According to Jeff Gerke of Marcher Lord Press, a successful small publisher of speculative fiction, one of the most common problems in both novice and advanced fiction is not enough description.
This means that, regardless of what draft you’re working on, you probably have too little description rather than too much. The fix is actually easy. Engage all your reader’s senses.
Two weeks ago, I looked at how to make your novel scratch and sniff through three techniques that let you make the best use of the scents you choose. This week, we’re going to take a bite out of taste (sorry, couldn’t help myself) with three ways to enhance the flavors in your book.
Decide When Naming A Taste Is Enough Vs. When You Need to Describe It
Some tastes are potent enough and familiar enough that all we need to do is name them. Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. A cinnamon-flavored toothpick. Your dentist’s latex gloves. Because they’re part of our shared experience, describing them doesn’t enhance the story at all. Instead, it becomes the kind of excess description we’re so often advised to cut.
A foreign taste, though, always needs a description; otherwise, you’re just placing an empty word on the page. In my co-written historical fantasy, our male POV character drinks a glass of kumiss, fermented mare’s milk with an almond aftertaste. Simply dropping in the word kumiss wouldn’t have heightened your sensory experience at all. In the same way that describing a familiar taste is pointless, so is dropping in a foreign word and expecting the reader to understand it. Now, even though you’ve likely never tasted kumiss, can you imagine the sharp tang, like buttermilk gone bad, and then just as you finish swallowing, the slight sweetness of almond lingering on your tongue and in the back of your mouth.
(This is actually a perfect example of the confusion I often see in writers who are told both that they need description in their story to bring it to life and also that description slows down their story and they should cut it. The right kind of description doesn’t slow the story down at all. Unnecessary description does. Do you see the difference in the two situations above?)
The trick in describing a taste is to do it in a way that doesn’t break POV and end up feeling like author intrusion. For the example I used above from the manuscript Lisa Hall-Wilson and I wrote, we got around this by having our male character crave the flavor of this particular drink as opposed to the wine he’d been offered. When your character is craving a particular food, or savoring it, it’s natural for them to think about the flavors the same way we would in those situations.
Use Metaphors or Other Comparisons
Our brains are wired to compare things we don’t have experience with to something we do. Taste is the sense that lends itself best (in my opinion anyway) to metaphors or other comparisons. Sometimes you don’t need to describe a taste literally to convey its essence.
“The wine tasted like liquid sunlight” (Oakley Hall, How Fiction Works).
“She spoke of fruit that tasted the way sapphires look” (Toni Morrison, Paradise).
Make It Surprising Somehow
You come home from the grocery store with a bag of what appear to be sweet, crunchy grapes only to pop one onto your tongue and get a mouthful of moldiness. Things don’t always taste the way we expect.
You can also use other senses to turn expectations upside down. Parmesan cheese smells like stinky feet and cumin smells like body odor, but both of them add a delicious flavor to dishes. And because we eat first with our eyes, when food looks unappetizing, we remember it that much more when it actually tastes good.
What food do you think looks or smells unappealing but actually tastes delicious? Have you ever tried a food that left you pleasantly surprised?
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