07th Dec2014

Adding an extra edge to your writing: the senses

by Lloyd Paige


American author Tom Wright’s first novel, What Dies in Summer, was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger in 2012. He’s also a practicing clinical psychotherapist and Blackbird is his second novel. In this guest post Tom talks about his writing and explains why the senses are important.

There’s convincing scientific evidence that smell and touch are the most primitive of the senses, meaning the first to have developed in the history of life. Because of the way the old factory sense in particular is wired, the parts of the brain it connects to, the neurological functions it most strongly influences, it is considered by many biologists to be the most evocative of the senses–the one that stirs memories and gives rise to more and deeper feelings than any of the others.

For Marcel Proust it was the sense on whose essence the “immense edifice of memory” rested (and if anyone doubts the immensity of this edifice, let them read a dead-tree version of A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) and flip leisurely through it.

The reason I think this matters to us writers up here in the twenty-first century is that the senses in general, of which it turns out there are more than five, are among fiction’s most effective ways of hooking and holding readers.

I spent most of my working life wandering in the wilds of psychology before getting serious about writing, and there is no way around the fact that it’s had a huge influence on what I write, and how I write it. But even earlier than that I had been a standard English Lit major at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, a compulsive reader, punctuation-conscious, trying my best to be mindful of correct grammar and spelling, thinking journalism or maybe someday teaching at some college or other as a career.

All through those undergraduate years, even after moving down to the other end of the Arts & Sciences building to Psychology, I enrolled faithfully every semester in the creative writing workshop, which at that time and place happened to be run by some very good teachers and talented writers. They taught me quite a few things that were eventually going to come in very handy when it came to writing fiction, one of the most useful being the concept of “sensory anchors.”

The First Novel

It was an idea that made sense to me from the beginning, and I tried to give it a good run in writing my first novel, What Dies in Summer. In this book the protagonist, Biscuit, just won’t stop sniffing and touching things, letting their weight and balance soak into him, losing himself in their colors and textures. He feels the warmth and wetness of the smooth blue stone an old woman has held in her mouth.

His eye absorbs the bright glitter of the morning frost that lies, he thinks, like diamond dust across the grass, its crunchy whiteness sliced into long diagonals by the thin orange blades of dawn sunlight. In another chapter he listens to the small waves of Duck Lake slapping lightly at the wooden hull of his boat, smells the open water around him and the pines along the shore, gazes down into the cold blue-green depths at the barred side of the unknown monster fish passing through the water like a slow train in night fog.

The Second Novel

Later, in Blackbird, my second novel, he continues to insist on looking, listening and feeling. He doesn’t just mention galloping horses; he describes the heat of their sweat-lathered hides, the desperate gasps of their breathing and the soft thunder of their hooves in the sandy soil. He doesn’t report a gunshot in the distance but lets us in on what the rolling boom of a heavy rifle a quarter of a mile away across the fields really sounds like. We get to be there with him at daybreak, studying the white lines of flights of cattle egrets strung across a shell-pink sky, the air gradually warming against our skin as he swallows the last of his coffee, cold now but tasting good anyway.


It is the senses that pull us into the time, place and circumstance of a narrative and hold us there. There’s nothing wrong with abstractions; we couldn’t get along without them, but as readers we stay in the narrative because through our senses it has opened itself to us, becoming our reality of the moment. When we’re seeing and touching and tasting what the characters are, we can care about them, about what’s happening to them – and, most importantly, what they’re feeling, thinking and doing about it on a level that a mere listing of events could never get us to.

To me writing this way not only makes for more vivid, powerful stories and players but is also more fun and more engaging, not to mention much less like real work, than it would otherwise be. It also, by way of some undefined natural elegance that seems to be built into strong sensory language, helps me stick to an idea I like a lot but have never been sure the great Proust entirely bought into which is that the soul of wit really is brevity.

Credit *Tom Wright’s profile photograph taken by Erin Walker*


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