Common senses

Writers like to use the senses when they're describing something in a poem, or a story, or a piece of non-fiction. Sensual description can put the reader right there, looking over the writer's shoulder. This kind of writing has been happening for many hundreds of years and it's a staple of any kind of prose of verse. One thing I've noticed, though, is that some senses, and our experiences of them, are easier to translate into language than others.

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan

Let’s take one example of a chap waiting for a bus in a rain shower and write about him in different way using the different senses.

Seeing is fairly easy, gliding into metaphor or simile: “He looked like an unhappy sheep in a stream” is accurate and quite funny. Hearing almost works, too: “He sounded like an unhappy sheep in a stream”, is still funny but less factual. The man in question may have groaned because his bus was late but he wouldn’t really have sounded like a sheep, even if he said Bah; the reader has to make a leap of faith.

Smell takes us into different, contestable, sensual territory: “He smelled like an unhappy sheep in a stream” would make you wrinkle your nose up in disgust and would somehow make the image less comic, more tragic. Now the person at the bus-stop is an object of our pity; we want to help him. He’s not quite so funny any more.

The next two senses really don’t work as descriptions of the hapless man at the bus stop in the rain at all. By the way, I’ll let him go soon, I promise: I’ll let the bus turn up, but not until I’ve written ‘He felt like an unhappy sheep in a stream’ which begs all kinds of questions like ‘Okay then clever clogs, what does an unhappy sheep in a stream feel like?’ and I have to say I have no idea. And taste is even worse because I have no idea, despite having lived a long and fulfilled life, what an unhappy sheep in a stream tastes like.

So some senses work better than others for certain kinds of description. But what if the man at the bus-stop is glugging a bottle of real ale? Can we use a particular kind of language to describe the taste of the beer? Well, we can, but the writer has to be careful to avoid the two demons of Floweriness and Pretension which lurk ready to pounce because writing about taste can lead to phrases like ‘There’s a hint of oak here, and sunsets on Cleethorpes beach, and the smile of the woman you first fell in love with’ which wouldn’t really make me want to drink the beer in question, no matter how much I like Cleethorpes.

And the sixth sense, the almost mythical Yorkshire sense that all Yorkshire people possess? Ah, sadly we’ve run out of time and the chap’s bus has turned up and he’s got on it.

Maybe next time, readers, for the sixth sense. Maybe.