‘Use the senses,’ they say on creative writing courses. It’s like a mantra: ‘Sight, Smell, Sound, Touch, Taste. Include reference to these in your writing and you can’t go wrong.’
I can already ‘sense’ you twitching with excited anticipation, and indeed there is some truth in it. Dextrous use of ‘the senses’ engages the reader in your scene. I think you will agree that, ‘I stayed the night at a monastery,’ is nowhere near as emotive as, ‘I rang the bell and a bearded Franciscan in clogs unbarred the door and led the way to a dormitory lined with palliasses on plank beds and filled with an overpowering fug and a scattering of whispers.’ (A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor)
So yes, you do indeed need to feel your way into descriptions, taste the fear, smell the roses, touch the depths of your hero’s despair and see it writ large on his face.
And yes, that sounds all right on the surface – but when you scratch, dig (or even delve) deeper into the concept you can quickly start to smell a rat. It’s all too easy to overdo it, like a Masterchef contestant adding too much scented rose water to his crumbly textured granola. Here’s a sniff of a clue, almost as obvious perhaps as the eyes on your face – falling back on cliché or labouring the imagery, like a pungent old peasant beating his donkey in the hot sun, leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
This may all sound (or indeed smell) like a red herring to you. After all, who really cares? We know what kind of writing we like and we all have to take the rough with the smooth anyway.
But if you want a taste of the high life, and after all, who doesn’t crave the sweet scent of success, just take time to savour the descriptive passage, handle it with sensitivity and respect, don’t flog it to death. And touch wood (or knock on wood if you are in the US or Canada) your writing will be as effortlessly, elegantly atmospheric as Patrick Leigh Fermor’s (this time describing a 1930s German ‘Burgomaster’).
‘After dinner he tucked a cigar in a holder made of a cardboard cone and a quill, changed spectacles and, hunting through a pile of music on the piano, sat down and attacked the Waldstein Sonata with authority and verve. The pleasure was reinforced by the player’s enjoyment of his capacity to wrestle with it. His expression of delight, as he peered at the notes through a veil of cigar smoke and tumbling ash, was at odds with the gravity of the music. When the last chord had been struck, he leapt from the stool with a smile of youthful and almost ecstatic enjoyment amid the good humoured applause of his family.’