Smell the Coffee: How to Use the 5 Senses to Improve Your Writing

When I start a new story I write for dialogue and action. I try to keep in mind what the character is sensing and include those nuances as often as I can, but mostly I wait and layer it in during the second draft phase. If done well, using the five senses should be seamless and allow the reader to create a deep, emotional connection with the characters, helping to reveal the character’s state of 2_28_11_SupremeCoffee7598mind.

Setting a scene requires more attention to sensual detailing than when you’re working to move along the plot. It’s not important, and probably a bad idea, to try to incorporate all five senses at once. Better to focus on what compliments a scene and especially what’s relevant to the character or the setting. And avoid overuse or info dumping by using the senses. It slows the pace and smacks of author intrusion.

A clever writer strives to tuck description into the narrative by lacing it through action and dialogue. Matching the sense to the scene is vital. Doing so draws a reader further into the novel, allowing him or her to feel the emotions between characters. They get your reader involved. Add impact to your story.

Try this as an exercise. Go someplace similar to your setting and just sit, close your eyes and experience the surroundings. Engage in this activity whenever you have a few minutes to spare, no matter where you are. I keep a small notepad close by so I can note what I experience. Or sometimes, if it doesn’t look too weird, I use a voice memo on my phone. People probably think I’m like a secret agent or something.

Don’t forget to include the use of the five senses in dialogue and also inner monologue. It will give insight into your character. In multiple points of view, show how the same experience can mean different things to different characters. Consider the differences between the sexes. Men are sometimes more visual, whereas women are often more tactile and play on those differences when writing male, vs. female, characters. Or when your audience is tilted more toward one sex than the other.

The hard ones for me are taste and touch. As a writer you tend to be inside your character’s head and the rest of the body sometimes gets neglected. It’s easy to relate what my character is seeing, hearing and smelling, but I sometimes forget what the rest of her body is experiencing. And not only what she’s touching, but the feel of her clothing on her skin, the temperature in the room, the sense of the chair she’s sitting on. As for taste, well, it’s just not as important in many scenes, but it certainly adds something if you can grab it.

Challenge: Choose a couple of pages of your writing at random and circle all the “sight” words. Is there a more descriptive word, or a more precise word you could substitute? Consider the differences here: She looked out the window. She peered out the window. She stared out the window. All have slightly different context that can add to the mood of the scene. Do the same with the other senses and then the nouns and verbs. Are there more specific ones you can use?

One word of caution: Don’t overdo it! Excessive description can kill your story faster than the stench of vomit can make you heave. Strive for one good image per page. It will make your story shine and still let the plot move along at a good pace. Do you have any specific tricks for ensuring that you use the fives senses in your writing? If so, do share!

Up Next from Caryn? Editing is Painful!

Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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