To Improve Your Writing, Try Scrambling the Senses

Published 2 months ago • 3 min read

Hi Bookfoxers,

Duke Ellington, the great jazz musician, nearly missed his first performance at the Cotton Club.

He was in a contract with another venue in Philly, and a member of the mob had to send some goons down to "convince" the manager to let him come play in New York.

Ellington and his band arrived just minutes before showtime. He looked out at the sea of white faces (it was still segregated, in 1927) and knew that if he could nail this performance, his career would take off.

Well, they started playing:

  • Duke tickled those ivory keys
  • his band tooted the brass
  • they got the whole club in a tizzy, dancing the night away

Now here's a little secret about the Duke: he had synesthesia, a sensory crossover where you can see colors or hear smells.

For instance, D major wasn't just a series of notes; it was a deep blue, like the twilight sky over Harlem. A sharp, sassy G minor was as red as the lipstick on a jazz singer's lips.

And that night, his synesthesia was in full swing. He wasn't just hearing the music, he was SEEING IT.

He played so well that night, it launched his entire career. He would go on to:

  • play five more years at the Cotton Club
  • get a radio broadcast across America
  • visit the White House and play for Herbert Hoover

It all started that night in the Cotton Club, and after his performance, one of the managers came up and congratulated him, and told him the music sounded amazing.

The Duke simply replied: "You should have seen the colors."


Writers, you might suspect that synesthesia is a weird outlier, a strange fluke of the senses that doesn't apply to your writing life.

But you would be wrong.

Some of the most memorable lines in literature and film are based directly on the technique of synesthesia.

For instance, check out this doozy from Raymond Chandler:

"She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight."

Dang, that's just plain romantic. Sweep me off my feet, Raymond!

On a much darker note, think of those famous lines in Apocalypse Now:

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning ... smelled like victory."

Even J.K. Rowling gets in on this technique, writing this line in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix":

"He could taste the dementors; they were like a thick, dark fog on his tongue."

She's taking something that you see -- fog -- and making you taste it.

And F. Scott Fitzgerald tries this trick on for size, when Jay Gatsby says:

"The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music..."

Yellow cocktail music! It feels so happy and cheerful.

Now lets talk about how synesthesia can help you build characters.

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You shouldn't limit synesthesia to merely a rhetorical flourish or metaphorical delight.

It's also a good character detail that makes your character stand out from the great unwashed mass of humanity.

Here are three examples of how to use synesthesia in your storytelling:

  • Vladimir Nabakov has written several novels whose main characters experience senses in unorthodox ways, probably because he himself experienced synesthesia. For these characters, synesthesia is a superpower, helping his poets to write better poetry.
  • Sometimes, synesthesia happens after a brutal accident, like in Julia Glass' "The Whole World Over." After an accident that causes head trauma, the character Saga experiences words as having color.
  • I've given synesthesia to one of my characters in "I Will Shout Your Name," my first book. It was a way to show an otherworldly experience when he's seeing visions.

I would simply caution to use the technique of synesthesia sparingly, as a little goes a long way.

If you sprinkle just a bit into your writing, you may find that your own manuscript starts to "smell like victory." (but hopefully without the napalm and death).


John Matthew Fox


John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers, provides editing and offers publishing assistance. He is the author of "The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel's Key Moments" and “I Will Shout Your Name,” a collection of short stories.

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