Auditory Sensory Details

Anne Vallayer-Coster,  Portrait of a Violinist

Anne Vallayer-Coster, Portrait of a Violinist



Sound is critically important in writing. A world that is rich in visual detail but has no sound in it will still feel flat to a reader, like a place made of beautiful paper cut-outs.

Even our culture's strongly visual media, like movies and television, recognize the impact sound can make. The tone of the actors' voices, the ambient sounds of the settings, and the sound track laid in alongside the visuals contribute greatly to the context and depth of the action and dialogue. Try watching a film clip with the sound turned off, and then watching it again with the sound on. How much difference did the sound make in your emotional response? That's how much difference sound can make in your writing. 

Sound happens when vibrations are transmitted through a physical medium, are captured by our ears, and are interpreted by our nervous systems into meaningful messages. Usually the medium of transmission is air, but water can also carry sound vibrations, as can solid objects--consider the cliche of the old western scout putting his ear to the ground or the railroad tracks to listen for approaching horses or trains. Try knocking on a table, then lay your ear against the table's surface and knock again. What is different about the sound? 

Remember, too, that our own bodies can conduct sounds, including the internal sounds our bodies themselves make, such as the beating of our hearts.

Sound can be described in terms of its qualities, such as: 

  • pitch - how high or low a sound is
  • intensity - how loud or soft
  • duration - is it a quick, sharp sound, or a long, smooth one?
  • timbre - the richness and complexity of the sound
  • rhythm - are there repeating patterns in the sound?
  • harmonics - is it a pleasant, melodious sound, or chaotic noise?
  • distance - how far away the origin of a sound seems to be
  • direction - where the sound seems to be coming from 
  • reverberation - is there an echo?

Another way to effectively describe sound is through the use of figurative language. Similes that draw comparisons to sounds most readers will have experienced can be effective: it roared like thunder. So can onomatopoeic words (words that make the sound they represent) like sizzle and splat.

 A lot can be revealed about characters by how they experience and react to sound in the story. Remember that the quality of an individual person's hearing is not always constant. In times of stress, hearing might be sharpened--though the extreme stress response of fight / flight / freeze / or fawn, can cause hearing to be deadened (a phenomenon called auditory exclusion).

Hearing is also frequently sharper when vision is obscured or limited, such as when a person is wearing a blindfold, or when there is no light. People with visual impairments often have a more highly developed sense of hearing than average. Some people are just highly sensitive to certain frequencies of sound and can find everyday noises uncomfortable, or even painful.

Have you considered making one of your characters hearing impaired? How will that affect the character's interactions with other characters and with the world in general?

One of the most obvious places where the auditory sense comes into play in writing is in the dialogue. Whole books have been written about dialogue and how to make itsound right.  Dialogue must sound natural (which is not the same thing as being identical to real speech), and flow smoothly, and carry a characteristic voice that is authentic to the personality of each character. When it doesn't, readers notice, and will complain that itsounds wrong. 

And really, if you think about it, the act of writing is, itself, the act of encoding spoken language--auditory sounds--so that another person can decode it later and "hear" what the writer has to say. Reading flows more smoothly when the writing follows natural speech patterns. And the cadence of the written word can help create a desired mood. This phenomenon is put to good use in poetry, but can also be used to enrich prose. 

Here's an example that incorporates several techniques I've touched on here. The music is partly described directly in terms of pitch, tempo, and rhythm, but the description also includes some metaphorical language such as the "pulse" of the drum beats and the "wailing" melody of the flute. When the dancing starts, the text itself carries a subtle rhythm created by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the words themselves that makes the text feel like dancing.

“As the night deepened, and the feasting wound to a close, a low, throbbing pulse of drum beats worked its way through the hum of conversation. Another drum joined in, higher in pitch, and faster in tempo. A third drum began to beat a counterpoint, and the villagers started clapping in rhythm with the building cadence. A flute laid a thin, wailing melody atop the thrumming beat, another added a twining harmony, and slowly, dancers began to weave their way into the circle of light that pooled around the bonfire. 

