Monday, January 14, 2013

The Five Senses in Writing

We experience the world through our senses. These experiences leaveimpressions and memories that can be triggered again via sight, sound, touch,taste and smell. In world creating, we have to show that our charactersexperience the world in the exact same way. The below list is not all inclusive, but hopefully it will trigger an idea.

Sight – This is the most basic,and every piece of writing tends to show what the character sees around them.  I won’t spend too much time on this, becausethis could be a post in itself – when to describe what is seen, to what degree, andat what pace. I touched on this lightly here.
Sound – The sounds a characterhears can show times of pleasure (laughter), feelings of mystery (stickscracking in the woods), or time of day (birds chirping). It is the music theyhear, their own internal fears, the beating of someone’s heart, or the thump ofsomeone collapsing. It is an excellent chance to show foreshadowing, conjure up memories, or set emotion.
Touch – Describing the feel ofobjects as the character glides their fingers along things such as velvet, corduroy,or silk can enhance a story and is an excellent opportunity for poetic license. But it is not just what the character touches withtheir hands. Pain, sickness, emotions, pleasure – these are things thecharacter feels internally, and need to be described as well. The feel of thewind on your cheeks, the feel of the instrument in your hands, or the feel oflips touching can show emotion and enhance character development.
Taste – New experiences and memoriesare a major part of taste, such as a character tasting an Indian dish for thefirst time or the taste of mother’s homemade chili. It could also be a calmingtaste such as chamomile tea or a jarring taste such as an unexpected pepper. Itis not just foods and liquids that we taste. There are also emotions that have aflavor such as fear, sickness, or love. The taste of a kiss, the taste oftears, or the taste of bile. Remember in your writing that your sense of smelland taste are deeply connected. A strong smell is often tasted, such as perfume.
Smell – Like taste, smell isdeeply rooted in memory. We use smell to identify clues such as walking into aroom that smells like blood, dust, or mom’s homemade cookies – each could bethe catapult for a story. There are things we don’t think of having a smell,but in fact have a very strong scent such as rain, fresh paved roads, or aclosed off room.

Play with the senses in your writing. Explore ways toshow characters emotions, foreshadowing, or back-story.  Below is an excerpt from Iron Thirst.Felicity is visiting Christian’s office. She was told to meet him there. Shearrives to a dark building with an open door. I had to rely on her othersenses to tell the story since she couldn’t see much. See if you can count allfive – maybe even the sixth. ;-)

The lobby is dark, but the streetlamps from outside gently illuminate it,casting a silver hue on the room. This place smells like Christian’s hugs, booksand vanilla. The faintest light is coming from the back area where his officeis located, but it’s too dark to just walk there. With random chairs and tablesthat I do not remember the location of, I’m sure to injure myself.

I run my hand along the wall by the door searching for the light switch.Ahh, there is something. No, that feels like a picture frame. My clumsiness knocksit unlevel, and it slides to hang from a corner of the frame. I try tostraighten it, but it falls from the wall and crashes to the floor. The crispsound of breaking glass pierces the air. 

The back room goes dark. I call out again. “Christian?”

I try the other side of the door. It has to be around here somewhere.Dammit, why is he not answering me?

“Ow!” I yelp, as I walk into a pole of some sort. A leafy pole. One ofthose fake trees sitting in a basket. Who would put a stupid tree right there?This is ridiculous. I’m going back to my car and waiting there.

The front door makes a loud bang, as it slams shut. I reach to grab thedoorknob, but when I try to pull it open, it does not move. I yank on thehandle, but it will not open. It’s stuck. The handle turns, but the door willnot budge. Panic starts at my ears and works its way down to my toes. I twistand turn at the handle. I pull and yank on the door. There is no give.

Anice-cold breath freezes the hairs on the back of my neck. “Not yet, my dear,” thedeep voice says. In the back of my mouth, I taste fear, thick with acid and bile.


  1. It is funny to notice that ever since I was prompted to include a five sense description in my writing, I have put more attention on my daily life and surroundings. Now I do take time to check and mentally describe the sounds, tastes, sights, feelings and tastes of my life. :)

  2. I do that too! I jot things down in case I ever need it. :-)