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By Cynthia VanRooy
writing is sensual writing. I dont mean what
youre thinking, so get your mind out of the
bedroom. <g> Im talking about making the most
of the five physical senses. The more you can give the
reader the feeling of being part of the story, of being
an active participant, the better their reading
experience, and the more successful your writing. The key
is in addressing the senses.
In every scene cover at least three senses, bonus points
if you manage to hit all five. Dont make the reader
try to imagine how something sounds, looks, smells, etc.
The trouble with doing that is the reader may be way off
base and not imagine the scene you think youve
writtenor worse, the reader may not do it at all,
making your story much less immediate than it could be.
.Be specific here. Stay away from meaningless generic
adjectives like beautiful and ugly. Give the reader the
details that will lead them to decide for themselves the
impression youre trying to create. Susan Wiggs does
this masterfully in Home Before Dark:
. . . the maples blazed brighter than any forest
fire, in colors so intense they made your eyes smart:
magenta, gold, deep orange, ocher, burnt umber.
Notice that she doesnt tell us the woods are
beautiful. She lets us come to that conclusion on our
When relaying the sensual details of a person, place, or
thing dont go through a laundry list of color,
feel, sound, etc. Slip the descriptions in so they become
an invisible part of the writing. In this scene from
Fridays Temptation the heroine is massaging the
heros scalp. Ive inserted the description of
his hair by making it part of the action:
She combed through his thick, sandy hair noting its
healthy texture and the lighter sun-bleached streaks. She
knew women who would have killed for hair like Taylor
The most obvious sense and the one most of us usually go
for first in description is visual. We dont usually
have a problem telling the reader how something or
someone looks. My book Fridays Temptation was the
most challenging for me to write because when it opens
the hero has just been blinded in an accident. Nothing
told from his point of view could be described using
vision. I had to keep closing my eyes and asking myself
what he heard, what he smelled. It was a real eye-opener
for me. No pun intended. <g>
If you were outside at night, but couldnt see, how
would you know it was night? List all the ways. If you
were awake in your bed, but blind, how would you know the
sun had risen? The warmth of the sun on your face as it
slanted through the blinds, the sound of the birds
outside the window, maybe the smell of coffee brewing
somewhere? Or the sound of a garbage truck making
early-morning rounds? Its your story, only you know
what makes it special.
Practice describing the world around you. When you walk
into a friends home, ask yourself how you would
describe the smell. Everyones home has a unique
scent. Isnt that part of what makes our home ours?
How is the smell of a freshwater lake different than the
ocean? Be specific. Again Susan Wiggs nails it in Home
She could smell the lake before she saw
itmesquite and cedar and the cleansing scent of air
blown across fresh water.
And if youve had the experience of being able to
compare an Atlantic beach with a Pacific beach, what
makes them different? And they are, just as northern and
southern beaches are.
Force yourself to stretch by describing something with a
sense you wouldnt normally use. How does the air
taste? What color is it?
Start a vocabulary list for the senses. When you come
across a great word, add it to the list. Then youll
never be at a loss for the perfect description. I pay
particular attention to perfume ads. They contain a
payload of words. And the next time youre in a
hardware store, gather a number of paint color chips.
Youll find marvelous color descriptions in the
names. For flavorful words, read restaurant wine lists
and menus. Good restaurants pull out all the stops when
it comes to describing their selections.
In your scenes dont choose things to describe
randomly. Go with items that will further your plot.
Every word you use carries meaning and your reader
responds on a subliminal level to that meaning. Think of
description as background music. In a movie you are set
up for the emotional punch of a scene by the kind of
music used. You can do the same thing with words.
If your book is a romance/murder mystery and the heroine
is about to stumble over a body, set the reader up: The
heroine walks outside and the screen door moans shut
behind her. She notes the cloying scent of the dying,
overblown roses, the dank chill of the deep shade under
an aged elm. Are you getting this?
This same scene, but a lighter story, a picnic with a new
love: The screen whispers shut, she notes the faint sweet
perfume of the new roses just beginning to bloom, the
welcome coolness of the shade. The same, but different,
isnt it? Its all in the word connotations.
You can become a master hypnotist, able to manipulate the
The ability to paint a vivid word picture is one of the
things that sets great writing apart from the merely
good. Description is a powerful tool that can give your
writing gut-level impact or reduce it to banal clichés.
Use it well.
Now that you've written the book, does the hardest part
seem to be getting an editor to read it? Let
award-winning romance author Cynthia VanRooy, published
in both print and electronic formats, teach you in her
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