Using The Five Senses in Writing
When you step outside, a bunch of things happen at once. You see your surroundings, you smell the freshness of the air, you feel the sun's warmth on your face, you hear the birds singing, and when you raise your coffee mug to your lips, you taste the nutty and tangy flavors accompanying your morning caffeine.
Often in fiction, writers leave out most of the senses in favor of sight and sound, and occasionally, if you're in a situation where it seems to make sense to mention it, feel.
Why are these senses so important? Well, read the first paragraph again. And then read this next one:
You walk outside and greet the day, sipping your coffee before you head off to work.
Which of those options paints a more clear picture of your setting? Which gives you a better idea of the character?
The first one.
You see, there are times when that second option would be preferable. If the POV character doesn't have time to listen to the bird song, or is in a rush, you should definitely use the second option. It's short and sweet and to the point. Just like a rushed character would need.
But if you have the space and you have the time, give us the full picture. Everything from the smell on the wind to the way the air feels on your face.
Taste is one of the hardest to incorporate, because it usually only comes up naturally when your character is eating or drinking.
However, there are other ways to go about this. Many things leave a taste in your mouth, including memories.
In the scene I was editing of my W.I.P. last night (work in progress, for those of you unfamiliar with the writing lingo), a character had a traumatic flashback to a time when a cast was cut off his arm and the fact that his father took him to go get mint chocolate chip ice cream afterward as a treat. But he was so scared by seeing that type of saw again, and hearing its whir and feeling the vibrations as it cut through an object against his skin (I have to leave some things as a surprise, right?) that the memory of the taste of mint chocolate chip ice cream was the only thing he could think about.
Probably right now, by continuing to talk about mint, you're feeling that fresh, cold sensation in your mouth followed by the sweet warmth of chocolate. And if you weren't, you are now.
Memory has a unique power to trigger tastes, smells, and sensations. Use that power in your writing when it fits nicely and can enhance the story.
Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, scents are everywhere. Take a dog out on a walk and watch its little nose go and you'll be forced to remember how many smells you process in a day. Whether it's baked cookies, your favorite spice being added to a dinner plate, the stench of marijuana from three houses down, cigarette smoke as you walk through the city, exhaust fumes, or roses, everything around you gives off a scent.
Scents can be comforting, like the smell of your mom's favorite perfume, or disconcerting, like the smell of fire smoke when you're relaxing on the couch and something is cooking in the oven.
What scents would your POV (point of view) character pick up on that you have time to mention while you set the scene? Include them in your descriptions. It will put your reader into the story that much faster.
The most underrated sense of them all—feel. This is the weight of my arms against the table as I type right now, the feel of the keys clicking under my fingers. The gentle way my feet caress the carpet because they're restless while I sit and type. It's the way your loved one touches your shoulder, the comforting weight of their hand telling you they love you.
It's the warmth of a cozy blanket or a cup of hot coco. It's the cold of reaching into a fridge while your hands are wet from washing. It's the way something slips out of your grip or strains you fingers as you try to hold on.
Touch is even the way the floor feels when you lay down on the rug to pet your cat after a long day at work.
By describing touch, your reader will be immersed into the story and their imagination will make them think they can feel it, too. That is the sort of immersion you want. It leaves your reader no out and is so visceral that it feels real.
We're approaching the more commonly written about senses. Sound is one we focus on more often, because it's one we tend to pay attention to in our own lives. Right now I'm intentionally listening to music as I focus on this blog post. I also hear the slight rat at tat tat of my keyboard as I type. I hear the notifications on my technology and the clunk of the other items on the table I'm using as a desk as they rattle because I moved too suddenly.
Sound is vital in a setting because the world is never silent. Even if you are alone and have no music playing and you intentionally lay on the floor to listen to the quiet, there's probably a clock ticking, a dog barking, the wind rattling the windows, birds chirping, squirrels climbing trees, the vents pushing air in, the hum of the refrigerator, the plip plop of water in the sink, you name it.
Now, this is one of those senses we have to be careful about. If you spend too much time focusing on it, everything slows down. By mentioning the filter in the fish tank, it narrows the scene immensely. You can use that to your advantage, but it is a strong tool. Narrowing the scene means you can have an incredible impact in whatever comes next, so use it accordingly. But if there are sounds you hear when you're writing—footsteps clinking on a metal bridge, the click of stiletto heels on a tile floor—put them in so your reader can hear them, too.
Lastly, let's talk a little about sight. This is the most natural of any of the senses when it comes to writing. The sun shone bright and golden on the field. I surveyed the bookshelf the color of blood, searching for the tell-tale orange of my favorite book. She wore a tan power suit and had her brown hair pulled back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck.
90% of the descriptions you write while you describe setting or characters will be what they see. If you're stuck in a scene, brainstorm a little to figure out what else you can describe. Focusing on the other senses can move the plot forward even when your character is stuck in a locked room with nothing to see.
That's actually a pretty fun exercise. Take a moment to write a short flash fiction piece where the main POV character is blindfolded. Try locking them to a chair so the only thing they feel is the chair beneath them. Try plugging their nose and describe the room another way. Have an antagonist put ear plugs in their ears and set the scene. If you really want a challenge, do all of these one after the other, removing each sense until you're left with the hardest one for you to write.
If you can master the senses in your writing, your work will only get better. Find that balance, and don't let your descriptions ruin your pacing. But don't let your pacing be so fast that you don't have time to let the reader into your head in as many ways as possible.
Go forth and write well.
I'll see you next week.
~ J. J. Hanna
J. J. Hanna graduated from Taylor University with a degree in Professional Writing. She's currently working with literary agent Cyle Young as a literary scout. In what free time she has left, she also works as a freelance writer and editor. To hire her for editing, writing, speaking, or consulting, see the services tab. She can often be found cuddling with a cat, reading the latest suspense novel, or filming YouTube videos about the publishing industry.
Follow her on most social media @authorjjhanna