It began with the men, heavy boots keeping time with the drums, stomping and turning, shuffling and sliding, forward and back, as they circled the fire. The women joined in, bending and swaying to the music of the flutes, gliding and stopping, pivoting and stepping, in a circle that revolved in the opposite direction to that of the men. ”

— Amy Beatty, Dragon Ascending

Careful crafting of the auditory aspect of your story, both in the descriptions of the story world and in the auditory experience the words themselves create for the reader, can give your writing an added level of richness and depth. 

Character Relationships

Edmund Leighton

Edmund Leighton


One question that has proven invaluable in our journey with autism is:

"How will this affect the relationship?" 

I find myself asking this question over, and over, and over again. The "this" in question might be anything from implementing a new therapy option, to making a particular change in our daily routine, to insisting on the consumption of vegetable matter at the dinner table.

It's a question, in fact, that lives constantly in the back of my mind, because when the relationship is healthy, when there's a good rapport between my son and me, cooperation happens; progress happens; peace, and love, and joy happen. I can push a little harder, and ask a little more, and wait a little longer--and that's how we move forward.

When the relationship is bad--CHAOS. In capital letters. And it won't go away until the trust is rebuilt and the relationship is fixed.  

This doesn't mean I never lecture my son about eating his vegetables, or unexpectedly reorganize our plans for the day, or insist that he participate in therapeutic activities that push him out of his comfort zone. It just means that I need to balance those kinds of things with positive interactions--a smile, a favorite entree once in a while, watching an episode of Phineas and Ferb with him, or sharing in his triumphant excitement over the defeat of the big boss in his latest video game. And it means sometimes "giving" a little to maintain that balance--maybe on a day full of massive disruptions to the routines that help him feel safe, lima beans are not so critically important. It means that I am constantly taking the temperature of our relationship and making adjustments. And asking the question: 

"How will this affect the relationship?"

I'm finding that this question also comes in handy with creating well-rounded characters in my writing and developing convincing relationships between them. As my characters move through the world of their story, I find myself automatically asking how this choice, or event, or conversation is going to affect the relationships between the characters. Will it build, or destroy trust? Will it deepen affection, or erode it? How much or how little? 

And, as in real life, the answer to the critical question of howthe fictional relationship will be affected is better understood when I ask a follow-up question:


To really understand how a particular choice, or event, or action will affect the relationship between me and my son, I need to understand him as a unique, individual person. I need to know that for this particular person, a hug is not usually a positive experience because of the tactile over-sensitivity that's part of his autism. So offering a hug might affect my relationship with him differently than it would affect my relationship with my very cuddly daughter. It's impossible to really understand the "how" unless you also understand the "because."

The same is true in writing fiction. To really understand how a relationship will be affected by whatever is happening in the story, it is vital to understand the nature and history of each of the characters in the relationship, as well as the nature and history of the relationship itself. The same event will affect different relationships in different ways. To illustrate, let's look at an example in which one person hands another person a piece of fruit. Consider the effects of that simple action in the context of three different relationships: 

Relationship 1: Annie is packing her lunch for school; so far she has a bologna and cheese sandwich, and a packet of potato chips. Her father hands her an apple. 

Relationship 2: Snow White has just finished cleaning the dwarfs' cottage and is resting on a bench in the sunshine just outside the cottage door. An old peddler woman hands her an apple. 

Relationship 3: Adam is relaxing in his garden paradise. Eve hands him an apple.

In each relationship, the act of one person handing another person an apple takes on a different meaning because of who the characters in the relationship are, and because of the history of each relationship--and therefore, the same action will affect each relationship differently. Understanding the personality of each character in your story, and at least a little bit of the backstory that will inform their choices, helps in creating more convincing and consistent dynamics in the relationships. 

In real life, I use these questions--how will this affect the relationship, and why--to maintain a stable, constructive relationship between me and my son. In fiction, though, the goal isn't always to preserve and stabilize the relationships between characters. Sometimes the author's goal is to escalate conflict, increase tension, and throw the characters' world into chaos. As the author, you can choose which direction to push your characters--but only if you understand how each choice would affect the relationships, and why they would have that effect on those particular characters. 

Whether you are pushing your fictional world to a climactic crescendo of chaos, or restoring the balance in the denouement, understanding andshowing the effects of the action of the story on the relationships between the characters helps readers relate to the characters, and draws them further into the story. 

