Friday (Craft): Using the Five Senses to Enliven Your Story

Most fiction writers don’t think twice about using the physical senses of sight and hearing when writing their stories.  But the remaining three senses of taste, touch, and smell are often overlooked.  By also including these three senses in the writing of every scene, you will go far in bringing your story to new levels of excellence.

One of my favorite passages in literature is Marcel Proust’s famous scene of the madeleine in his epic novel, Remembrance of Things Past.  Here it is, excerpted from the definitive Pléiade translation, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin: 

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.

Notice how Proust used the sense of taste to evoke a childhood memory.  The entire scene revolves around the character’s experience with the taste of a petite madeleine, a French pastry.   

This week, revisit your scenes. Note what senses you have used in each scene.  If you have not used the less common ones–taste, touch, and smell–add them to your scene. Then notice how your scene moves up several notches on the scale of excellence.

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Source of Excerpt from Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust:  http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/proust.html

Copyright 2013 by MaryAnn Diorio. All Rights Reesrved.

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2 thoughts on “Friday (Craft): Using the Five Senses to Enliven Your Story

  1. Wonderful, MaryAnn: you have expounded upon an extremely important key to persona, and it is something I never gave much thought. How clever and observant, and using Proust to exemplify this is amazing (frankly, I adore Madelines—my mother used to bake them). Thank you so much for evoking a treasured memory and reminding us of two special sensory techniques.

  2. That’s good advice, MaryAnn. Just a quick whiff of a particular smell can transport me to another time and location, but I had rarely thought to include it in my writing…until now.