Have you lost your senses? Why description matters.
'Description begins in the writer's mind, but should finish in the reader's.' - Stephen King
Why is description so important?
In this free article, I'm going to take you on a sensory journey, showing you how biological psychology influences the way we experience life at the most fundamental, yet pervasive level - a journey that will show you exactly why description matters so much in writing.
how our experience of the world is created
We take our sensory experience of the world for granted, assuming - mistakenly - that others see what we see. Yet the truth is that the brain doesn't simply duplicate the information it receives from the environment, it encodes it (generating electrical impulses and activating specific pathways in the brain), and this leaves significant room for variability depending upon the neurology of the individual encoder.
The human nervous system has five primary senses(1) - sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch - and each of these senses provides data that shapes our perception of the world around us. But not all senses are equal. The visual system takes up a greater portion of our brains than any other sense, and this means that our perceptions of the world are disproportionately influenced by what we see (assuming no visual impairment or unusual circumstance). Other senses influence our experience, but it's primarily what we see that creates our world.
We think our experience is reality, but that's just not so. Let me give you a few inter-species examples to show you how differently other creatures on our planet experience the world. Then I'll come back to human sensory reality and its implications for writers.
(1)There are additional senses that detect other stimuli eg. temperature, kinaesthetic sense, pain, balance, vibration and other internal sensory mechanisms.
You might quite reasonably assume that when you’re out walking your dog, you and your canine companion are essentially on the same page in terms of what you’re experiencing, notwithstanding your dog’s uncongenial tendency to savour foul-smelling objects.
‘Hector, that dog is not stepping foot inside this house until he’s had a bath!’
But while dogs have relatively good vision by animal standards – particularly in low light and when perceiving movement – their dominant sensory system is smell. With consciousness dominated by a deluge of subtle odours, your dog is truly in a different world. While you’re admiring the sunset and the glint of light on distant mountains, your dog is homing in on the age, sex, health and even the emotional state of dogs that passed along the trail before him. You’re experiencing one thing, he’s experiencing something entirely different.
Your dog’s visual system is not just less important in the creation of his reality, it’s also significantly different to ours. While we have 20/20 vision, dogs have 20/75 vision. This means that dogs can barely see, at 20 feet, objects that we can see clearly from a distance of 75 feet away. And, while dogs do see colours, they don’t see them like we do. Instead of seeing all the colours of the rainbow, their colour encoding is dominated by blue and yellow tones. Green, yellow and orange all look yellowish to them, violet looks blue, blue-green looks grey, and red is encoded as either a very dark grey or black.
If you throw a green, yellow or orange ball for your dog to chase on a grassy surface, the chance of the ball getting lost is really rather high. Why? Because the ball and the grass both look yellow in the dog’s visual system.
Tip for dog lovers: Buy blue or purple balls for your dog! It will save you money and your dog will have more fun.
Horses have very different visual worlds to us as well. They have what’s called monocular vision – the ability to see entirely different things out of different eyes. With eyes on either side of their heads, they can look forward with one eye and backwards with the other. Imagine how different the world would look through side-positioned monocular eyes.
Horses have the capacity for binocular vision too and if you see a horse lift its head, put its ears forward and look directly to the front, then you’ll know that the horse is switching from monocular to binocular vision (the type of vision we have where we look at the same thing with both eyes). But here’s the kicker: Objects appear to jump and distort when the horse’s visual system is switching from monocular to binocular vision, and a horse will often spook at the sudden unexpected appearance of a ‘monster’. Mind your toes!
Putting it all together
Imagine how authors could play with a quirk like this. What if a character had a birth defect that left him with eyes on the side of his head and the capacity for monocular vision. And what if every time he transitioned between monocular and binocular vision, he saw a vision of the future? Or some other type of extra-sensory awareness kicked in, giving him access to some level of uber-cool supernatural data.
The idea may be far-fetched, but it illustrates my point, which is that sensory differences provide fertile ground indeed for writers.
David Baldacci used sensory difference to brilliant effect in Memory Man. He created a lead character, Amos Decker, with a tragic but fascinating sensory abnormality. After suffering a brain injury playing professional football, Decker was left with a form of synaesthesia (simply put - crossed sensory wires) and a photographic memory. In his new life as a detective, Decker uses his new-found sensory abilities to track down criminals. But when his wife, daughter and brother-in-law are brutally murdered, Decker’s grief is compounded by the fact that visual cues and memories cause him to see a vivid, overwhelming, intensely painful blue world, populated by an endless stream of moving numbers. This is an interesting twist that makes Baldacci’s hero stand out from run-of-the-mill protagonists.
