Do you want a short-cut to reader relatability?
Do you want to create a three-dimensional tone, with more thoroughness and intimacy?
Are you forever on the lookout for stronger verbs?
There’s a simple answer. Use the five senses in your writing.
But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Exactly like the blasted phrase “show, don’t tell.” I don’t know about you, but it always feels so judgey to me. Trying to balance tone and setting and dialogue (not to mention the plot and the characters) is enough to deal with, not to mention adding all those minute details. It’s almost like juggling.
I mean, if you’re writing in the first person (as I do), you’ve no excuse. It’s much easier for us to insert sensation in with the narrator’s personal tone. But for the rest of you, it can be a little trickier to slip them in.
Here are just a few things to think when considering sensation in writing.
- You don’t usually notice noises, as they’re usually in the background. Either something is so horrible, loud, or enjoyable that you can’t help but listen, or you stop to consciously listen to the background.
- Sound conveys setting almost as well as sight does, in perhaps a more grounding way. You may recognize that the character has stepped onto a subway, but it becomes more relatable when you’re told about the student humming along with their headphones on, or the shutter-click of the train car as it hurtles past cement and fluorescent lights.
- Sound conveys mood, the tone of a scene. Rainfall is soothing or torrential, classical music is sophisticated and calm, a construction scene is busy and slightly dangerous, wind is exciting, lonely, or inspirational, a cell phone ringing as irritating, and so on.
- Similes work great with sound. I love this passage by Tom Robbins, writing about the voice of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen:
It is a penitent’s voice, a rabbinical voice, a crust of unleavened vocal toast–spread with smoke and subversive wit. He has a voice like a carpet in an old hotel, like a bad itch on the hunchback of love.
- Don’t just use external touches. Internal touches could be the tossing in the pit of your stomach when you see your crush, or the numb dizziness in your fingers and toes when you look down from a cliff. Internal touches could be describing the pain of a bullet or an arrow, instead of just saying the character was shot in the shoulder.
- Textures us so much about something, especially inanimate objects. Even so, the use of descriptive textures is significantly lacking in the literary world, beyond the occasional “whip of wind” and “ice-cold water,” or maybe “warm, crackling fire.” Some particularly nice textures that so many people forget about are things like cabled sweaters, the smoothness of freshly shaved legs, and the feeling you get when you slurp your spaghetti and end up with sauce all over your face. Be imaginative!
- Taste is a very immediate sense, a powerful tool to tuck into your writing belt. After you’ve tasted something, you quickly know whether or not you like it, right? Tastes are very intimately linked with opinion.
- But that said, this sense is one you have to be a bit more careful with. Taste descriptors are common, easily rendered meaningless. Often times, we describe tastes as we’re used to hearing them described (zesty lemon; rich chocolate; creamy tea) instead of really taking the time to break down the various layers of taste. We stop right before noticing the somehow dry sweetness hiding behind the soul-puckering sourness of the lemon; the earthy, bitter flavor that adds a whole new level to chocolate; the musk of honey twirled in the thick cream of the tea.
- Yet even so, done rightly (or even done hastily), taste can add a whole new element of reality when it’s not expected. For example, the metallic taste of blood in a knife fight, the acrid taste of Benadryl when you couldn’t swallow it on the first go, or the taste of rain in your lungs. It doesn’t have to be edible to be tasted.
- Very like taste, the sense of sight can be used inadequately, in a very non-descript, cliché way. “Green trees,” “pouring rain,” “long, golden hair” — it isn’t so simple as sticking an adjective in the front of a noun and calling it good.
- Don’t try to describe everything, because it’s always going to be impossible. Rather, focus on the things you think will give the reader the most bang for their buck. Who a person is says a lot about what they perceive. What would you, as an author, notice in certain situations? Or if your character is a nurse/soldier/etc., what would they notice about a situation according to their unique perspective? Take that to your writing.
Everything about writing the five senses is about quality, rather than quantity.
- Smell conveys emotion, I think, a little more than the other four. This could be partly because it’s very intimately linked with memory. The scent is subjective to the describer (i.e. character), depending on their outlook and what they notice. Again, who a person is says a lot about what they perceive.
Advertisements about:blank Report this ad
E.g. Does Paris smell like fresh bread and a woman’s perfume? Or does it smell of cigarette smoke and urine? Do those scents, in turn, conjure up bad memories, or are they simply part of the landscape?
Or, Autumn has a smell. But is it a good smell, full-bodied of candles and burning leaves and mulled cider? Or is it freshly dug earth, cobwebs, and rotting wood?
Taking this to the pen…
It’s all about inserting your own knowledge of something into a new context.
Since sight is the most commonly used in writing, ask yourself if what you’re describing can be more interestingly described by another sense. At least go through, after you’ve gathered your “sights,” and notice bits of the other senses. After you’ve more options in front of you, you can decide which is truly indicative of the situation/setting.
E.g. He sat on the park bench, tall with a stooped back and dressed in a white suit that reminded me of the Bahamas and optimistic vampires.
Also notice that he was eating a bag of roasted chestnuts, which the narrator could smell from his hiding place, or that there were people cheering on a lacrosse team on a field nearby, but the man didn’t seem to notice in his waiting.
Using the body’s five senses in your writing adds relatability.
In my own personal experience, I tend to dig into the senses when I’m trying not to lose the reader. I have a lot of fights in my writing (physical and verbal) and I try to focus not so overwhelmingly on the technical aspect of the fight (person one hits person two, who pulls out a knife and throws it, etc.), but also stop to include the more personal nitty-gritty.
Also, if a character is sick, I’ll try to pull from the reader’s own experiences of sickness to promote sympathy, instead of trying to force a pity party.
But never, never feel like you have to be perfect. If it doesn’t come naturally in the scene, fix it in post. That’s what editing’s for, after all.
Does writing sensation come easily to you? What tips/strategies do you use to bring the five senses into play? Let me know in the comments below!