Using The Senses

When we’re creating atmosphere the emotions it evokes in the reader is as much about how we describe the setting as the setting we choose. We can have a gothic mansion that’s homily and a meadow that’s creepy, sometimes the place alone can suggest the atmosphere but that’s another article.

Now when we’re talking about how we describe the setting creating the atmosphere that doesn’t mean we have to say things like, ‘the limbs of the trees creaked creepily’. It’s a nice bit of alliteration but unnecessary. I’m not saying this because I think all adverbs should be obliterated, quite the opposite, they have a time and place (See previous articles here and here). Here the adverb is unnecessary because the effect is implied. Tree limbs creaking generally implies quiet, though not always, and often evoke a sense of unease for various reasons, sometimes related to it being quiet enough to hear them creaking.

The problem with telling people how they should react to the things we describe can be that it breaks the flow of the narrative and actually stops whatever atmosphere we’re trying to create from developing because it takes the reader out of the story. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, it can, particularly if the character has a particularly strong reaction, or a reaction that is unusual for them. However it’s often better to use it sparingly so the prose flow and in this case the less-is-more approach can heighten the impact of the description because we don’t usually get the extra specific reaction such as, ‘The tree limbs creaked and my stomach felt uneasy’.

Spreading details related to senses such as smell and sound rather than simply sight can be very effective at conveying the sense of atmosphere because it makes a setting more dimensional. It can be particularly useful when we’re trying to create an unsettling atmosphere because fears gives the impression of heightening senses as we try to find the threat. At this point we begin to notice things we might not always, like the creak of the trees or the smell of the moss which has the added bonus of implying the character’s reaction to the moment if they’re noticing thing they don’t always notice.

A potential problem with this is the desire to describe everything that a character can smell, hear, taste and touch which can become too wordy and detract from the atmosphere we’re trying to create. This also can also create too many images for the reader to process. This doesn’t mean we can’t use all the senses but breaking them up can be helpful too, for example as a character moves through the haunted house they notice different things which creates dimensionality without having everything described in one go (see setting articles for more details).

It’s important to remember that when we talk about creating atmosphere through senses it doesn’t only apply to unsettling scenes but can apply to any scene. An example would be the way senses are used in erotic senses, the scent of a lover, the feel of their skin, the taste of their tongue, are all details that create an erotic atmosphere because they’re intimate details. Anyone can hear a tree branch creak but it’s very intimate to know the taste of someone’s mouth.

These two types of atmosphere are at opposite ends of the spectrum but both can use the same senses to create completely different effects on the reader. If we wanted we could even use the sense of taste in an unsettling scene, it could be the character eating something (which might be unlikely but not impossible if they’re afraid) or it could be a scent so strong they can taste it. Suddenly taste goes from being an intimate erotic thing to a distant disgusting thing, the same sense contributing to creating two different atmospheres.

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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