We are all told to incorporate the five senses—sight, sound, touch, smell and taste— in our work. But what about their six lesser-known cousins: balance, motion, time, temperature, direction and pain? A few years ago I took a workshop on The Eleven Senses (Who Knew?) from the fabulous Marilyn Kelly and found that paying attention to these elements added an extra dimension to my writing. (Note: my examples below are only meant to illustrate the concepts, not be timeless paragons of writing excellence )
- Balance is the sense that stops you from falling when you are walking along the edge of a roof, running from the bad guys, or standing up too fast after one too many drinks. How can you punch up your writing with balance? Think about stability vs instability. How does your heroine feel after three gin and tonics and a waltz around the ballroom? Steady and grounded or tenuous and wobbly? I’m thinking you might write something like: “Miranda stumbled from dance floor, head spinning. She leaned against nearby table, the wood providing a calming anchor .”
- Motion, when considered as a sense, is how we perceive the relative positions of parts of the body. It is an internal measure based on how our muscles, joints, etc feel. It’s the sense that tells you how fast to drive, how far to jump, and when to turn. Using motion as a sense means thinking in terms like ambling, gliding, or darting instead of walking. It is not only a matter of using a strong verb – it is also about the speed and direction of the movement. Instead of “turning” – pivot right. Instead of “James drove down the highway, narrowly outracing his pursuers,” you might write “James accelerated down the long stretch of highway, spun around the hairpin turn and lost his pursuers in the gathering gloom.”
- Time seems pretty simple – it’s how we perceive and measure events. Time can also be a very powerful writing tool. We have all heard of the ticking clock to build suspense, but did you know that showing how time slows and stretches out can also increase suspense? Say your hero wants nothing more than to run off and join the circus, but he’s stuck in class all day. The clock ticks slowly, oh so slowly as he looks at it every…single…minute…until it’s finally three o”clock and the bell rings and he jumps from his seat and runs out the door and oh boy! It’s circus time! You can make time last an eternity in those few seconds or whiz by like a hummingbird on crack. Your choice.
- Temperature is how we perceive heat and cold. From glacial to hellish and everything in between, our sense of temperature is affected by the weather, the air conditioning, what we’re wearing, and our own comfort zone. Don’t drop your heroine in the Amazon rain forest and neglect to have her sweat—unless she’s ensconced in a building with some mighty impressive A/C. And we feel more than heat and cold—temperate conditions are important too. “Tepid breezes played across Jessica’s bikinied body. She’d come to Phoenix for the heat, damn it, not this too-pleasant climate the locals were calling a ‘cold front’.”
- Direction is actually the ability to detect a magnetic field to perceive altitude and direction – a stronger sense in geese and salmon than in humans. We use direction to center the reader through the character and help avoid the dreaded “white-box-where-the heck-am-I” syndrome. Direction uses words like around, between, above, behind, below, up, down, left, East, and under. It can be absolute (‘five point two yards”) or approximate (“a few light years”). I might use it in a sentence like this: “Cameron gripped the narrow handhold carved into the side of the cliff. The drop loomed below at a sharp three hundred feet, and the jagged rocks jutting out from the water looked seriously uninviting.”
- Pain is the perception of damage—real, near, or imagined—through pain receptors located throughout our body. Scientists classify pain into different types, but for our purposes the most useful classifications are thermal (hot and cold), mechanical (crushing, tearing, etc), chemical (iodine in a cut), somatic (deep pain like broken bones), and superficial (minor cuts and burns). Figure out what kind of wound or pain to come up with the right words. A minor cut might be: “Diane wiped the blood from her hand—the slice didn’t look too deep, and the sting had already eased.” A gunshot wound might be a bit different: “The bullet hit his shoulder like a hammer, spinning him around. A crack sounded as his bone snapped. At first, all he felt was numb. Then came the burning, searing pain.”
How do you use the “other” six senses? Did I leave out your favorite sense (danger? duty?) and you want to talk about it? Sound off in the comments!