Character Motivations

Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer



If I had a nickle for every time I've heard, "Mom, why did (s)he do that?" I would be a wealthy, wealthy woman. I have complained sometimes that I spend half my life trying to explain the obvious (Why do people greet each other when they meet?), and the other half trying to explain the unknowable (Why did that toddler pick the green lollipop instead of the orange one?). And strangely, the two seem to overlap with disconcerting regularity (Why did a stranger stick his gum on the bottom of my chair?).

Unfortunately for me, attempting to explain the world to someone for whom the world frequently makes no logical sense doesn't pay in nickles. Fortunately, however, it does pay in other ways. I have gained some valuable insights from both observing human behavior more closely than I otherwise would have, and pondering the meanings, motivations, and consequences of that behavior. Believe me, even the most seemingly mundane action performed by the most seemingly ordinary person can have layers of meaning and motivation that most of us will never guess at--and if you're watching closely, you might catch glimpses beneath the surface. As behavioral therapists are fond of saying, "All behavior is communication." Everything a person does says something about the person--about what's important to her, about his past, about what he wants from her, or how she values herself relative to others. It's fascinating to watch, and guess, and wonder. 

The strategy I've found to be most effective in answering, for my son, that real-life question, "Why did (s)he do that?" is to say, "Since I can't know for sure what's happening in another person's mind, I can only guess. But here are some reasons I can think of that someone might do a thing like that." And then I list as many possibilities as I can think of, and encourage my son to do the same. Then I will point out some contextual clues I can see, and tell him which possibility I think is most likely the true one based on the clues. It has become a sort of game between us, and although some of our postulations can sometimes become pretty silly and far-fetched, I think the exercise has helped improve my son's ability to imagine the world from someone else's perspective. 

And that's what fiction writers do, really, isn't it? We imagine another perspective, and we write it down. That sensation of being able to see inside another mind and actually know why (s)he did that--something that none of us can actually do in real life--is one of the things that most draws readers into the story. A character's motivations don't always need to be spelled out in detail on the page; sometimes it's best merely to hint at them and let the reader fit the pieces together and guess based on the contextual clues. But even when the motivations aren't specifically spelled out on the page, if theauthor knows what motivates a character, it's easier to make the character's actions seem consistent throughout the story and to make the character feel like a real, whole person (or alien, or fantastical creature, or y'know...whatever). 

My challenge to you, dear reader, whether you're a writer or not, is to spend some time watching people. Take a notebook with you, and write down a specific action that you observe, in as much detail as you're able, including any contextual clues you might notice. Then write down as many possible reasons as you can think of that this particular person might have performed that specific action. Begin with the most obvious reasons you can think of, and then let your list grow into the realm of the outrageous. Maybe he's on the run from the mafia. Maybe she's an alien scientist sent here to learn how to mimic human behavior, but she doesn't quite have it right yet. Maybe you'll generate some really good story ideas in the process. 

(And if you want a really eye-opening experience, spend an afternoon with an autistic person of your acquaintance, and ask him or her to point out to you things people do that don't make sense. I guarantee, you'll find it fascinating.)

The ABCs of Human Behavior

Albert Anker  Schreibender Knabe

Albert Anker Schreibender Knabe



One of the most scientifically validated therapies for autism is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). For the purposes of this post, I'm not going to describe the methods or philosophies of ABA in detail, I'm only going to tell you how one aspect of this approach has helped me in my writing. 

The part of ABA I want to focus on are the ABCs of behavior. The ABCs are very helpful in describing a behavior, understanding why that behavior is happening when and how it does, and adjusting the behavior in a desired direction. 

In this context, ABC translates as follows: 

A = Antecedents
B = Behavior
C = Consequences

Antecedents are things that happen, or environmental conditions that exist before the target behavior occurs, and influence the behavior. The behavior is the action that's being examined; in therapy, a behavior should be described specifically and concisely (not "he was mean," or "she was good," but "he hit another person," or "she complied with a request the first time she was asked"). Consequences are things that happen, or ways in which the environmental conditions change after the behavior occurs.

