we can assume she’ll be terrified by the experience. But what if she’s fine with it?
What if, for reasons that aren’t obvious, she’s calmly moving around in the darkness, feeling her way along, the rough texture of the stones as her only clue as to where she is?
That setup disrupts our expectations for such an event. It intrigues us, for sure. But it also tells us something about the character: She’s not afraid, even though we feel she should be.
Without any specifics or details about our character, we know that she’s apparently brave, and we know that she can probably take care of herself. Or, depending on how we describe the scene, we may simply know that she’s confident, that she was expecting this scenario and knows just what to do.
If she were whimpering as she moved, if we described “an icy feeling of dread” as she navigated the darkness, if she heard her footsteps echoing too loudly, and worried about what terror they might summon, then we’d experience that fear right along with her. But having that expectation upset by her being calm and moving with confidence reveals a lot about who she is, or at least what her state of mind may be.
A character’s gut instincts can also tell us something about them.
There was nothing about the man that seemed overtly suspicious. He didn’t show signs of nervousness or anxiety. He didn’t fidget, didn’t tear at his napkin or even so much as tap his toe. He simply sat, quiet, avoiding eye contact. Kotler had no reason to think he was up to something, but he couldn’t help watching the man, tracking him. Something wasn’t right.
In this example, not only do we get some insight into Kotler from his observation of the man, but we also get insight into the man himself. There’s nothing specific about him—no description of his build, his clothing, his hair color, nothing. He doesn’t even do anything. But through Kotler’s sensory and extra-sensory observation of him, we already know we can’t trust the man. We know something is wrong because of Kotler’s gut feeling.
“He smelled the smoke, and he smiled.”
When you are building your scenes, leveraging sensory input will allow you to add dimensions of realism to the setting, and will help you to set tone. You can use sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and even instinct to tell the reader how they should feel in this new environment in which they find themselves. But much more subtle and powerful is the ability to reveal your characters using the senses.
Stories are about change, and primarily about change in characters. In the real world, our senses are triggers for change and action. If we smell smoke, we go check the stove. If we feel a stinging sensation on our sandaled feet, we leap to get away from the ant pile we’ve stepped in. If we see a deer run into the lane ahead of us, we slam on the breaks and feel our hearts pound after the near miss.
Just as these sensory inputs can alter our choices and our lives in the real world, they can do the same for your characters, while also revealing who your characters are.
If your character smells smoke and smiles…
If your character feels the sting of the ants and breaks down weeping…
If your character sees the deer and punches the accelerator instead of the brake…
We learn something with each reaction to that sensory input—both about the environment and about the characters themselves.
We also learn something about our characters through what sensory input they notice.
If they’re in a nursery and they smell antiseptic…
If they’re asleep at 2 AM and hear a child’s laughter from the closet…
If they are on a date and see spinach in their date’s teeth…
What they notice, in context, can tell us a lot about the character and the environment.
While writing, or during the edit and rewrite process, spend some time wondering what senses would be engaged for your characters, within your scenes. What hints can you lay, using sight, sound, smell, taste? What emotions can you evoke using the instincts of your characters? How can you reveal qualities of your characters using nothing more than what they notice in the environment around them?
Using sensory information instead of overt exposition is a powerful way to engage your readers in the story, to reveal character, setting, and tone without excess verbiage.
Remember, in the world of your story you are the creator. The reader only experiences what you give them to experience. By being strategic with your use of the senses, you can craft a rich and textured world that keeps the reader glued to the page, not letting them go until the story is done.