Last month, I bought a jar of Autumnal Harvest Pasta Sauce from Trader Joe’s. For those of you who have never tried it, imagine a basic tomato-based spaghetti sauce with pumpkin and squash puree added.
When I unpacked the jar from the grocery bag, my husband asked, “What is harvest pasta sauce?”
“It’s a sauce for pasta with autumn flavors,” I responded.
“Oh,” he said. “So, it tastes like dead leaves.”
This happens to be a true story, but it’s a good illustration of how the sense of taste can add authenticity to your fiction. Rather than writing about the blend of sweet and savory with a buttery squash overtone and hints of traditional Italian seasoning, I show my husband’s sense of humor and give the reader an unexpected twist on the sensory details.
Too often in novels, I’ve seen the sense of taste ignored, overdone, or feel completely out of place. I won’t name names but I once read a crime thriller where the lead detective paused in the middle of a tense scene to reflect on the sweet, juicy berry she was eating. The exquisite taste and feel of the orgasmic fruit was described in vivid detail. On its own, the segment was well-written, but I kept asking myself what the berry had to do with the investigation. Cramming in sensory details where they don’t fit just doesn’t work for me.
That’s not to say you should never have your protagonist eat berries, but it might be better to use in a way that propels the story. Orgasmic berries would be a great way to build sexual tension between characters. Or, perhaps, the detective could have needed a mental distraction to come at the clues from a different angle.
In another novel I read, the protagonist, who had been shown to be a good cook, watched the woman he was interested in butcher a dinner for the two of them. The description of the burnt meat and soggy, bland vegetables highlighted the awkward tension of a first date.
Like all sensory writing, the descriptions should fit the mood of the scene, add to the conflict, develop a character, or otherwise move the story along. What are some of your favorite or most hated scenes involving the sense of taste?
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