Articles / On Writing

Overuse of The Five Senses in Writing

 

I read a book a while back and came across a quirk in the writing that I had to weigh in on. The use of the five senses in writing when describing elements in a novel is a useful tool to bring dimension to a story… to a point. So often when a writer employs this device they overuse one sense and neglect the others, or they overuse the technique.

The novel I started to read overused the sense of smell so much so that I abandoned the book. The female protagonist constantly commented on the male protagonist’s smell, every time he was near with no regard for the situation.

So what was the problem with the author honing in on the male protagonist’s appealing scent? She took it too far and didn’t pay attention to how her illustrations of this man’s scent didn’t work in this story. By the time I gave up on the book, the man’s smell preceded him everywhere he went and gave her advance warning he was in the room. A nice idea if you want to make a grand entrance. Not so much if you are an elite warrior who relies on the art of stealth as was the case with this story.

In one scene, the warrior had gone through rigorous training all day long. He was hot, sweating, and dirty. In other words, he was ripe. But the female protagonist was intoxicated by his manly scent…

I repeat… She was intoxicated by his manly scent.

I have no doubt this man’s “scent” rivaled that of a junior high locker room after a football game in August, and I have yet to become intoxicated by the smell of body odor, especially when the setting of the story is during a time when bathing was not only optional but considered unhealthy.

The bottom line for this story was that his scent garnered too much attention and became a distraction.

Authors have been known to overuse the other senses as well. I have read countless stories where every time a character enters a room, I get a run-down of their physical appearance, complexion, hairstyle, clothing choices, and shoes. Many times, I even know the brand names of the clothing and whether the characters wear boxers, briefs, panties, thongs, or prefer to go commando. How much of this information is pivotal to the plot?

Now reading a detailed description might cause me to skim a bit if it is too verbose, but I will abandon books that constantly over-describe every character’s appearance in every scene of the book. Why? Because it is filler; there to make an anemic book appear fuller but contributes nothing to the story and slows down the pace. Describe your characters once or a little at a time and be done with it. Allow your reader to create the characters as they see them with only a few promptings from the author to guide them in the right direction. If a reader creates their own image of a character in their mind as they read, they have a greater stake—ownership, if you will—in the book and are less likely to abandon the story.

One of the most overused tropes for touch is an electrical shock or zing when the two protagonists have any type of physical contact. The idea is nice the first time they touch, but when this happens repeatedly, I keep thinking they might need to go see a doctor about that. Can you imagine living with someone who shocks you every time you touch? What’s ironic with the overuse of touch is when someone else touches the male or female protagonist and that person is mistaken for the one whose touch should zing. See the problem? If Zane’s touch sends electrical currents racing along Destiny’s skin every time they touch, there’s no way Destiny can mistake Stephen’s touch for Zane’s.

While hearing doesn’t seem to get overused as often, it is still a candidate, especially if the reader is reminded repeatedly of the angelic quality or rich tone of a character’s voice at every turn.

Taste is often used to suggest that everything about a person tastes good. I’ve read more than my fair share of scenes where I question whether something really tasted as good as the character in the book professes it to taste.

Should  authors refrain from using the senses in their stories? Of course not. Just pay attention to how much you use it, when you use it, and if it bends the imagination beyond credibility.

So back to the original book that inspired this article. As I read, I kept thinking that if this man was so intoxicating that his scent excited the female protagonist into a frenzy similar to an Axe commercial, I could take his “intoxicating” scent and bottle it for mass consumption and retire a billionaire.

So what overuse of the five senses have you come across in your readings? Share in the comments below. I’d love to read them!


Comments

  1. I was thinking about your article, and I thought of something else that drives me crazy. I have read so many books that talk about being able to “hear” someone’s heartbeat from across the room or “hear” their own heartbeat thumping. I have yet to hear my own heartbeat without the help of a stethoscope. Am I doing something wrong? 🙂 Another one that I’ve noticed is when a person claims to “feel” the blood pumping through their own veins or the veins of the person they are attracted to.

    • Good examples! Hearing and feeling someone else’s heart and blood pumping across the room would be a good trait for say… a vampire, a fiendish monster, or a cardiologist. LOL

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