Talking Sense


Snyder: “there’s some things I can just smell. It’s like a sixth sense.”
Giles: “No, actually that would be one of the five.”
— Buffy the Vampire Slayer

It’s easy to forget that we have five senses. Touch, taste, sight, sound and smell. (I’ve listed them so none of us are trying to remember what they are while we continue with the rest of this article. Sometimes it can prove as maddening as those dumb questions where you’re asked to name the deadly sins, Snow White’s dwarves or the original line-up for the Magnificent Seven).

Admittedly emotions, character, plot and other considerations are important but the story is brought to life in the reader’s mind by the use of vivid description. And, the more senses that are involved in that description, the more vivid the finished scene.

It’s true that a scene can be built using any one of these senses alone. But the results can only ever be one-dimensional.

Tall, broad and dressed like a banker, his cheeks had the vulnerable flush that suggested they were freshly shaved. The dark hair and clothes could have made him appear sinister but his eyes and teeth glinted with so much confidence he looked as wholesome as a toothpaste commercial.


She whispered into the bedroom. Each button sighed as it was unfastened. The hiss of silk, slithering down her body, preceded the snowfall patter of her blouse tumbling to the floor. Her skirt echoed that sound but heavier, with the promise that there was more to come.

When I was a child I was repeatedly told: “look with your eyes, not your hands.” This statement was invariably bellowed at me as I picked up something I shouldn’t and then cowered behind the favourite childhood refrain: “But I was only looking.”

Fortunately it was a lesson that I never fully learnt.

Looking is good for any writer. But it’s never enough. To describe a situation fully you have to look, taste, touch, hear and smell. Like most impressive feats, kudos only comes if you can do them all at the same time. Readers demand that their authors present this level of involvement and they want to read the evidence.

This is not my way of saying you need to describe something Zen, such as the sound of an erection hardening, or the colour of a midnight orgasm. But, as a writer, you need to be aware that your readers want to participate in the experience described to the fullest extent.

And I’m not suggesting that every detail be catalogued with such meticulous attention, otherwise the pace of the story would soon suffer.

But, in those passages where the reader requires detail, particularly in erotic passages, it is vital to make sure the scene is described as fully as possible. Few of us experience sex with just one sense. We can all be moved by the sight of a familiar face, the sound of a favourite song, the smell of a perfume, the taste of a particular flavour, or the recollection of subtle caress.

In stories where a blindfold comes into play there are many masterful authors who can make the action strikingly vivid even when the protagonist is enveloped in a world of blackness.

Lips touch: are they warm or cool? Soft or demanding? Smooth or scabby? (Perhaps it’s best if they’re not too scabby). Is she wearing lipstick? Is he wearing lipstick? Is the flavour reminiscent of fruit, flowers, chemicals or only sexuality? Does either party breathe during the kiss? Do they gasp or moan? Try to speak? Or do they let their wordless sighs carry on the conversation while their mouths are employed with more pragmatic matters? When your protagonist inhales, will they breathe perfume, perspiration or the fragrances of a recent drink?

It is a lot to think about. And not every detail needs including. But the more vivid you make each encounter, the more memorable it’s going to be for the reader.

Sounds can be an extremely effective catalyst for progressing action. Listen to the sultry soft crackle of stocking-clad thighs rubbing together. Note the difference in tone between stiletto heels clipping against a wooden floor and bare feet kissing the same polished surface with each step. Sighs and whispers are suggestive of erotic involvement. And, while it may not be possible to describe the sound of a held breath, such a detail can be mentioned so that the reader hears its silence.

Smell and taste are so closely related it is easy to blur the boundaries. A man can bury his face in his partner’s hair and smell the soapy fragrance of her shampoo. A woman can push her nose against her partner’s chest and breathe in his manly cologne or his clean perspiration. She could even catch the aroma of the last woman who embraced him. The more that lips and tongues become involved, the more the scent of smell transforms into the intimate sense of taste.

And what would erotic fiction be without the sense of touch? Warm hands, cool skin, sweated bodies, slippery contact, rigid flesh in a firm grip…

Erotic fiction depends on the successful description of all five senses. Don’t be afraid to use all of them in your writing.

You know it makes sense.

Ashley Lister
March 2006

“The Write Stuff” © 2006 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.

Pin It on Pinterest