As writers we are especially aware of the five senses. We use the five senses to transport our reader into the scene we are describing. However, I propose that we are not using the five senses to their full potential.
You see, I didn’t used to give the five senses much credit when it came to my writing. But the truth is, the five senses have a power to connect with our readers in a deep way.
How to Write Using All Five Senses
It’s all well and good to tell you you should use the five senses in your writing. But how? Here are ways you can draw on each sense to immerse your readers in your story:
Write With Sight
When I was writing the first draft of my book, I met regularly with a writer’s group (which is essential), and one of the pieces of feedback I received most was “show, don’t tell.”
Don’t simply tell your reader how you feel or what is going on, my writing group told me. Show them.
I began to experiment, and I soon discovered there is more to writing with sight than “green trees” and “blue skies.”
Here’s an exercise: Ask yourself, “What am I seeing?” You might start with the mundane white car driving by, but I challenge you to look further. Beyond the man walking by with tattoos covering his arms, watch the way he walks. Does he stare at the ground as he walks or does he confidently stare forward?
Once you see the obvious, go deeper.
What do you really see? What do you not see? What does it mean?
Write With Taste
Describing taste can be a fun way to keep your reader intrigued in the details. So often we neglect or even simply forget to describe the way something might taste or what that taste means.
This might be awful, but my favorite way to describe what something tastes like is by use of a metaphor. My favorite comedian, Tim Hawkins, compares the flavor and taste of a Krispy Kreme donut to “eating a baby angel.” How true is that, though?
My roommate describes her tomato soup like “just coming in from a blizzard, kicking your boots off, and sitting in front of the fire.”
The metaphors we use have the power to transport even our readers to places that evoke memories and emotion from their own life, allowing a deeper connection to be made.
Write With Smell
Generally we categorize smells into two options: good or bad. But I believe that even smells can help tell stories.
When you begin to describe a scene close your eyes and envision all of the possible smells that surround you. Smells do not only describe food and body odor; they can be used to describe the weather, a room, or a situation.
Try describing some smells yourself. How else do you think the phrase “this smells fishy” was coined?
Write With Sound
The most popular way to describe sounds in writing is with the use of onomatopoeia. And those are fun, especially when making up your own.
Besides onomatopoeia, I never thought there was another way to really describe sound, until I started really listening.
There are noises all around you. As I write this, I hear the click of keys, the low hum of the air conditioner, the whoosh of a car passing by, soft laughter from another room—the soundtrack of a quiet, peaceful morning.
Have you listened to your environment? Have you listened to your characters’ environment? And have you unlocked what the sounds are really telling you?
There’s more to listen to than the sounds of your environment, too. As I wrote my own memoir, I found myself constantly asking myself what I was hearing internally. Sounds are not always external buzzes and bangs—sometimes they come in the form of thoughts and voices. Some of those sounds are truths and some are lies.
Some sounds tell the reader where you are or what you are doing without actually having to tell them.
Write With Touch
Describing the way things feel is just plain fun. The number of adjectives available are endless.
My two favorite ways to describe touch is through temperature and texture.
Her fingers skimmed the cool, silky water.
When writing about touch, the physical is very important to describe, but even more important is the invisible. The different aspects that are “touched” but not with your hands.
The Key to Unlocking the Five Senses
As you have probably noticed by now, the key to unlocking the five senses is the question behind it. The question of why you are seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, or feeling something.
What do your characters see, taste, smell? And what do those sensations mean?
Once you’ve established the sense, ask the question, “What does this mean?” What does it tell your readers about your character and their world? You don’t want to bog readers down with unnecessary details, but a few well-placed words to evoke the five senses can immerse your readers in your story and subtly show them what’s really going on.
Which is YOUR favorite sense to write with? Let me know in the comments section!
Close your eyes and imagine one of your favorite places: a local coffee shop, the beach, the small bakery in Paris . . . take yourself anywhere. Then, take fifteen minutes and practice describing this place while asking the deeper questions—what does each detail really mean to us?
When you’re done, post your practice in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book . She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.
On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.
She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.
by Orly Konig-Lopez, @OrlyKonigLopez
The other day I finished a book and when my husband asked if it was good, my answer was a rather drawn out, “Yeeaaahhhh.” The story was interesting and the author had a pleasant, easy style. She’d done a nice job of showing me what the rooms looked like, what the characters were wearing, what the car looked like … you get the picture.
And that’s exactly what it was—a nice picture.
But that’s all it was.
That nice picture was behind a glass wall. As a reader, I was left admiring the world the author so carefully created from the outside. So “yeeaaahhhh” it was good but it’ll go in the read and forgotten pile.
That’s not the pile you want your books to go in.
What can you do to make sure your book doesn’t end up there? Don’t just paint a nice visual picture, use all 5 senses.