Therapists observe and record ABC data, then look for patterns. When a pattern is identified, often either the antecedents or the consequences can be adjusted in a way that influences the behavior. Sometimes, the patterns can be surprising.

I remember a conversation I had with my son's first grade teacher in which she explained that she had tried keeping him in from recess as a negative consequence for a particular "challenging behavior", but that the behavior only seemed to be escalating. I explained to her that this was likely because recess wasn't a pleasant experience for him. Being forced to participate in unstructured time with out of control children in an outdoor environment where the light was too bright and everyone was being too loud wasn't a "reward," and being allowed to avoid it wouldn't seem like a "punishment." And if all he had to do to avoid a painful, frightening situation was to behave in a "challenging" way, he was smart enough to do that. We came up with some other options for positive and negative consequences for the behavior, and it quickly improved. 

It turns out that the same ABCs are useful tools for writing.

On the macro level, a story generally revolves around some kind of interesting, exciting, life-changing climactic event, the "Behavior" --although, maybe for writing we want to say B is for "Battle" instead; it sounds more writerly. But to make it convincing, and to give it the desired impact, it's important to show the Antecedents--the conditions that existed before the climactic event, and the actions and events that led up to that climax. Readers won't tolerate a climax that seems to just randomly happen out of the blue for no reason at all--that's called deus ex machina, and it hasn't been popular since ancient Greece. Furthermore, readers won't really care about the Battle until they understand the possible outcomes of the Battle, and theConsequences that could happen depending on which outcome triumphs. And the story won't feel complete until the reader sees, at least briefly, how the Consequences played out after the Battle was won or lost. 

On the micro level, readers want stories in which the actions taken by the characters make sense in the context of the story. They want to know what led up to (antecedents) the hero jumping in the car and driving halfway across the county to crawl down the mine shaft (behavior) where he happens to discover the next clue to the mystery (consequences). 

Another way to use this tool is to use your character's "quirks" to push behaviors in unexpected directions without destroying the illusion of reality. My son's behavior seemed irrational to his teacher until she understood the reason for it. Additional information and a slight adjustment in perspective (in writing this is called a "reveal"), made his unexpected behavior seem not only rational, but inevitable. And that's what we want in our stories.

Keeping in mind not only what happens in your story (the "behavior" or "battle"), but the things that led to it happening (antecedents) and the things that will happen as a result (consequences), can help you, as the author, create a story that flows naturally and logically from beginning to end, with characters that act rationally, and events that make sense. 

Conflict: A Straight Right Angle

Antoine Chintreuil, Les Rogations à Igny

Antoine Chintreuil, Les Rogations à Igny


Not long after our son was diagnosed with autism* my husband and I attended a workshop for parents of autistic children in which the presenter used a metaphor she called the "straight right angle."

The shortest distance between two points, she reminded us, is a straight line. (She drew two points on the board, with a line connecting them.) And that's how most of us live our lives, most of the time. We see something we want to obtain or achieve, and we take the shortest possible route to get to it--metaphorically, a "straight line." That's not to say it's always "easy," it's just that it's the most obvious, direct route to what we want, even if it's a lot of hard work to walk the road from point A to point B. There are even societal systems and conventions to help people get from standard point As to commonly desired point Bs--for example, the education system, and the conventions of job seeking.

Sometimes, though, there can be an obstruction in the road. Metaphorically speaking, someone has built a wall between point A and point B. (She drew a line intersecting the line connecting the two points.) This obstruction can take many forms. In autism, you might run into communication difficulties, or overwhelming sensory processing quirks, or extreme difficulty understanding and managing the emotions that arise along the journey and the behaviors that accompany them. Whatever the obstruction is, it's real, and it makes it impossible for you to go down that straight line from point A to point B.

Rather than giving up on the goal, however, it's often best to abandon that "straight line" route, and instead find a way around the wall. And this is what the presenter referred to as a "straight right angle." It's not a line, it's an angle running from point A to the edge of the wall, and back up to point B. (She drew this on the board.) But it's still the shortest route from point A to point B for a person with this obstruction blocking the straight line.** The presenter encouraged parents, when they run into difficulty with their non-standard kids, to stop trying to get through the wall by pushing harder and harder at the same spot, and instead to take a step back, and look for the straight right angle. For example, one might teach an intelligent, but non-verbal autistic child to communicate by pointing at pictures.

