Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Using the Senses

How often do you use the senses when writing? Probably not enough. The senses are the most amazing tool available to a writer, yet the most underused. This is probably down to simple forgetfulness. We tend to overlook some of the senses when we describe scenes, but by including them, we can enrich our writing.

The most important tool in creative writing is observation. When you want to convey any scene, you highlight the colours, the people, situations and everything else around you by bringing the narrative to life. More importantly, you will be using the five senses to convey to the reader a sense of belonging to your writing.

Observation brings in the five senses:

• What can you hear?
• What can you taste?
• What can you touch?
• What can you smell?
• What can you see?

Using these senses is important when constructing your prose. Your reader will want to see and feel the scene – that means the background, the people, the actual setting. They will want to smell the scene – what odours are there? Can you describe the hint of flowers, or cooking...or maybe trash bins? Can your reader hear the scene – the traffic, the people, the noise, the chatter or music drifting in from somewhere? Do your characters speak in their individual voices and tones?

Can your reader taste the scene? For instance, if your character is walking along the beach, can they taste the salt in the air, or if your character is in a coffee shop, can they taste freshly made coffee?

Lastly, can they feel the various elements within the scene? This is the element of touch. Touch can convey emotions and say do much without the aid of dialogue. What about the softness of a petal, or someone’s skin or maybe the prickle of nettles? Touch heightens emotions within a scene and adds extra dimension to the narrative.

Sense of Sight

You normally see the scene within your mind’s eye when you write and observation is perhaps the most used of the five senses. Of course, you will need to realise what you imagine, and be able to translate that to the page. There are so many questions to ask within a scene that you should elicit as much information as possible by encouraging the use of observation in order to place your reader within that scene.

Remember, 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?

Bring the scene to life with what the character sees because this will enrich your narrative.

Sense of Smell

The sense of smell invokes powerful memories; a certain perfume may remind you of someone, or a hint of tobacco, freshly cut grass, or the hint pine. 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. This is an often overlooked sense, but it provides background colour to an otherwise mundane narrative.

If you have a character that is walking through the narrow market streets of Marrakech, and you fail to let you reader in on the scene by not mentioning the hint of spices lingering in the air, the sweet scent of fresh fruit, the juicy, tantalising meats cooked while you wait, then you’ve let your reader down. The idea if to try to bring them into the scene so they can fully imagine it.

Sense of Hearing

Most of what the reader will hear will come from your dialogue. The fundamental aspect of dialogue is to move the story forward, and in doing so, each of your characters should be able to speak with their own unique voice. That means your reader should be able to recognize the characters from the way they speak, their tone of voice.

Of course, this is just one aspect of the hearing sense. What your character hears is also important. How many other sounds can you hear within your scene? What sounds can you conjure? Is there a distance foghorn? Perhaps a cacophony of car horns represents a busy, bustling city. Does the character hear the lapping of water against a boat? What about the call of a bird, a barking dog? All these limitless sounds bring a sense of realism into the scene.

Whether it’s characters or background noise, remember to add a sense of sound to the narrative to help your reader feel the scene.

Sense of Taste

Perhaps this is the most neglected sense in writing. Eating can be a shared, sensual pastime, therefore your reader will want to be involved if your characters are eating, and they’ll want their taste buds aroused. Simple details count. Description is the cement that binds your story, and if you don’t enhance it enough for your reader, they will quickly become bored.

Next time you have a scene with characters eating; hint at what they taste, and how it might affect them. What does that wine taste of on the tongue? Or that steak? How does the dessert taste?

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.

Try to let your reader experience as much as possible.

Sense of Touch

Touch is another neglected sense. Unless you can describe the feel of something within a scene, you will not be involving all the readers’ senses, and like hearing, the sense of touch has a broad spectrum.

Can you describe the feel of material of a character’s dress, the feel of a baby’s skin, the roughness of sand, the sting of salt against the skin? Or what about the feel of water around your ankles as you walk through the surf? What does it feel like? If a character is touching something, don’t be afraid to describe it. Let your reader in on the action too.


By incorporating a sense of touch and feeling, aromas, observation and taste into your writing, you will add depth to your narrative and you will therefore draw your reader into an enjoyable, fully rounded read.

Remember, it’s all in the detail.

The best way to remind yourself of these senses is to have a little note on your desk or computer which asks:

What can I see?
What can I hear?
What can I taste?
What can I touch?
What can I smell?

This will act as a prompt.  You don't have to overload your narrative with ALL the senses, but every now and then, let the reader in and let them enjoy key scenes; let them see it, feel it, touch it, taste it, smell it.  Poor description gives nothing, great description gives everything.



Next time: creating 4 dimensional characters.

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