Why it makes sense to use the five senses in your writing

As of late, I’ve been talking a lot of the senses. You know them well. Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. In fact I bet you’re at least using two or three right now. Maybe the cat is walking and the bell on his collar is ringing with each step he takes. Is someone cooking lunch? How do the keys on your keyboard feel as your fingertips race from key to key. Do you still have the taste of breakfast on your tongue?
Our senses are something we don’t think about. So it comes as no surprise that many writers completely forget about them when writing a scene. There’s so much other things to worry about. Is my dialogue working? How’s the pacing? Did I miss a comma somewhere? 
Nothing makes your scene more vivid than invoking the senses. Now, as with all things, use moderation of course. You don’t want to spend pages and pages of describing every little sensory detail. However, the reader needs enough description for them to figure out where they are.
For example, imagine a large room. The room is as hospital white, no sound, no smell, nothing. Your pick up your reader by the scruff of their neck and place them in this room. The reader is confused yet intrigued. Let’s say you promised them a room full of puppies and kittens. 
Come play with us, gentle reader
The reader looks around but instead of frolicking animals, there are two talking voices overhead. Is it god? No, only characters without any physical or scene description. If I’m critiquing a story, and it’s in the middle of the book, and I still can’t picture your characters, you’ve got a problem.  You could have spent the first two pages describing them, but you need to remind me from time to time. If they have false teeth, maybe drop the fake teeth in the glass by the nightstand and describe the sound the water makes. A plunk? Maybe your character is an old man. Maybe have a scene when he looks into the sink and sees white hair? Oh! What if they are an alien creature? Maybe they have long fingernails and they use one to scratch the side of their nose. 
Okay back to the room. You’ve described your characters. Now two fully formed people are standing before the reader. They aren’t two omniscient beings. But, we’re still in a blank room. Where are these characters talking? Are they in space? The Antarctic? On a busy street? Are they sitting in a restaurant? Do they hear cars honking? Do they munch on garlic bread? Are they cooking sweet and sour chicken? Maybe they pet a giant dragon.  The possibilities are endless!
Now you fill in the room with sensory details. The reader smells the air and hears the sounds of your scene. He sees your characters talking as they sit in a small French outdoor cafe in late September. A lady walks by with a barking dog and one of your character’s sneer and fingers his fork. He says he hates dogs. Your other character unwinds her ponytail, freeing her long dark hair. She shrugs and sips from her small espresso cup. Then the yippy dog pulls out her intergalactic communicator and requests to be buzzed back on the ship. The air around the pup glows green then red and a swoosh of air rushes through, taking the pup with it.
Now the reader is engaged in the story. The walls of the room disappear and your reader can lose themselves in the world you’ve created. Your story is flushed out and the words jump off the page. Your reader is ready to explore.
Next time you read your favorite story, look for the sensory details. Why do you think the author used those particular details? Also, take a look at your own story. Are your beta readers and/or critique partners saying your characters are two talking heads? Look for places to add sensory detail.
What sensory details do you prefer?
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4 Comments

  1. YES! I see this so often. And the funny thing is, not every scene has to have all of these senses. Sometimes (depending on the intent and purpose of the scene) just one or two of them is enough to ground us. But there's a little trick I like to play in my own work: the really important scenes — the ones I want the reader to remember five years later and that carry the story somewhere brand new — get all five senses. Huge emotional moment? All five. Scene that's supposed to scare their socks off? All five.  Incidentally, this is great for poems, too. I see a lot of free-floating concept poems, where they have a message but never ground it in time or place. A poem is more memorable if it has a setting. So an easy trick to root a poem in reality is to hit each of the five senses by the end of the poem. This is a great topic, Feebs!

  2. Description and the senses are my favorite things to write about. You can also throw in there a sense of time and space. You can give readers a sense of time by describing the sunrise, sunset, darkness of night, midday sun, a rooster's crow, crickets chirping, etc. Becca

  3. Very true. You don't want too much scene description, but just enough to get the flavor of the scene.  Oohh huge emotional moment, all 5 senses. Very nice. I'll have to remember this.ha yes. I'm guilty of free floating poems sometimes.

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