And what about the Daredevil series from the Marvel universe? The series follows the heroics of Matt Murdock, attorney by day, vigilante by night, who was blinded in a childhood accident. As Daredevil, Murdock uses his heightened remaining senses to tackle and dispense with the bad guys, and his ‘flawed hero’ persona adds a layer of depth and interest to his character. There’s something incredibly emotive about the handsome blind man with superhuman secondary senses out in the night, saving the world (although I’m adding a violence disclaimer here – the series is too gruesome for me).
When you’re looking to create an interesting character, why not start by thinking about how your character processes information in the first place? You can create a parallel world – an alternate reality – simply by changing the way your character encodes information from the physical environment. How cool is that?
Have a look at the amazing work of Daniel Kish, who’s developed a way to use sonar to navigate the world. Kish is known as The Remarkable Batman, and with very good reason. You’ll be inspired, I promise. Plus, he’s funny. Do check this out!
how can you use this information in your writing?
- Remember that readers are trying to create a world from the words you put on the page. Description matters.
- To create these worlds, the brain uses (amongst other things) the sensory pathways that already exist in our brains.
- Our dominant sense is vision, so your readers will want to be able to see how the world you’re creating looks. Make sure you provide enough visual data to anchor your reader in the scene. But don’t use too much. Readers like to be able to draw on the wealth of visual information already stored in their brains when they’re putting the pieces together.
- Use the secondary senses to flesh out and add depth to the reality you’re creating.
- Consider making use of atypical sensory processing styles. Remember, what we encode defines our experience, so you can create alternate realities – and interesting literary conflict – by putting characters with different sensory features in the same situation.
suggested writing activities
- Create a character with a dominant sense drawn from the pool of additional senses (kinaesthetic, sensitivity to vibration, balance, temperature, hunger/thirst, sensitivity to pain etc). What can your character do that others cannot? And how could this drive a storyline?
- Research synaesthesia. Can you find other sensory variations that capture your interest for future characters? Hint: look up prosopagnosia.
- Write 4 scenes – one where hearing is the dominant sense, one featuring smell, one touch and one taste. What’s different and interesting about these scenes? And how would the introduction of a character dominant in one of these senses influence a story you’re working on?
- Write a children’s story with an animal hero. Use your favourite animal in your story. Research the sensory functioning of that animal, then create a world and storyline that reflects the animal’s unique sensory wiring.
- Create a human character with the sensory style of a particular animal. Bees can see in the ultraviolet range of the light spectrum. How would that affect human experience? Many snakes can see in the infrared range, which means that warm blooded animals glow like beacons on even the darkest night. We’ve created glasses that allow us to see in the infrared range, but what if a character could do this naturally? Or what if your character could hear unusual frequencies?
Want to know more?
You won’t believe what scientists have already accomplished with sensory substitution and what they call sensory addition (creating new human senses). Science fiction is really not fiction anymore. Watch this video if you want to be seriously inspired. It’s absolutely mind blowing – and David Eagleman’s vest is on absolutely my Christmas list.
want to get more in touch with your own senses?
I’ve created a sensory relaxation audio file for you. It runs for 6 minutes, 52 seconds, and takes you on a relaxing journey that stimulates your own sensory processing. You can download this file via the 'download' link on the right hand side of the online audio player.
Please note: While this is a relaxation file, not a meditation, please don’t use it if you respond badly to meditation. Contrary to popular opinion, meditation is not beneficial for everyone and it can have adverse side effects.
Subscribe to the Psychology for Writers program today to take your understanding of human nature to the next level.
Psychology for Writers launches on 3 August 2015. Sign up today for a 20% Early Bird Discount.
Enter 'earlybirdwriter' into the promo code box on the check out page (it will show the full price until you're ready to check out) to claim your discount. Offer expires at 9am on 3 August 2015 AEST.
Want to save a copy of this article? Download the pdf file here. Please note that you'll need to download the sensory relaxation audio file using the 'download' link above (you can't access it from the pdf document).
sign up to receive news and tips
We respect your privacy. Your details will not be shared with anyone for any reason.
Contact my Course Administrator.
p: 61 2 6259 9289
Office Hours: 8:30 - 5:30 Australian Eastern Standard Time.
Qualifications & Memberships
M.Phil. (Psych. ANU)
Graduate Teaching Programme (Adult Ed. ANU)
Grad. Dip. App. Fin. (Kaplan Professional)
Grad. Dip. Psych. (UC)
B.A. (1st Class Hons. Psych. ANU)
Full Member, Australian Psychological Society
Member, ACT Writers Centre
Accredited Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) Practitioner
Accredited practitioner for the full suite of SHL occupational instruments (eg. OPQ, Verify)
Accredited Lominger Voices Capability Framework and 360 Degree Feedback Report Practitioner.
Accredited Full Circle 360 Degree Feedback Practitioner.