Fantasy is a genre that expands the mind. How you as a writer can describe this world is what brings it to life. Here is a short guide on how you can invoke the five senses in your story and bring a new aspect of realism for your readers to enjoy.
Sight is generally considered the easiest to write because visual details are often the ones that writers are first to describe. When your character enters a room for the first time, it’s only natural that you’ll want the reader to visualize the area. High fantasy does this exceptionally well. What really brings a series like Lord of The Rings to life is the incredible way that J.R.R. Tolkien describes the landscape of the world that the characters live in.But what particularly stands out in this series is how visual descriptions are tied to emotions. Descriptions of long winding roads describe losing your way nothing literally and emotionally.
To enhance the sense of sight in your fantasy story, try thinking of ways your visual descriptions can add emotional depth. Why does your character see things the way they do? Does the sight of red remind them of love’s present or maybe trauma's past? Most importantly, what do these visuals add to the plot? Is there a way to describe the character’s surroundings to hint at a future conflict?
Sound can be difficult to describe in a fantasy setting. There is a common saying in writing circles that advises writers to “show, don’t tell,” when creating a scene. While this saying generally applies to visual descriptions, it can easily be transferred to different senses as well. When thinking about sound in fantasy, it can be almost too easy to get into the habit of writing something like “the dragon roared loudly.” While there is nothing wrong with this sentence, it is not particularly descriptive: the reader has no idea what this sound is, other than the fact that it is something loud.
Think of it like this: the sound of a motorcycle is different than that of a school bell. Both loud, but they sound different. To really enhance how your sound is described, try adding descriptors that the reader can relate to: “the dragon, opening it’s meaty jaws, unleashed a shrill cry, so high-pitched that every human within a mile instinctively covered their ears.”
As you write, ask yourself: what does this sound have on the character? Will these sounds come into play later on?
Smell is a sense that you notice when you first walk into a room. If you’re walking down the road and immediately smell urine coming from an unknown location, you notice right away. Additionally how one person experiences the sense of smell will differ for someone else.
Think about how you personally interact with the smells in your life. Does a relative’s house always smell the same? Does it make you nostalgic? What types of smells linger? Which scents make you hungry, repulsed, disgusted? As mentioned in the sight segment, describing the senses in a way that evokes emotional substance is key. Try to think about the ways that your fantasy story could come to life by describing the scents around your character. Does your fantasy world exist in a lush forest, ripe with biodiversity? Does your antagonist keep a decrepit dungeon with rotting bodies? Does a love interest have a particular perfume?
If you’ve ever read the Harry Potter series, you’ve probably wondered what food in the great hall tastes like. Characters throughout the series are often mentioned enjoying huge feasts or drinking butterbeers at the nearby pub. Food is often a huge part in fantasy stories, creating magical food can add to the overall culture of the world you’re building.
Think about Diana Wynne Jones’ novel, Howl’s Moving Castle. The characters use food as a way to connect with each other on a deeper, emotional level. But taste can also come into play in your fantasy story outside of cuisine. Does bile rise in your character’s throat when they feel disgusted? Do they taste blood in their mouth while accidentally biting their tongue too hard? Can a character taste saltiness when walking near a breezy ocean beach? What are some ways that taste can foreshadow certain events?
Describing the sense of touch can add an amazing level of realness to a story. Fantasy especially relies on great great descriptors of the senses to bring this fictitious, imaginative world to life. Instead of plainly stating that a character is elderly, try describing the tactile feelings of their skin. Is it wrinkled and rough? Additionally, how can fantasy-specific textures be described? What would your protagonist feel when touching a dragon's scale, a serpent’s skin, or a precious gemstone that exists only in your world? How can these tactile senses alter your plot: for better or worse?
is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. When she isn't writing, she's reading and working on her bullet journal. You can read more of her work at ashaswann.com