, , ,

A commonly flouted piece of writing advice is that descriptions should appeal to all five of the senses. Most writers tell the reader what the protagonist(s) see, but sometimes forget that the reader also has senses of touch, smell, hearing and, yes, taste.

I was reminded of this last week, when I was fortunate enough to read a proof copy of an upcoming memoir, A Girl in the Dark, by Anna Lyndsey. The story is that of a woman who develops a painful reaction to all sources of light and is progressively confined to a blackened room in a darkened house. For a book mainly set in the dark, it is surprisingly packed with descriptions that excite, comfort, shock. (For those interested, my Goodreads review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1130661487?book_show_action=false ).

My conclusion? If your descriptions fall flat, re-imagine the scene in the pitch black. Does the air smell of sour milk or sewage or pine trees after the rain? Is the protagonist sitting in the damp, touching a serrated tree bark or having a fan blow cold gusts on the back of their neck? Does the air taste of salt or rubbish or burnt sugar? Is there a holly bush scraping the window or a tap dripping or a boiler firing? You get the idea.

Add the new details to your description and, if you’re not editing but writing for the first time, just turn the light on/ get the moon to rise/ have the sun re-appear after you’ve dealt with the other senses, and only then tell us what the characters see. Because sight is, after all, just one of five senses.