In writing, the "straight line" is a boring story. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, the end. Who cares? Detective looks at body, detective arrests killer, the end. Yawn. Point A, point B, the end. So what?

No, it's the obstacles that make the story interesting, or suspenseful, or romantic, or whatever it is you're going for. We don't want to see our heroes strolling jauntily from point A to point B, we want to see them hit the wall. And then we want to see them try to climb the wall--and we want to see them fall. And break. And get up and try again. We want to see them search for the end of the wall and figure out how to go around. We want to see what will happen when it turns out to be only the first in a series of walls. Or when they discover that it's not actually a wall after all, but an enclosure that completely surrounds point B. We want to see them hunt for a back door, only to find it locked. We want our heroes to hunt for windows, and when they're bullet-proof, to try to go down the chimney, or dig a tunnel, or make a bomb out of toilet cleaner and gum wrappers.

And then we want to see them triumph!

So, when you're working on a story, and your characters at point A think point B is what they want, build walls. Build them high, and thick, and strong. And then look for the straight right angle, because in it lies the story.

*Note 1: The original diagnosis was Asperger's Syndrome, but in the most recent diagnostics manual Asperger's has been rolled together with some related developmental disorders and renamed Autism Spectrum Disorder, so I call it that now. I found it easiest to just refer to it as autism because even back then Asperger's was recognized by most researchers as a sort of subset of autism, but most of the lay people we needed to explain ourselves to had never heard of Asperger's, and "autism" was a handy shorthand to get us where we needed to be without unnecessarily lengthy explanations.

**Note 2: I have more than once reflected over the years that this idea of a "straight right angle" would be rather grating to the literal mind of an autistic person. The angle she drew was not a "right angle," it was an acute angle--but it could just as easily have been an obtuse angle, or a curve, or a series of line segments forming a path that changed directions several times, such as a W. Furthermore, no angle can be accurately described as "straight;" if it's straight, it's a line, not an angle. Still, the "straight right angle" is useful if it can be understood as a figurative label for the idea of finding some way around obstructions, rather than as a literal description of a shape.

Sensory Experience

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec  Write

Henri de Toulouse-LautrecWrite


We gather information about the world, ourselves, and people around us through what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. I have often been struck by how important this sensory experience is both in autism and in writing.

Because autism affects the nervous system, many people with autism experience sensory input differently than most people around them do. As the mother of a child with autism, I’ve learned to be extra aware of the sensory environment we move through so I can help my son either avoid problematic sensory stimulation, or be prepared to appropriately employ the coping mechanisms we have learned over the years.

In writing, sensory information helps a story’s setting feel real, sets the mood of a scene, and makes the characters come to life. But knowing how much sensory detail to include, and where to include it can be its own kind of challenge.  

In real life, a given environment is packed with sensory information. The quality of the light, all of the objects you can see, sounds, smells, textures, the temperature and movement of the air, and on and on. A typical person’s brain sorts through all that input and chooses the most important information to focus on, while filtering out what it deems to be insignificant.

For some people with autism, one sensory challenge can be that the brain might not always filter out the “background noise.” This can make it difficult to focus on the voice of the person speaking instead of on the hum of the air conditioner, the whir of the cooling fan in a nearby computer, the way the slight flicker of the fluorescent lights shimmers on the textured wallpaper, or the movement of the ant crawling across the carpet next to the table leg. The sheer volume of sensory input can be confusing and overwhelming. And if a sensory channel becomes too overloaded by incoming sensory information, the human brain can even shut off a sense entirely as a defense mechanism (a little-known fact I learned after I realized that my son was experiencing periodic bouts of temporary deafness).

In writing, including too many sensory details can have a similar effect. Lengthy descriptions can be confusing, can distract from the important movement of the story, and can even cause a reader to “shut down” and abandon the book entirely. Descriptions often work best when authors filter them down to just a few key sensory details.

