Using the five senses
I love it when an author decides to use the senses in writing their descriptions. It’s so rarely done, it seems, that it keeps the story fresh and exciting for me. Let’s talk about some ways to incorporate each of them into your descriptions—without going overboard, of course! Nobody wants a blow-by-blow listing of everything your main character smelled in a day, especially if he’s a homicide detective in the morgue!
When using any of the senses in writing description, you want to remember “Show, don’t tell” to get the most effectiveness out of it.
Your first cup of coffee in the morning—does anything taste better? Or, on the other hand, it can be your biggest disappointment, starting your day off on the wrong foot. Rather than writing, “Rich’s coffee was bland,” try “Rich sipped his coffee, hoping his partner managed to make it taste better than the cardboard cup it was served in.” Now that’s not only a good action beat in terms of labeling dialogue, but it’s also invoking your readers’ sense of taste. They may briefly think of their first cup of coffee that morning, and how wonderful or disappointing it was.
Gritty, silky, scratchy, smooth, bumpy, metallic, wooden, sticky—all these are descriptors of how something feels. From the scratchy wool blanket your character was forced to curl up under to the silky satin sheets his girlfriend promised to buy instead, the sense of touch is a great way to expand descriptions. Even the feel of air moving over parts of the body—raising goose bumps or soothing fevered skin—can be useful in setting the mood and tone of a scene.
This is the most common sense used in descriptions, as authors are trying to paint a word picture as to what their character sees. While you’re used to handling this sense, try to keep in mind that you don’t want to simply describe what your character sees. You want to incorporate it into the overall description of the scene. “Kate saw James moving toward the alley” might be better as something like, “Kate watched James furtively creep toward the darkened alley.” “Saw” is somewhat passive, while “watched” is more active. “Furtively creep” is more descriptive than “moved.”
Clean laundry fresh off the clothesline. A gym bag in September that hasn’t been emptied since June. A wet dog. A man wearing cologne. A perfect rose. These phrases all bring to mind an odor—some pleasant, some not so pleasant. As an under-utilized sense, smells can be used to trigger character memories, as a clue in a murder mystery, to help reduce the pace after an action or suspenseful scene, or to add a unique twist to a common scene.
The sense of hearing is frequently used in writing, but see what types of sounds you can utilize to strengthen your scenes and keep your reader on their toes. If you consider air movement, from a gentle summer breeze to a fierce north wind, they all make a different sound, encouraging the reader to put themselves in the scene and really experience it. A click might be a clue to your super sleuth, a whirr might engage your scientist’s mind, and a gentle whoosh might be just enough to have your horror victim trembling.
How have you used the five senses in your writing? Please share in the comments!
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Owner, Adirondack Editing