U is for Using the Senses
The senses are the most amazing tool available to a writer, yet they’re woefully underused. This is due mainly because of simple forgetfulness. We tend to overlook some of the senses when we describe scenes, but by including them, we can enrich our writing.
This sense is the one that provides most of the detail for our stories. What your character sees is what your reader sees, and if you fail to describe very much, your reader won’t fully appreciate what it is you are trying to describe. What does the character see? What’s in the background? What’s in the foreground? What surrounds them?
When writing about something using sight, drop your adjectives and describe it fully. Don’t say there was a large stone fireplace. Say the fireplace was made of fieldstone and had room enough for a pig to roast on a spit and room to spare. If a character receives flowers, don’t just describe them as pretty. Instead of saying the bouquet was of colourful wild flowers, say the bouquet was a symphony of colour, each blossom striking a wild note of summer.
Background noise can be instrumental in creating atmosphere and setting. You’re writing a thriller and your character is alone in the woods. What kinds of things will he hear? There should be birds chirping, leaves rustling in the breeze, maybe the lapping of water against the shore or the musical tinkling of a stream. But there could also be the sound of something snuffling in the underbrush or the snapping of a twig as something approaches.
What your character hears is important. How many sounds can you hear within your scene? What sounds can you conjure? Is there a distant foghorn? Perhaps a sound of car horns representing a traffic jam. Does the character hear the call of a bird, a barking dog? All these limitless sounds bring a sense of realism into the scene.
Touch is another neglected sense. Try touching a variety of things. What do you feel? Is it soft or hard, smooth or rough? How does it feel in your hand? If a character is touching something, don’t be afraid to describe it. Let your reader in on the action too.
You can embellish descriptions of this sense by the use of physical reactions to certain items: recoiling from the touch of something slimy, goosebumps rising after touching something cold, reassurance when touching something soft and warm. All these reactions add to the reader’s imagination while adding to the picture your words are painting.
By allowing the sense of smell to creep into your writing, you create a subtle sense of atmosphere and you add another layer to the overall descriptive passages for the reader to enjoy. We often smell something that reminds us of a familiar place or time. The smell of fresh bread may remind you of your grandmother’s kitchen. For me the smell of tangerines makes me think of Christmas, just as fresh cut grass makes me think of summer.
If you have a character walking along the seashore, you need to make the scene come alive by mentioning the tang of salt in the air, perhaps the faint odour of seaweed from the tide line or the pungent aroma of a fish rotting in the sand, maybe there’s even a whiff of smoke from a fire further along the beach.
This is probably the least used of all the senses in writing. When your characters are eating, include your reader in the experience. How does that wine taste on the tongue? Is that steak as good as it looks? How does the dessert taste? Eating can be a shared, sensual pastime. Simple details count. Next time you have a scene with characters eating; hint at what they taste, and how it might affect them.
There are also certain elements in the air which can define taste. What about salt in the air, or perhaps the acidity of burning rubber on the tongue? What about a passionate kiss? What does your character’s lips taste like? Are they sweet, bitter...fruity? Never neglect this sense, especially in romantic scenes.
Using your senses in your writing helps enhance the overall story you're trying to convey. It adds to the story and makes it more interesting. By incorporating a sense of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste into your writing, you will add depth to your narrative and you draw your reader into an enjoyable, fully rounded read.
It isn’t necessary to overload your writing with all the senses, however, but every once in awhile, let the reader in and let them enjoy key senses in a scene. Remind yourself of the effectiveness of using your senses by keeping this where you can see it:
What can I see?
What can I hear?
What can I taste?
What can I touch?
What can I smell?