Incorporating your senses into what you're writing

Show your writers what you see, smell, hear, taste, touch

Karla Brandenburg

While I often write about a sixth sense, today I'll reflecting on the five senses we all share.

I recently read a couple of blog posts about the sense of smell, and about the use of our senses when writing. Too often, authors forget to include simple cues that can bring the reader more deeply into the story. Let me start by pointing out an author should make these experiences direct and not distance the reader by saying "I could smell," or "I saw." From the character's point of view, they are actively experiencing these things. So rather than "I could smell raw onions in the kitchen," the more direct approach would be, "Judging by the onions and garlic that assaulted me when I walked in, I guessed she was making something Italian for dinner." Or instead of "I saw a cat on the porch," something more like "as I approached the front porch, a black and gray striped tabby arched its back in an exaggerated stretch and stalked off into the bushes." Yes, you can see the cat, but it's more active if you can see what it's doing and convey that. Okay, enough about HOW to use those senses, let's move onto why.


What your characters see is generally a given. Most books will point out everything that comes into line of sight. Using the sense to evoke a feeling means using what they see to your advantage. What do they think of when they see something? For instance: The woman's skin was as white as paper and she wore a headwrap. Mary walked up to the stranger and squeezed her hand. "Keep fighting," she said, knowing all too well how ill the woman must be. Show. Don't tell. Visual cues communicate much more effectively than telling the reader Mary saw a woman who looked like she was struggling with cancer.


While we take for granted our characters see the world, we don't always stop to hear what's happening around them. For instance, where I live, they test the warning sirens the first Tuesday of every month at ten a.m. I'm not sure this would ever come up in a story, but it would be a clear signal to the reader (at least a reader in Illinois) of the date and time. (I don't know how widespread this practice is.) If the story is set in a city, the sound of a train or subway rumbling by which puts a reader firmly into a sense of place. A church bell ringing in the distance, or a carillon. For that matter, a song on the radio, or a choir that transports the character to a different time and place. Music, in particular, often recalls an associated memory--good to use sparingly for flashbacks. When she walked into the department store, It's Too Late to Turn Back Now played on the Muzak system, filtering through the crowd noise to remind her of the one job she should have walked away from. She'd learned her lesson. It was never too late to turn back. 


I've discovered I tend to get stuck on a certain flavor in each of my books. There was the bread pudding in ENCHANTED MEMORIES. Mallorca bread in BREAKING THE MOLD. The bread pudding reminds the main character of her aunt, who served it as comfort food. When your characters go out to eat, you'll want to include the flavors that resonate with them. Are they favorable? Bitter? Enhance the mood or detract from it? Some foods can be a source of conflict. The hero likes asparagus, but the heroine chokes on it every single time. Or cilantro. Some people appreciate it, while others liken it to eating soap. Jose sprinkled the cilantro liberally into the taco meat, the way his mother used to. Alecia cried out in horror. "If I wanted my mouth washed out with soap, I'd carry a bar with me. Ease up, will you? How do you expect me to eat that now?" Or, here are a couple excerpts from ENCHANTED MEMORIES:

"...bread pudding, the cure-all Auntie Arlene had given her after the first time Madeleine had shared someone else’s thoughts and feelings."
"She didn’t bother cutting off a slice, digging into the 8x8 pan of bread pudding—extra points for the vanilla sauce on the top. When it practically melted in her mouth, she closed her eyes and hummed her appreciation. Pure heaven. Nothing restored her chi the way bread pudding did."


Consider how something feels. Walking down a deserted London street, cold and damp seeping into your bones. Okay, now consider a romance novel and a hero with rock-hard abs. Warm skin. Or holding someone's hand. Clammy? Papery skin? What feeling do you want to convey? The way it feels sets a mood, or a response to that character. Chills of dread when someone walks into a cold basement? Claustrophobia when they walk into a hot, stuffy attic, the air making it difficult to breathe? Texture. Running fingers across a smooth/coarse surface. Spilling a cold drink, or a cup of coffee. How does the character respond to these sensations? TELLING a reader these things happen is superficial. Experiencing it - her scalded skin turned red where the coffee sloshed onto her hand, and she rushed to the sink to rinse the burn with cold water, which raised gooseflesh all over her body. Her hand throbbed from the violent temperature extremes.


Back to the onions and garlic. Make the reader smell what the character does. In LIVING CANVAS, Audrey walks past the lilac bushes and up the front steps of the B&B, smelling the delicate fragrance. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you're writing a whodunit and somebody done died, a character might come across a decomposing body which would make them gag and possibly even "lose their cookies." Strong smells prompt strong responses. Delicate smells tease at memories or hint at peaceful settings. Olfactory senses can often transport people to another place and time. In THE UNINVITED, the scent of mimosa is an indicator that the ghost of Stella's mother is nearby. The twist is that her mother isn't who she thought she was. Or maybe an author might use a scent when a character thinks of their parents. Old Spice for their father, or Windsong for their mother, etc. I've seen movies where a child buys a fragrance simply to remember his mother because he's worried he'll forget her. It's his way of keeping her close. 

