As writers, we need to be acutely aware of our five senses, in order to fire up our writing. Our five senses transport our readers into the world of our story, whether we're writing fiction or non-fiction.
Have you ever read a book where you could smell the cooked meal or felt the cool breeze blowing through the character’s hair?
When you read a book with vivid and palpable details, you never forget and probably want to emulate them in your own writing.
One of the biggest challenges for writers is to show not to tell your reader what is happening in a scene. If you’re telling your reader, you’re rambling off detail after detail without immersing the reader in the experience. However, suppose you show your reader what’s happening in a scene. In that case, you’re plucking them from reality and placing them in the excitement of your story.
It’s that immersed feeling that you want to accomplish when writing your book. Then you’re not just a writer anymore; you’re an artist painting a picture in the minds of your readers. It’s a visual and visceral experience that uses—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
How to Use Your Senses
It’s okay to tell you to use the five senses in your writing. But you might wonder, how?
Let's draw on each sense to immerse your readers in your story:
Our inner eyes work as a movie projector, playing the story we’re reading on the movie screen in our heads. Writers want to show their readers what’s happening. If you’re having trouble running the movie in your head, ask, “What am I seeing?” Here’s an exercise:
Play a scene in your head like a movie. Perhaps you’re jogging through the park and see a woman walking her dog. That's plenty to say on the surface. But, for writing, dive deeper for the golden nuggets and explain his characteristics. How is the man walking? Does he have a limp? Does he switch the leash from one hand to the other? What is the dog behaving? Really focus your attention on details and write what you’re seeing. It will help you be more visual and go beyond what you’re writing on the surface.
Once you see the obvious, go deeper.
What do you really see? What is being inferred by what you see? What does it mean?
Sounds can convey all kinds of emotions. Think about a creaking door, a soft moan, a twig snapping, and leaves crunching. How did you feel about those words? Imagine you're in a busy coffee shop. What sounds do you hear? The hissing of the cappuccino machine. The swish of a credit card. The subtle sound of a book page-turning. Help your reader know where the character is by using a sound description. It’s up to you to create a scene with sounds that put your reader right where you want them—an innocent bystander in your scene.
A popular way to describe sounds in writing is with onomatopoeia (the formation of a word by imitating a sound made by or associated with its referent).
There are noises all around us. What do you hear as you’re reading this? Is there a word, or can you make up a word to mimic that sound?
Don’t forget what you hear internally, too. Sounds are not always external —sometimes, they are thoughts or inner voices.
“The aroma of fresh-baked bread filled the air.” This paints a picture, but that picture is stale. Now, play the scene in your head and put yourself in the character’s shoes as she walks by the bakery. “The smell of warm cookies cooling on a rack filled the air, and the scent of freshly baked bread surrounded me.” Now, your reader can envision themselves in the bakery scene; they know what this bakery smells like.
When you describe a scene, close your eyes, and envision all the smells that surround you. Smells relate almost everything from food to body odor and the weather to a situation.
Practice this by describing some smells around you.
There is nothing more sensual than the human touch. To feel something allows a person to experience it on a deep level. Your readers won’t physically handle the objects that you’re describing, so provide them with a sense of engagement that helps them imagine a thing in their hands. As an example, your main character is at the bakery and holds a teacup in their hands. They pick up the dainty coffee cup and run their fingers along its grooves and swirls, feeling the coolness of the porcelain with the heat of the hot tea within. Once again, your reader visualizes the teacup, what it looks like and how it feels to your character. Remember to describe the physical aspects of the object.
We can describe touch through temperature, texture, and the inner experience of the contact. There are different aspects to “touch” that are not with the hands but with the mind.
Ready to intrigue your reader with details? The flavor of food is an experience that we all know and understand. The depths of flavors and textures can take the reader on an adventure. Metaphors help a lot when describing taste—“The warm muffin tasted like an autumn day in an apple orchard.” Through this sentence, the reader understands that the warm muffin is soft, sweet, and is probably made of cinnamon and apples. Sure, you could say that, but a sensory experience invites the reader into your words.
While writing, remember to unlock and use the five senses to immerse your reader in your world. The five senses have the power to deeply connect with your readers.
Metaphors transport our readers to places that evoke memories and emotion from their own life, allowing a deeper connection to your story.
The Key to Unlocking Your Five Senses
It’s fine to tell you to use the five senses in your writing. But you might wonder, how?
Draw on your own senses and the movie in your head, first.
Then, get into what your character sees, tastes, smells, hears, touches? And what do those sensations mean?
Once you’ve established the sense, ask, what does this mean to the overall story? What does it tell your readers about the setting and your character?
You don’t want to bog readers down with unnecessary details. Still, a few well-placed words to evoke the five senses immerses your readers and subtly show them what’s going on.
Try this fun and simple exercise to practice writing descriptive prose that’s unique and filled with life and movement.
Brain dump a list of words that fall within each sense category. Try to go beyond the obvious—pretty, ugly, soft, hard, loud, etc.
This is a way to identify weak, unimaginative descriptors (adjectives).
Are you finding it challenging to come up with sensory words? Take time to hear, feel, see, smell, and taste. We usually pay attention to our senses subconsciously.
If you can’t picture what you're describing in your writing, neither can your reader.