Last week, as I was driving along a winding country road on my way to Bridgewater from Lunenburg, I ran across the smoke of a small fire. They were obviously doing some roadside spring clearing.
Without thinking, I slid the window open and inhaled deeply. I was preparing to experience the exquisite “taste of home”. As I breathed in the aroma of burning vegetation, memories of outdoor campfires and old wood-burning stoves flooded in from my childhood. A goofy smile slid across my face as I bathed in the joyful innocence of adventure, wonder and the comfort of the hearth. I’d had a wonderful childhood and the smell of smoke brought it back to me in its full glory.
What does this have to do with sensual writing? Everything. Storytelling shares universal truth through metaphor, delivered from the heart. Sensual writing doesn’t just involve making sure to include at least a few senses like sight, sound, smell, taste and touch in your narrative. To write sensually involves much more than the simple description of a sense, though this is certainly the first step (and something all too often neglected by novice writers). To not connect a described sense to a memory or emotion is to miss a very important opportunity as a storyteller: that of enlightening the reader on some aspect of the POV character experiencing the sense (things like their history, the quality and nature of their relationships, their viewpoints, education, prejudices, how and what they’ve experienced in their life).
Here’s what I mean:
EXAMPLE 1: Ben walked into the Grand Banker Pub and immediately caught the tantalizing aroma of garlic and pears amid the din of jubilant laughter, cackles and desultory conversation. The amber light enhanced the rich tones of nautical oak. Ben saw some friends drinking in the corner and sauntered toward them, smiling.
EXAMPLE 2: Ben stopped at the door of the Grand Banker Pub, inhaling the exquisite aroma of garlic and pears amid the din of jubilant laughter, cackles and desultory conversation. For a moment he was back on the boat, reliving the party that changed his life. He’d stopped eating pears after that. Ben caught sight of his friends drinking in the corner, beneath the amber light. Like a sailor seizing a rope, he sauntered toward them, a huge smile pasted on his face.
The first example describes; the second example emotes. The first example nicely describes the place but it doesn’t provide us with any information about Ben, except that he likes the aroma of garlic and pears. We don’t know why. In the second example, his senses are used to hint at intrigue linked to memories that, in turn, are linked to the associated sense—in this case the smell of garlic and pears. This is the power of sensual writing. Bringing it back home.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.