Again, with all of these senses, it's important to use the experience directly, and not distance your reader with "he saw..." We're in the character's point of view, so we see what he sees. Telling the reader is sort of like saying "I said to him, I said..." (Bugs Bunny cartoons, anyone?) Likewise, by adding "could" in front of the sense also distances the reader. They want to experience what the character is experiencing, no "could" about it. What is the character seeing? Smelling? Tasting? Experiencing? Hearing? Show the reader. Don't tell them, and make it a three-dimensional experience rather than a flat collection of words. 



Excellent article. I can always use solid examples of ‘show, don’t tell’ along with ideas for using the senses. Thank you!

Mar-20 at 21:59


Thanks, Misty. Glad you found it helpful.

Mar-20 at 22:18


One of the strongest example I’ve seen of this in use is from convenience store woman by Sayaka Murata where the descriptions of a convenience store and its sight, sound, feel, purpose, and ambience not only set the mood of scenes but permeates the entire narrative as an allegorical representation of order in the narrator’s life. This is something the narrator seeks comfort in and often thinks about when something in her life goes a little off.

Many a times, amateur writers are told to be sparse on their descriptions, so the the senses are ‘shows’ with little meaning other than to set the setting and mood. This limits the depth of descriptions and the deeper meanings it evokes. Most of the time, mediocre writers write descriptions in a fairly vapid manner akin to listing, because most mediocre writers fail to see how each element relates to one another apart from the character itself.

In a lot of East Asian fiction writers such as Yasunari kawabata’s snow country, the characters are part of the world they inhabit and describe, as such, the author goes to great lengths to describe the changes in seasons, from the windswept grasses to moths on the wooden posts, each element relates to one another deeply as how each section of a still life tells its own mini story that relates both to the overarching theme of the narrative and the journey of the narrator.

This is reminiscent of haiku and tang dynasty poetry.

What is often ignored in modern storytelling and reading is how things in the background affects the character. For example, how the patters of rain attempts to drown the whimpers of the FMC as the MC watches the rain from beyond the umbrella.

Examples of works of fiction that does this absurdly well includes films by Makoto Shinkai. The attention to detail is absolutely astounding. Take the Garden of Words for example, where the story’s backdrop is a rainy park.

Beyond the usual ‘show don’t tell’ descriptions is the use of other literary devices that has since lost its popularity. I am talking about subtle personifications of the inanimate objects. Here, I’ve mentioned rain ‘attempting to drown out voices’ this is a form of personification. Now, write it subtly so that it appears to be a simple description of the rain and juxtapose it’s loud drums to the silent whimpers of the girl. The subtext here becomes ‘attempting to drown her voices’. Follow this up with the boy beside her watching the rain from beneath the shelter of the umbrella and commenting on how troublesome the rain.

This becomes a multi-layered description. The FMC’s reaction to his words frames what this scene means to her.

There is no need for internal monologues by any party, really, to show the significance of such simple descriptions.

Descriptions play a key role in telling the story’s core messages and delivering an undercurrent through both symbology and implied juxtapositions. Take Bong Joon Ho’s the parasite, for example. The use of smell to show the MC’s relation to poverty and how the scenes are set up such that the poor is always exposed to the grease, oil, and the dirty hints to us that despite their break into being in the company of the rich, their past is inescapable, and it would soon catch up to them as their employers notice their smell.

Mar-21 at 02:41


Great examples. The senses do more than set the scene. They reach deep and can bring forward memories and feelings associated with memories and work well to provide a deeper meaning to the story, depending on what your purpose is.

Mar-21 at 12:51


I ran into the phrase “Smell is the only incorruptible sense” awhile back. So I decided to find out why.

It all has to do the rat-brain, the hippocampus in humans. In rats the hippocampus takes up more than half the brain. Rat’s sense of smell is extremely sensitive as a result. In humans the hippocampus is relatively tiny but because of its relationship to certain memory centers, smell is a powerful memory stimulator.

Writers forget that we have five senses, not just one or two. And smell provides the most powerful descriptors. Were I to read a story involving burnt toast, the smell would stay with me long after I’ve forgotten the actual story.

Mar-22 at 00:09


Good points Mike

Mar-22 at 00:32


Great point. Subconsciously, I tend to use descriptions as a replacement for inner monologue when I want to be subtle about a character’s feelings or personality. Parasite is an excellent example of sensory details supplying the audience with more emotional information than any amount of verbal exposition ever could.

Mar-22 at 02:16


Some great examples of incorporating the senses. Thank you for sharing.

Mar-22 at 14:46


Thanks, Mary!

Mar-22 at 15:24


Important part of writing, good subject, good input.

Mar-22 at 18:40
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