Jaye Wells

Craft Thursday: Synesthesia

Today I thought I’d tackle one of my favorite little tricks for writing vibrant prose. Synesthesia is a neurological trait where a person processes sensory stimulus through a non-traditional sense. For example, they might taste sound or see numbers in color or hear colors as music. Cool, huh?

Here’s a basic overview of what it is.

Believe it or not, you probably already use lots of synesthesia in your everyday life. Yes, friends, I’m talking about our friend the metaphor. We use them all the time without even realizing we’re doing it. But what I am going to propose to you today is consciously using synesthetic metaphors to enhance your writing.

Compare these two sentences.

“He was afraid.”


“Fear choked him with its metallic fist.”

Okay, I cheated a little. The first sentence it not only passive, but it also is a classic example of “telling.” The second sentence suffers from neither of those issues. But it also packed a one, two punch of synesthesia (there’s also some personification in there for good measure). Does fear have a flavor (metal)? Does it have a tangible form (the fist)? Or a touch (choking)? Of course not. Yet the sentence works because it’s got the figurative ring of truth.

I use synesthesia all the time to keep my metaphors fresh. Because cliched metaphors are both lazy and so overused that they lack impact. It’s especially important to be fresh with your figurative language if you’re trying to highlight a scene or beat of high tension. Otherwise, if you rely on cliche, the reader will just skim the line and move on.

But you can used synesthesia for more than just moments of tension. If you want to highlight an object or a setting, employing the technique will help plant the image in the readers’ minds. So when my character walks into a magical laboratory, she doesn’t just smell “the astringent scent of rosemary” she also detects “the calming, purple fragrance of lavender.”

Purple is a descriptor normally used for describing how something looks, but I’m using it here to describe a scent. Get it?

Some other examples:

“His sandalwood scent made me think of swelling romantic music and silky sheets.” (Scent associated with sound and touch)

“Her screams tore at the air and left bloody, red wounds.”  (Sound described with color and touch)

Now, before you run off to add synesthesia to your work in progress, a warning: Do not go through and use synesthesia in every metaphor and description in your book. Like most figurative language techniques, it’s more effective when employed with discretion. If you use it for everything, you’ll lose impact in sentences where you really need that extra oomph.

Have you used synesthesia in your writing?


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