Literary Alchemy and the Power of the Five Senses

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, a speculative fiction novel by Michael Scott, is a solid example of where the reader’s senses are evoked to great effect.  In the excerpt below, Scott manages to appeal directly to three of the five, and implies a fourth.  Exposition in fiction would go nowhere without visual descriptions, so it is a given that every author will use them, sometimes even to the point of excess.

Robert Jordan comes to mind with his penchant for describing blades of grass; the Wheel of Time turns slowly indeed.  Unlike the more gassy storytellers, however, Scott’s prose is lean and precise, as he manages to stuff plenty of visual details into a small space simply by using the right words.

She was startled when the woman’s bright green eyes snapped wide open and she whirled around to look across the street…just as all the little square windows of the bookshop abruptly developed cracks and two simply exploded into dust.  Wisps of green and yellow smoke curled out into the street and the air was filled the stench of rotten eggs.  Sophie caught another smell too, the sharper, cleaner smell of peppermint. (p. 17)

Consider the use of snapped in the first sentence – intended to demonstrate the speed and thus the urgency in her expression.  Yet snapped is also a sonic word, and while we can assume that the woman’s eyes did not make such a sound, it serves well as a beat, a moment preceding the rise of tension in the story.  She then proceeds to whirl around, again a word that creates a visual, but also a sound, and even a feeling – the implied whipping of her coat as she turns, and the gust of air kicked up by the sudden movement.

We can also clearly picture the wisps of smoke, and not just any smoke, but green and yellow, which in the story are the colors of two opposing forces.  We know from this description that an unseen battle is taking place behind those windows.  So much detail, both explicit and implicit, simply by using the right visual cues.

But it would hardly be enough for an author to use visual descriptions and rely on mere implications of the other senses.  It is also interesting to consider that a book heavy on visual language could be translated into Braille for a reader born blind, and for whom such words have much less, if any significance.  Yet so many writers rely almost exclusively on visuals, to the expense of the other senses.

Sound is nearly as common, from the more obvious explanations of characters’ tones or inflections, to the more visceral onomatopoeia – bones crunching or innards squishing. Words like explosion are both visual and aural, the latter implied due to it involving windows, which allows us to hear glass shattering with our mind’s ear, even though it is not actually described.  Before the explosion, we see the cracks forming, but again, a word like cracks serves a dual purpose.  Implied is the straining and popping we associate with glass cracking as we recall similar events from memory.  Scott could have easily spent another few sentences describing the sounds, but in this case it is unnecessary for all that is implied through our own experience.

Touch is probably a close third in a writer’s repertoire, as they describe the feeling of the icy winds biting exposed skin, or the sharp penetration of a blade through flesh for the person on either side of the knife.  Scott makes ample use of touch throughout the novel though not in the above paragraph.

It seems especially rare, however, that an author will tap into the reader’s sense of smell or taste, except for under the most trite of circumstances like breathing in the wind off of the ocean or sampling the greasy starches and sugars of a doughnut for breakfast.  Such things tend to be inconsequential, arbitrary details the author throws in just for the sake of doing so.

But for Scott in The Alchemyst, the sense of smell is evoked for significant reasons.  In the above paragraph, he describes the odors of rotten eggs and peppermint.  Much like the colors green and yellow, these two smells are also associated with one of the protagonists and one of the antagonists.  Each of the two characters is a sort of magician – an alchemist and a necromancer to be specific – and when they invoke their powers, these odors of rotten eggs or peppermint fill the air.

Even if we had not already been told, we might automatically associate yellow – a color of caution or sickness – with the rotten egg smell, and the green – of leaves, and indeed mint – with peppermint.  And we’d be correct.  It is interesting to think of how a different juxtaposition of the same elements might disrupt a story’s believability.  Would it cause a sort of dissonance if, in fact, the yellow smoke carried the peppermint odor?  I think so.  Or what if the “good guy” was the one who used powers that reeked of rotten eggs?  He might make for a rather unlikeable sort, certainly not the person you want on your side in a fight for the sake of the world.

What The Alchemyst in general, and the above paragraph in particular demonstrate, is how the reader’s senses can be tapped not just for the sake of creating a scene, but also infusing it with nuance, with meaning.  Within the context of the novel, these details, which might be applied to say, a cooking accident in another book, convey so much more than just how the characters physically experience the world.  They express all the tension and urgency of high stakes conflict and even combat, all without mentioning any of those things explicitly.  Evoking the senses is one of the most powerful tools that an author can use, one that can give spare prose like Scott’s the same impact as that of a more flowery writer.

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