Most people with typical nervous systems experience some times when their senses seem to kick into high gear, and other times when they seem deadened. For example, alcohol, some medications, and exhaustion can make a person less responsive to sensory input. And stress, whether it’s good stress (like a surprise party or a first kiss) or bad stress (like being shot at or having to give a speech) can cause the body to produce hormones that kick the senses into high gear. Many people with autism experience these shifts in sensory sensitivity to an extreme that can become uncomfortable, or even painful.

In writing, changing the sensitivity of a character’s sensory experience to fit the circumstances can help make a scene feel more real. For example, during a first kiss scene the characters might be excruciatingly aware of the softest touches against their skin, the scent of cologne or candles, the soft sounds of breathing, the flush of the beloved’s cheeks.

At such times, characters may also be more aware of internal sensory information, not just external. A character might hear the pounding of his own heart, feel goosebumps rise on her skin, see the afterimage of a bright light even when eyes are closed, taste fear.

However, if every scene is presented with the same deep level of minute, focused sensory detail, the story will become uncomfortable, even painful to read.

A further consideration in choosing which sensory details to include should be the fact that no two people will experience even the same, identical sensory environment in exactly the same way. Each person’s sensory perception is affected by their own past experiences, personal traumas, physical and psychological differences, and so forth. For example, when I was younger I cleaned hotel rooms to earn money for college. For many years afterward, whenever I entered a hotel room, I found myself very aware of small details of the room’s arrangement, such as how many hangers there were and how they were grouped, and whether the seam on the toilet paper wrapper faced the wall. My traveling companions rarely noticed these things. A lot can be implied about a character by carefully choosing which sensory details that character notices and how he or she reacts to them.

Finding the right balance of descriptive detail to action, and choosing the best sensory details to convey the most meaningful description along with the proper mood can be a very tricky art form to master. Writers too often focus on just what can be seen and heard, while neglecting the other senses. The next few posts in this series will explore ideas for how individual senses might be used to advantage in writing.

Visual Sensory Details

Andrea Del Sarto, Portrait of a Young Man

Andrea Del Sarto, Portrait of a Young Man



Vision is one of the primary senses through which most people gather information about their surroundings. It is the ability of the eye and brain to sense and interpret electromagnetic energy within the range of the visible spectrum.

Most writers naturally incorporate a lot of visual information in their work. Vision can tell us what things look like, how big they are, where they are located in relationship to each other, and so forth. But some of the more subtle aspects of vision are sometimes neglected. Consider how some of the following aspects of vision could be used to evoke a mood, create suspense, or even give a deeper understanding of a character.

  • How much light is there in this setting? Is there bright ambient light that reveals everything? Are there areas of shadow? If it’s dark, is there light from the moon or stars, or is it the thick, choking kind of darkness that lurks deep inside caves?
  • What kind of light is there? Is it bright, clear daylight? The grey light of an overcast day? Bleached fluorescent lighting? Warm, flickering firelight? A wavering flashlight? A circle of pale yellow illumination cast by a streetlight that’s only partially successful in holding back the darkness? Colored light from a neon sign? The choppy light of a strobe? What kind of shadows are cast by your light?
  • How clear is a character’s vision in the given circumstances? Is it foggy or raining? Is the character peering through a lens that isn’t quite focused? Are bright reflections dazzling the viewer’s eyes and making it difficult to see? Perhaps the character is peering through a crack in a wall and can see only a narrow strip of what is happening. Maybe the character is blind-folded, but can make out moving shapes through the weave of the fabric. What about driving in a snow storm?
  • Does the viewer have any visual impairments? If your character normally wears contacts or glasses, what happens if the corrective lenses are missing or unavailable in one scene? If your character is color blind will he be able to accurately describe the color of the criminals’ getaway car? What about including a character who is partially or completely blind? What about a character who is oversensitive to bright lights? What if the flickering of fluorescent lighting gives a character motion sickness? 
  • What visual details are available to a character with closed eyes? The red glow of sunlight through eyelids? A photonegative afterimage of something beautiful or terrible that the character just observed? Colored sparks or moving patterns that can result from rubbing the eyes or low blood pressure, as when standing too fast or feeling faint?
  • Is what your character seeing real? Has your character intentionally or unintentionally been exposed to a chemical or drug that might cause visual hallucinations? Does your character have a psychological condition that could produce hallucinations or flashbacks?
  • How much stress is your character experiencing? At moderate levels, stress can cause our bodies to release hormones that temporarily heighten the senses. Vision might seem more acute than usual. Higher levels of stress can push a character into the fight / flight / freeze / or fawn response. The hormone cocktail involved in this response can create tunnel vision, or can cause a phenomenon in which the brain records visual data at a higher rate than usual, which makes everything appear to happen in slow motion.

