Use of the 5 Senses in Writing

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Writers often hear that in order to write a great novel, we must incorporate the 5 senses. Doing so draws a reader further into the novel, allowing him or her to feel the emotion between the characters. Easily said, but why, and what can we specifically do to incorporate the 5 senses?

  • Sight

Okay, this is an easy one because we are all visual beings. My gut instinct when writing a first draft is to write down everything I’m seeing in my mind. I try to keep in mind that some, but not all, of this will stay in. A reader will need enough description to be able to envision the scene, but not so much they are bogged down in the details. The power of imagination is a great thing; a reader should be able to envision the scene in his own way.

  • Hearing

Using sound helps to ground the reader in the scene. The click of the heroine’s boots on the ground, the honking of the cars in the city, the roaring of the waves at the beach. All of these things help set the scene and draw the reader in. So when writing a scene, go further into it than you might otherwise. Think of what sorts of background noise the character would be hearing and add it. Just a sentence or two suffices to add that detail that draws a reader in.

  • Smell

Ever smell something that brings back a memory? Perhaps the scent of gardenia reminds you of your grandmother’s garden, or the aroma of a hot dog evokes a childhood memory of a day spent at Central Park. Smell is one of our most powerful senses, which is why it is so powerful when used in a story. When writing romance, the hero and heroine should have distinct smells that call to each other. Perhaps something reminds him of the smell of her hair, and he realizes just how much he misses her. Or the heroine is trying to move on with her life, but finds that no other man smells as good as her ex. Whatever it is, smell should be incorporated into scenes as much as possible to draw the reader in and evoke their own memories. As with hearing, a sentence or two in every now and again is all that is needed.

  • Taste

Taste is very much like smell. It has the ability to bring back memories and the emotions attached to them. It’s not necessary to add taste to every scene, but it should definitely be there in the big emotional scenes. If your character is in a fight, does he taste the metallic tang of blood in his mouth? If the heroine has been kidnapped, perhaps it’s the bitter taste of fear creating a film in his mouth. Love scenes are fun because you can use a variety of flavors to evoke the feeling of danger, excitement or home (whatever it is you’re going for).

  • Touch

The sense of touch can be used to create sensual scenes that draw your reader into the moment with the character. That’s why bathtub scenes are so popular in romance, especially for historicals. The silky slide of water along skin automatically evokes sensuality and promise.

For you writers, do you have any specific tricks for ensuring that you use the 5 senses in your writing?

I don’t automatically think of using the 5 senses, so I know that this is something I will layer in during the first revision stage. The trick becomes to add it without it reading like I’m just sticking in sensory sentences. If done well, using the five sentences should be seamless and should allow the reader to create a deep, emotional connection with the characters.

For more on use of the 5 senses, check out the “Sense and Sensuality” Workshop given by Melissa Endlich, Catherine Mann, Stephanie Newton, and Krista Stroever at RWA’s 2010 Conference.

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11 thoughts on “Use of the 5 Senses in Writing

    kayspringsteen said:
    February 7, 2011 at 8:27 am

    The thing to remember is not all five senses should be addressed at once. Pick one that most complements the scene. But also, make it relevant to the character. Do those seagulls sound like screaming people? Does the cigarette lit by a companion cause an intense craving for the hero who only quit a year ago? Does the scratchy hospital sheet feel like desert sand to a war vet? What does that cloud of smoke in the distance make the heroine think of? Does the Cinnabon cinnamon role threaten the heroine’s diet? Just one at a time and filter it in via the characters. It will bring the reader there and also give character insight.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 7, 2011 at 8:41 am

      Ooh, Cinnabon…

      Good point, Kay. Evoking use of the senses also gives insight into our character.

        Roni Lynne said:
        February 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm

        ooo, Cinnabon! That taste would definitely take me back. I know I leave out a few in the first draft. I really appreciate Kay’s point about matching the sense to the scene. I’ll try to keep that one in mind!

    Ciara Knight said:
    February 7, 2011 at 11:19 am

    I sometimes have to add in taste. I agree with Kayspringstine, don’t try to use all five at once.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 7, 2011 at 12:09 pm

      The hard one for me is touch. Unless it’s a love scene, I don’t automatically think of what my characters might be touching and how it would feel.

        kayspringsteen said:
        February 7, 2011 at 12:17 pm

        If you learn to think in terms of what YOU are feeling (hearing, smelling,tasting,seeing) in your day-to-day life. If you’re cooking and you take a taste, how would you describe it? Maybe you use pine cleaner on your floor – how do you describe the scent? When you walk barefoot through grass, how does that feel? What does sand feel like when you kneel on the beach? You think about these things as you go about your daily activities, it will be easier to insert them into your writing.

        Rosalie Lario responded:
        February 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm

        I love your advice, Kay, because it involves being more self-aware. I know that helps writing, but I tend to be so introspective!

    Julia Rachel Barrett said:
    February 7, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Well, I view men as more visual creatures, women as more tactile. Both sexes like to hear sounds – possibly women have a more acute sense of smell, but men like a woman who smells kind of spicy and a bit woodsy – at least according to studies of perfumes.
    Depending upon the story, I’ll go with visual first, or the sound of a voice over the telephone, or an aroma – like I said…it all depends upon the story, but I always incorporate all five senses.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      Oh what a great point, Julia. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of the male vs. female perspective, but maybe I should!

    Dawn Chartier said:
    February 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Thanks for the reminder. I tend to forget this as well in the first draft and then have to layer it in after.

    You could use a macro that highlights all your “sense” words as you mentioned above. If any one is macro savvy it might work…

    Thanks for the great post, Rosalie.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm

      Another great idea, Dawn. I’m starting edits on a manuscript now and was thinking of using color coding (but the old fasioned way: highlighters).

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