“It was a dark and stormy night . . .” opens the story by that famous novelist, Snoopy. The opening often is used as the example of the type of hackneyed writing to avoid. But take a closer look. Combined, dark and stormy become powerful visual words that allude to senses other than just sight and sound. You can certainly visualize a darkened sky, perhaps the lightning, and hear the thunder off in the distance, rolling and coming toward you. “It was to be one of those nights when you could taste the electricity in the air and smell the rain’s arrival as it splashed on your sweat-drenched skin to bring relief from the August heat and humidity and a fresh aroma to your nose, like the washing you hung on the line for your mother when you were a kid.”
How about that for a finish, Snoopy?
Little Snoopy accomplished something that we all should think more about—appealing to all of our readers’ senses in order to heighten the impact of what we write. In seven words, Snoopy brushed up against sight, taste, smell, sound, and touch as the impending rain begins to fall.
Not bad for a little beagle.
Most languages, certainly English, are very visual in nature because they started as pictographs and hieroglyphics on cave walls to which our ancestors attached sounds that evolved into verbal and then into written language.
A long-ago communication professor asked members of our seminar to discuss the word purple. He simply wrote the word in white chalk on the slate blackboard. The discussion quickly focused on taste, color, similes, and metaphors to the obvious, grapes, for instance. But purple has no sound descriptors and you had to stretch a bit for smell. But for some reason we say that some people write “purple prose.”
Paul West in a New York Times article back in 1985, entitled “In Defense of Purple Prose,” wrote, “It takes a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that’s rich, succulent and full of novelty.” He said purple “is immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity.”
Yet purple, as a color, has always been associated with royalty. What’s it doing down there in the gutter? I was taught to associate the term “purple prose” with pornographic or certainly something sexually oriented or racy or raunchy.
West went on: “So long as originality and lexical precision prevail, the sentient writer has a right to immerse himself or herself in phenomena and come up with as personal a version as can be. A writer who can’t do purple is missing a trick. A writer who does purple all the time ought to have more tricks.”
What does “doing purple” mean? I suggest it’s when a writer expands his or her efforts to incorporate more than the senses of sight and sound. It’s not easy. Just read a few descriptions of wine posted in your favorite store, or better yet, try to write a description of your own favorite wine and you will realize that trying to describe taste and smell and touch can get you into a muddle—where the image you had hoped to convey falls short of or off target.
“George, you look depressed.”
“I wouldn’t say my mood is depressed. I just feel purple today.”
Huh? To include the five senses in your narrative description, the challenge is to find clarity that puts your readers on the same page as you, the writer. Most of the time writers strive for clarity and understanding, or as we say in communications, to close the communication loop so the meaning of the message sent is received and accurately understood.
That perhaps explains why we tend to cluster our descriptors in groups of three. Poets, politicians and lawyers are famous for this. Take Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “New Colossus” on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” She could have said, “Give me your citizens who yearn for freedom.” What about the rich yearning to be free? Why do citizens have to be tired, poor, and huddled to be welcomed to America? And what does huddled mean exactly? Are the three descriptions synonyms or do they describe three distinctly different classes or categories of people? Later in her poem, she mentions, “wretched refuse of your teeming shores.” Not a pretty visual that, but notice the words Lazurus used are all visual. If they are not synonyms, neither are they discordant.
We collect our descriptors in threes, likely to assure we connect with our audience at some perceived important cognizant level. We feel uncomfortable in giving a single descriptor so much responsibility as to carry the entire weight of our intended description when we’re not going to be there to interact with the reader and assure she or he understands. Frequently, however, no single word is sufficiently specific, and thus we cluster. If you look at Lazarus’ words, you can see she tried to paint a visual image by using a broad brush, to provide sufficient imagery to assure that readers got her idea/message and see the people she described—the ones who need another chance, a new opportunity, to escape from bad circumstances.
The words she used—“tired, poor, huddled, wretched refuse” are each very visual. A reader would have to be totally ignorant not to come away with at least the gist of Lazarus’ intended description of these tattered masses. Given a minute, you could probably come up with a list of more synonyms Lazarus could have employed. But likely, your list would be very visually oriented, too.
Words, especially verbs and adjectives that have the greatest impact on readers, are the ones that touch the senses. Of the five senses, most descriptors we read and use target sight and sound. For the others—touch, taste, and smell—you will find that the lists of alternatives are noticeably shorter, which makes finding the right one potentially more difficult. By right, I mean descriptors that are fresh, in more attention-grabbing and unusual ways—that enhance the impact of your overall narrative description.
One of my reference books combines sight and smell words into a single list: acrid, antiseptic, bitter, choking, clean, delicious, fragrant, fresh, juicy, medicinal, nutty, peppery, putrid, ripe, rotten, salty, savory, smoky, sour, spicy, stale, sticky, strong, stuffy, sweet, tangy, tart, tasteless, tasty. Notice that most lack specificity and rely on broad and common experiences to relay the message. That’s why we cluster our descriptions and rely on simile and metaphor to clarify their meanings. I’m not saying that is bad; it merely makes employment of words that touch on all these senses a bit more challenging to install. But it’s when you take the easy way out that your writing can sound hackneyed, or at least a bit too predictable.
You want to avoid prose where the inclusion of touch, taste, and smell descriptors reads like an accident report—”The popcorn was salty.” To have an effective impact, the use of descriptors referring to the “other” senses requires that you play with your sentence structure to make the description more prominent and thus more powerful. E.g.: “Her salty lips told me she had been drinking Margaritas for lunch.” Weave them into your narrative, don’t stick them on like a Post-It note.
Instead of “The popcorn tasted salty” you might incorporate the sense of taste with another descriptor to add a little depth and breadth: “I sat down at the bar, grabbed the bowl of popcorn and shoved a fistful into my mouth. The salt stung my lacerated lip and I took a sip of beer to wash the pain away.” Of course the brute that gave you the lacerated lip might spin you around on the bar stool, but think of the five senses you could use to describe what happened when you came around with a heavy mug of beer that crashes into his cranium.
How about, “The roiling smoke quickly coated my nostrils and I gasped for the free clean air” rather than “The room was filled with smoke.” “I dove to the floor in search of air not yet saturated by the acrid smoke but it chased me to the ground and scratched at my eyes and tried to claw its way down my throat to reach my lungs.”
It’s easy to makeyour sentences sound over wrought, so care must be taken not to insert sense descriptions that jar the tone and flow of a paragraph or seems oddly out of place. Overuse of sense descriptors can easily come across as forced, and too many sprinkled over a small area will give your writing a hackneyed flavor. But playing around with your narrative descriptions to include, in appropriate locations, something that touches a reader’s senses other than sight and sound, will add dimension and depth to your narrative and enhance the image(s) you hope to create.
To practice, check out the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility (a.k.a. the Body Farm) and write the paragraph about a character (try it in first person) who has been abducted and finds him or herself waking up in the middle of the night on the wrong side of that fence.
Oh the places your readers will go . . . and touch, and taste, and smell.