One last thing to consider about using the visual sense in writing is the actual visual appearance of your text on the page. Readers can often feel intimidated by large blocks of text, whereas text with lots of white space feels more open and friendly. In fact, poetry regularly uses the white space at line endings to guide rhythm, pacing, and tension. In non-fiction, bulleted or numbered lists, charts, and graphs can make information easier for a reader to process. And publishers generally choose type styles and sizes that are suited to the intended audience. 

Paying attention to the visual details can make a difference between a world that is interesting to read about, and one that feels magically real. 


Olfactory Sensory Details

Clara Peeters,  Still Life With Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels

Clara Peeters, Still Life With Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels


Scents have an uncanny ability to evoke vivid memories and strong emotions. This may be because, unlike our visual and auditory nerve pathways, our olfactory nervous system wires into the hippocampus and the amygdala, two "primitive" structures of the brain that are associated heavily with memory and emotion.  This strong, visceral reaction can make smell a powerful tool for a writer--perhaps an underused one. 

Consider some of these ways of using the sense of smell in fiction: 

  • As a defining character trait - For me, the scent of pipe tobacco will always conjure up pleasant memories of my fifth and sixth grade teacher, who was also the principal of our tiny elementary school in Yellowstone Park. He was one of the first adults outside my family to make me feel like I was smart, and strong, and like it was okay to be different from the other kids. What scents would be fundamentally characteristic of the people in your story? What emotional response would other characters have to that scent?
  • As a character "quirk" - Some people have a very strong sense of smell, and will notice the mishmash of scents that are present even before they notice visual or auditory details when they arrive  in a new place, or meet a new person.  How might your story be different if one of your characters has this trait?
  • To evoke a sense of place in the setting. There's nothing quite like smell to make a reader feel grounded in a setting. The smell of the sea, the reek of gasoline at the shop, the delicious musty paper and ink smell of a library....aaaahhhh!
  • To set a mood - Real estate agents recommend baking cookies or bread before showing a house, because for most people those scents set a mood of peaceful hominess. How would the mood in the same house change if a character walked in and smelled antiseptic cleaners? Or cigarette smoke? Or blood?
  • To trigger flashbacks - Because scents are such powerful memory triggers, they can be used in writing to call up events from a character's past that can help fill in the back story. 
  • To create obstacles. Scents that are associated with a traumatic experience can cause people to have flashbacks of their trauma. If your protagonist has experienced that kind of trauma, how could the associated scents create intangible obstacles to prevent him or her from achieving story goals?

Something to keep in mind when including scent in your writing is that although scents can evoke strong emotional responses in people, they won't necessarily evoke thesame emotional responses. Different people will have different memories associated with the same scents--for someone else, the scent of pipe smoke might bring visceral memories of interactions with an abuser, not pleasant memories of a supportive mentor. So you might want to choose your signature scents carefully. And it might be a good idea to give a careful description of the specific emotional response or memories your character associates with a given smell just so there's no confusion on the part of the reader. 

Scents can be difficult to describe, however. With vision and hearing, which are more closely associated with language in our brains, we have developed strong vocabularies of descriptors. Visually, we can talk about color, size, shape, brightness, or dimness. With sound we can speak in terms of pitch, and intensity, and harmonics. Three notes played together to make a single harmonic sound are called a chord--but what is the word for three scents that come together to form a single pleasant scent? We don't have one. And yet, in some ways, describing scent can push us to use language in a more creative, intuitive way than we might with some of the more easily described senses.

For example, we might use figurative language. If we say he smelled like lilacs, we're employing a simle--obviously he isn't literally a lilac, it's just a comparison. Or we might borrow descriptions from other senses. If we say a thing had a heavy, bitter scent, the word heavy is borrowing from the tactile senses, and the word bitter is borrowing from taste.