Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Sixth Sense

I’ll let you into a secret. At school, we had one English lesson each week called ‘Prose Writing’ – and I hated it! I didn’t want to write descriptions of ‘A Summer Meadow’ or ‘A Storm at Sea’ using the five senses (or using picturesque adjectives or similes or metaphors, or whatever the task was that particular week). I wanted to write about PEOPLE – what they said, what they did and, even more importantly, how they felt.

Maybe I should have tried harder in those Prose Writing lessons, because I still struggle with descriptive writing – and with using the five senses. I don’t consciously think about using all the senses when I’m writing. If they’re there, it’s instinctive, rather than planned.

For me, there’s a sixth sense which is far more important. Not a sixth sense in relation to hunches or ESP, however. My ‘sixth’ sense is emotion. The heroine’s emotion when the hero kisses her is far more important to me than what his lips taste like or the smell of his aftershave. Her inner reaction to his anger or his sweet-talk matters more than what his voice actually sounds like or what music is playing in the background.

The reader knows what the senses are. She (I say this because romance readers are usually women!) has probably held a man’s hand, smelt his aftershave, heard his laughter, seen his frown or smile, and tasted his lips. I can leave a lot of that to my readers’ imaginations, I don’t need to spell it out for them with adjectives or similes. What I want is for them to FEEL the character’s response to all these things and that’s where I concentrate my energies.


  1. Wonderful post, Paula, and SO on the nose! I don't think about the senses either, it is an unconscuous thing when they slip in. I have trouble too with long winded descriptions. I always remember those dull school composition pieces!
    Yes - that sixth sense, where would be without it?

  2. Great post. I adore all the sixth sense stuff, it makes my heart race :-)
    I also like a few real specifics when it comes to the five senses, an unusual scent or taste, a texture not quite as you expected. It all makes for a wonderful story and fabulous characters.

  3. I agree for the most part. Just remember that emotions have physical manifestations. A tightening gut, a clenching heart, things like that.

  4. I love your idea of emotion as a sense, yet the ESP factor could be also be a sense: the tug of fear, suspicion of betrayal, nag of 'pay attention,' the hunch. So many tools. It's finding the right words...

  5. Great post, Paula! I agree 100%. I work on including the senses in my writing --but the characters like to TALK alot too! LOL!

    hugs, Kari Thomas,

  6. Thanks for all your comments!

    Margaret - I still shudder when I remember those 'compositions' at school, they didn't inspire me at all!

    Lily - a few specifics is exactly right - less is more in the case of the main 5 senses, they are far more effective if used sparingly.

    Angela - totally agree about the physical manifestations. Emotions, as you say, don't just affect the mind but can result in very strong physical reactions. That said, I have to train myself out of a heart jumping, jerking, thudding, pounding etc etc as the main physical reactions!

    Ana - maybe 'emotions' should be the seventh sense then, since the traditional sixth sense (hunches, suspicions, 'gut' instinct, intuition, even foreboding and premonition) can have an important part to play sometimes.

    Kari - my characters like to talk too, sometimes I have a problem getting them to shut up!

    Thanks all!

  7. I love stories that have a strong emotional core. I want to feel a character's happiness or sadness. I want to experience it along with them. Emotion is definitely something I try to inject into my own stories.

    Interesting post, thank you. :)

  8. Hi,

    Interesting concept, Paula. After all, emotions are driven by all the five senses, in that we as humans respond to smell, audio, touch, sight and taste. Our response to any one can mean the difference between love & hate, revulsion, admiration, ecstasy, fear, foolishness, devastation and even bewildering facets we cannot pin down as accountable to any of the aforementioned, but you can bet "one" of them will have stimulated instance of momemtary confusion. ;)


  9. Thanks, Fabian. The best stories, in my view, are those where the writer has enabled you to experience the characters' emotions as you read about them.

    Exactly, Francine, and it's the emotions that are driven by the five senses that I prefer to emphasise, and not the senses themselves.

  10. Great post, Paula and I agree with you wholeheartedly. I always spend the most time making sure the emotion comes through in my books. I'm told it's one of my strengths, but that occasionally means that I get slapped on the wrist by my beta readers for not including enough of the other senses. I try to keep a balance... but emotion still takes precedence for me.

    After all, the emotion in the story is the reason we're reading it, IMO. An intriguing plot or rich setting would mean little without the characters to give it depth and excitement.

  11. You've said EXACTLY what I feel, Lindsay - thanks! I have to remind myself, too, about using the other senses. Sight, hearing and touch come fairly naturally, I find, but I do tend to forget about smell and taste!

  12. Paula,

    Emotion is an important part of each scene. And, right, without the emotion, there is no romance. No story. No relationship.

  13. Okay, it's now official then - emotion is the essential 'sense' to use in a romance novel. The rest are useful but not obligatory LOL.
    Anyway, when can you bring in taste? Erotica springs to mind (!!), but I don't write that. Figuratively, I suppose you can taste fear - or a glass of wine can be smooth, acidic or whatever. I checked out my WCP novels, and confess I didn't use taste in either of them.

  14. this was a nice post. intuitive and gentle. i just pinged u in my post today :)