Sense of sense

What is the first sense that comes to your mind when you wake up? When I wake up in an unknown place (like staying in a hotel, camping or anywhere I’m not traditionally), the first thing that pops into my mind are the sounds and smells. Usually sound is first unless the smell is very strong. Fortunately, seaside air has that irresistible salty smell that I simply cannot ignore.

Visual description of a scene is usually something rational and informative, good for basic information: someone came into the room, something was happening on screen, etc. As a reader, you don’t need to be reminded that you’re getting visual information.

However, when trying to evoke an emotionally more intense experience for the reader, I always go for other senses. For instance, instead of seeing the person coming into the room, I would use the smell of a perfume or something similar to annouce someone’s arrival. So much more evoking not to see the person but knowing he/she’s there.

One of the hard rules of writing they try to drill into a newbie writer is ‘use more than one sense’. Nobody tells you that using several senses considerably slows down the reading pace. The reader must mentally switch from one sense to another and that doesn’t come as quickly as that. Our brain processes different stimulations and different speeds and in different ways.

If I’m going for a slow paced scene, I will give the reader the luxury of exploring the scene with as many senses as possible. But a fast paced scene simply doesn’t have room for them. When running for dear life, would you notice the smell of that nearby cherry tree?

Sometimes our senses work faster than our rational mind. That is why I will write “My hand moved to block the incoming blow.” At that time, it really acts on its own. It’s called instinct for a reason. In a tense situation, emotions run wild and they block rational thinking. That’s when the instinct of training comes in.

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