Wednesday, March 20, 2013

5 Reasons to Use the 5 Senses in Your Writing

This is a repost of a great blog piece by one of my favorite bloggers, Kaye George. In this article she explains why a writer needs to use all five senses during the writing process.--Mary Ann

It's rare that I can get all five in, but I always try.

That's the easiest, of course. Writers have to describe what the characters are doing, seeing, where they're going. That's the difference between fiction writers and play/screen/TV script writers. The reader sees only what we permit them to see. Do you always remember to orient the readers at the beginning of each new scene and tell them where they are? I was told, once, to cut way down on my adjectives--I describing a little too much. (Janet Reid's exact words were, "Were they having a sale on adjectives?") One adjective per noun is enough. Even better if you can find the perfect noun, the one that doesn't even need any adjectives. The same thing for verbs, actions. The less adverbs the better. Notice, I don't advocate cutting adverbs out entirely. Sometimes you need them. But IF you can find a vivid enough verb, you won't need one for that sentence.

When your characters enter a new scene, close your eyes and put yourself there. Are they in the woods? Is the wind stirring the leaves? Are birds twittering? If it's nighttime, do you hear frogs or cicadas? In the city there's usually traffic noise, sometimes a distant siren, or a noisy bus pulling out of the bus stop. Inside a quiet room a clock might be ticking, or the refrigerator might cycle on.

This one isn't too hard, either. Outside there are flowers and new mown grass to smell. If the nearby water treatment plant isn't overpowering them. Each house has a distinct odor--pets, dust, cooking, cigarettes, baby powder.

It's a little harder to work touch in, but if you are outside, the wind can caress your cheek, riffle your bangs, or blow your hat off. A fence post will feel rough, a tree trunk a different kind of rough. Barefoot characters will feel dirt or hot pavement, or cool tile floors beneath their soles. The touch of another person is often needed in an intimate or emotional scene. Tell the reader if the other person's hand is warm or cool, leathery or soft, gnarled or smooth.

This is the hardest one. In an eating scene it's no problem, but we're told eating scenes are boring, right? Not always, but you don't want too many of them. Extreme emotion will put tastes in your character's mouth, though. Something that turns her stomach makes bile bubble up into her mouth. Biting his lip or tongue puts the metallic taste of blood in his mouth. Sweat comes with exertion or heat. Go ahead and let some run down his face. Let him taste the salt when he licks his lips nervously.

There are other senses you might try, too. ESP, gut instinct, the internal reaction to fear. In other words, things you feel inside yourself, or on the surface of your skin. A racing heartbeat, throbbing temples, but in less clichéd phrasing, of course.



  1. Thanks for the reports, Mary Ann! It's good to be reminded of the basics.

  2. That's why I loved this piece, Kaye! I'm so glad you wrote it.

  3. A fun piece, Kaye, and a good reminder not to rely only on sight and hearing when we write. Love the big ears on the cat. Is that one yours??

  4. The pictures are Mary Ann's, I think. I don't remember that I used them when I wrote this a couple of Julys ago.

    Mary Ann, somehow I meant to say thanks for the *repost* and it became *reports*! Geez.

  5. Reading this, I started thinking about how I would describe eating canned asparagus.