I know, I know, as a good writing soldier you’ve been holding tight to the “show, don’t tell” rule. And writing is, after all, about drawing a visual picture. So yes, you’ll still be writing mostly visual descriptions. But, make sure every word counts. Include only what strengthens the image and look for fresh ways to describe things.
- Instead of white sand, sand like iridescent crushed pearls
- Curly hair can become corkscrew curls that a character has the sudden urge to tug and watch them bounce back
Now put yourself in the scene. What can you show your reader that’s beyond the obvious?
- A shadow passing outside the window that makes the hair on the character’s arms prickle
- The way leaves dance with the gentle breeze
- The slight discoloration on the couch that reminds your character about where her brother spilled a soda the last time she saw him, right before he was killed in the car accident
- The seam in the wallpaper that’s a fraction off
Think about the last movie or TV program you watched. It had a soundtrack, right? Characters were talking to each other, music during key scenes, the revving of a car engine, the ringing of a phone. Obvious sounds.
When writing, you have to put those sounds into words. Your reader needs to hear what your characters are experiencing.
- The raspy sound of a character’s cough
- The twang of an accent
- The rev of a motor
- The jangle of keys
Then there’s the unexpected. Those are the details that will make your reader catch her/his breath and will linger in their minds long after they’re done reading.
- The tap-tap against a window during the middle of the night, as a branch sways in the wind
- The squeak-squelch of sneakers on a linoleum floor
- The sound of a house settling when the air-conditioner turns off
- A character trapped in the slowest line at the grocery store and agitated at being late might notice the otherwise invisible sound of air bubbles snapping as the guy in line behind her chews his gum
No “my dog ate my manuscript” jokes here. In real life, you’re constantly tasting something so why aren’t your characters?
- The cherry chapstick when the guy kisses the girl
- The melting heaven of a chocolate lava cake
- The added boost of coffee as the character licks an escaping drop
Don’t stop with the obvious.
- A character who arrives at the beach will lick her lips and taste the salt from the ocean breeze
- A character who’s been running on a hot day might taste the grit of dirt
- Or maybe a character has just gone through a terrible breakup and is looking for a safe haven at her parent’s house. During the drive there she might taste the rice pudding her mom always made for her when she needed cheering up.
- During a long car ride, a character stares at the passing scenery and catches sight of the Golden Arches and can suddenly taste the Quarter Pounder with cheese and the salty fries.
Okay fess up, do you touch a flower petal to see what it feels like? Or run your fingers along a brick wall? What about stroking the leather of a couch? If a friend has a new sweater, do you reach out to see if it’s soft as you’re oooing and ahhhing?
Your characters will be doing the same. And the reader wants to feel through your characters.
- The prickle as an ant crawls up your character’s arm
- The stab of pain when your character miss-judges the distance and stubs her toe into the side of the desk
- The sting of a slap to the cheek
- The comforting warmth of a blanket
There are times, though when it’s not as much what the character is touching but the act of the touch itself.
- The way a character touches the tip of her finger to the heart-shaped pendant her husband gave her before he died
- A character tracing the name of a loved one on a headstone
- A character putting his hand on another’s upper arm in a “keep it under control” gesture
Smell is an incredibly powerful sense. It’s probably the most nostalgic of the senses, which makes it the ideal tool for flashbacks.
- Who hasn’t taken a deep inhale of fresh-mowed grass and immediately been transported to a lazy summer day?
- Or caught the whiff of a perfume and you’re suddenly remembering a best friend or family member who died.
- What about the smell of a favorite food to transport you back to holidays when the family still got together?
It’s also a fabulous way to suck your reader into a scene.
- Does the homeless guy smell like car exhaust from sitting on the median of the busy intersection all day? Does his body odor make your character’s nose curl?
- What about the house your character just walked into? Is that lavender air freshener she smells?
- Does the chapstick one of the characters use obsessively smell like rootbeer? Maybe your main character hates rootbeer and can’t focus on what the other person is saying to her because she can only think about getting to the bathroom on time.
- There’s the clichéd perfume on the husband or boyfriend’s shirt when he comes home from a long day “at the office.”
- Or the hot guy who loses several degrees of hotness when the main character catches a whiff of cigar smoke clinging to his clothes.
Take a few minutes as you’re sitting in your house or walking down the street or in the grocery and really pay attention to what’s around you (without getting arrested, please).
Imagine writing using different senses. Instead of telling your reader that the lettuce was next to the cucumbers and there was a squashed tomato in the middle of the aisle, how could you write that using taste or smell?
Now go back to your manuscript and think about pushing that glass wall aside. Invite your reader in, let her/him enjoy the smells, sounds, tastes that your character experiences.
If you need a little extra inspiration with sense words, click here for a nice starter list.
Do you uses all the senses in your writing? Pick one of the five senses and share a sentence or two from your work in progress.
After years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet. When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.
You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website, www.orlykoniglopez.com.
This entry was posted in Craft and tagged Orly Konig Lopez, Writers in the Storm, writing, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.