Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A sense of detail

Hours before the earth buckled and triggered one of the most deadly series of tsunamis in history on December 26, 2004, animals along the Indian Ocean's affected coastline seemed to sense danger. Elephants trumpeted. Dolphins dashed for deeper waters. Flamingos flew to higher ground and bats roused from their usual daytime slumber.

When it was over, more than 225,000 people died or went missing. Few animals perished.

Throughout history, there have been countless reports of unusual behaviour by animals - from dogs and cows to jelly fish - in the hours and days before a disaster. 

And in fact, many animals rely on sensory detail for their survival. For instance:

  • Cat got your tongue? No problem for Hippos. They build up large amounts of pressure under their nostrils before sending out infrasonic "bubble bursts" which are sounds they use to threaten and intimidate others.
  • Blind as a bat? No worries. Bats navigate their surroundings by emitting high-pitched sounds and interpreting the echoes. This radar-like sense is called echolation and it allows them to find food (insects) up to 18 feet away. 
  • Food tasting a little bland? A pig's tongue contains 15,000 taste buds. By comparison, the human tongue has just 9,000.
  • You thought spiders had it bad with eight eyes? The box jellyfish has 24. And dragonfly eye contains 30,000 lenses - imagine the cost of contacts! 
  • Think your sense of smell is pretty good? Turns out humans have some of the dullest noses in the world. Some animals - like dogs - can get a strong whiff of odours most people don't even know are there. 
Writers incorporate the five senses into each scene to create stimulating imagery. It isn't always easy - and typically taste, touch and sight earn the greatest number of words. But what if you could just pick one?

German writer Patrick Suskind met that challenge in 1985 when he penned Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The novel explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry. It's also a brilliant and twisted thriller. 

Perfume has become my "bible" on sensory detail - I often refer to it when trying to find unique ways of adding non-sight imagery to the page. 

How about you? What are some of the tricks you use to help create sensory detail? 


  1. Well since we both know adding sensory detail is my personal vulnerability, I won't comment on that. (Except to offer that I have been reading people skilled at it to learn better how to do it. eg. Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale). However, that book sounds very interesting.

  2. hope101 - the movie is also great, though not for the faint hearted. It offers a different (more graphic and weird) ending than the book, but it's brilliant as well.