This is the one sense that provides most of the detail for our stories. Our words become our readers’ eyes, giving us a blank canvas upon which to paint a picture to tell our story. From the sight of a common fear, such as a spider creeping silently along the floor to the glimpse of a shadow on the stairway… sight is our greatest source of horror inspiration and description. When describing the sight of something terrifying there’s a huge resource at the writer’s disposal, because we can use our other senses to add glorious, gory detail to our descriptions. Here’s an example of how all five of our senses can be used to describe a simple scene:
The apple was bright green, its skin polished and shining as it nestled in the fruit bowl (sight). The scent was fresh, as though the fruit had just been plucked from the tree (smell). She took it from the bowl, her fingers closing around the firm smooth skin (touch) as she lifted it to her lips. The apple crunched loudly (sound) as her teeth cut through the skin into the tart, juicy flesh (taste). As the fresh juice ran down her throat she noticed a small black speck moving slowly in the creamy flesh. Closer inspection revealed that she hadn’t just taken a bite from the apple – she’d bitten through a fat, juicy worm.
Remember when you were a small child, and your parents put you to bed? Perhaps there was no nightlight, and the TV room was at the other end of the house…
You’re lying in your bed. All alone. Desperately waiting for your eyes to accustom to the dark you hear it – a soft, scratching noise – and it seems to be coming from under the bed. It lasts only a moment before it stops. You wonder if you were hearing things, and you’re so desperate for the darkness to lighten you forget to blink. The blackness seems to swirl around you, cloaking you in a thick, black fog through which no light can penetrate. Suddenly it’s there again, only this time the scratching seems closer. And louder. It seems to last a bit longer this time. So you hold your breath, because that darkness doesn’t seem to be lifting. You’ve lost the sense of sight, so by not breathing you hope to hear the sound more clearly, and identify its location…
The description above relies on the complete absence of the sense of sight. This is where fear comes in and can play a major descriptive role – in this case blind fear. To compensate for loss of sight the sense of hearing becomes more acute, so the writer can introduce other horror-inducing thoughts and impressions. Where is the sound coming from? How close is it? Will I be able to feel it if it decides to climb on the bed? When will my eyes get used to the darkness? Should I start panicking now? If I get out of bed will it jump on top of me?
This sense conjures up description of things most us will probably try to never touch, like slime, frogs and warty skin. All these items are perfect for the horror/scary genre, but writers can also take the more ordinary touch phobias and use those items to horrific effect. Some people cannot bear to touch velvet, while others are terrified of touching paper. Still others find their skin crawls when they encounter cotton wool…
Opening the wooden box in the hotel bathroom, she recoiled in horror. Nestling quietly in the bottom of the box, white and shining, was a cluster of cotton wall balls. She stepped back, collapsing on the side of the bath. The mere thought of feeling those soft fibres squeaking as the ball pressed against her skin was enough to induce goosebumps. She wrapped her arms around herself in a subconscious effort to protect her body from the fear she’d had her entire life. Just thinking about cotton balls made her skin crawl. She moaned quietly, remembering the silent noise they emitted when squeezed; a noise that seemed to pass right through her skin. Through her panic she wondered if she’d remember to pack her facial sponges…
Descriptions of this particular sense can been embellished with the use of physical reactions to feeling certain items; goosebumps, stepping away from the source of horror, collapsing with fear, subconscious act of defence (hugging the body) and a noise of fear (moaning). All these reactions add to the reader’s imagination, while adding to the picture your words are “painting”.
Bad smells in the horror/scary genre usually mean something bad is about to happen or has already happened. The smell of rotting or burning flesh is probably the most common description applicable to this genre, and the description of the smell can also be used to indicate how the death occurred. Bad household smells range from two week old pizza languishing in the refrigerator to potatoes burning in a pot on the stove. Adjectives include: smelly, reeking, fetid, malodorous, rank, putrid and noxious.
As she applied the finishing touches to the client’s hair, a sharp smell suddenly assaulted her nostrils. It was a smell she hated and dreaded, because it was an odour so terrible the memory remained burned into the subconscious forever. She froze as the acrid stench filled the air, assaulting her nostrils and her throat with its foul flavour. An instant later her salon filled with gasps and shrieks of horror. She turned towards the three ladies seated underneath the dryers. Mrs Hamilton and Mrs Edgar had managed to wriggle out from underneath their dryers, but poor Mrs Smith was unable to move. One of the pins from her rollers had obviously caught in the dryer, and ignited her hair. Smoke was seeping out of the top of the machine, which had started to spark. Placing her hand over her mouth and nose in a attempt to banish the malodorous scent she started to move towards Mrs Smith, who screamed as flames began flickering out of the dryer…”
Most, if not all of us, have an aversion to a certain food. We don’t like to eat it and the taste of it makes us feel sick. Perhaps the mere thought of tasting it is enough to induce some horrible thoughts and feelings.
The candlelight caught the designs on the wineglass, casting a dark crimson glow on the table. He lifted the glass to his lips, the rich musky flavour of the cabernet sauvignon still drifting over his taste buds. At the first sip of the wine he almost choked. There was obviously something wrong with this new bottle of wine, for the liquid in his mouth had a bitter, sour taste. Although the consistency was the same as the previous glass, there was an acidic flavour he could not identify… although it seemed vaguely familiar. He swirled the liquid around in his mouth before swallowing it. It seemed to sting his tongue and burn the roof of his mouth, and when he swallowed the acrid liquid his throat tingled. Suppressing the urge to cough he reached for the glass of water next to his plate and took a sip. As the cool water cleansed the tart taste from his palate his hostess lifted the bottle he’d used to fill his wineglass… and poured balsamic vinegar over her plate of salad.
Writers have a magnitude of adjectives at their disposal when describing the horror of tasting unappetising food. These include: pungent, sour, acrid, bitter, fetid, stinking, putrid, decaying, rancid, reek, stale and bad.
Real life can be far more fascinating than fiction, and using our senses in our writing proves this truth. So the next time you sit down in front of your keyboard tap in to those five senses, and see just how they can colour your words!
Using the Five Senses to Enhance Your Writing