Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Using the Five Senses in Writing

Five Scribe readers, a comment I heard often in my early years as a writer is "your characters don't live in a vacuum."  I took that comment to mean, "your work is one-dimensional drek, now fix it."  Sure, we know that our characters have five senses.  But how do we incorporate those senses seamlessly on the page without yanking your reader out of the story?  Author Victoria Houseman visits today to introduce her workshop to help us do just that.   
Making Your Writing Come Alive with the Five Senses ©

Victoria Bromley w/a Victoria Houseman


            The story writer Flannery O’Connor said, “Fiction begins where human knowledge begins – with the senses.”  We have only five ways of perceiving reality.  We can SEE it, TASTE it, SMELL it, TOUCH it, HEAR it.  Without the information we get through our five senses, we can’t function as human beings.  Each sense is important individually, but each has its own limitations.  Yet, one sense can be used to compensate for the lack of another sense.  A blind man has a heightened sense of hearing and touch and taste and smell.  This is how he learns to cope with the world around him living in a sightless world.  The most effective way to perceive reality is to use all of our senses in harmony.  In fiction, smell, touch and taste bring you closer to the story.  Sight and sound can be close or from a distance.

            Think of which sense(s) you use most.  Are you overtly sensitive to smells that don’t seem to bother others?  Can you eat really spicy, hot foods that would burn another person’s mouth?  Do bright lights bother you?  Do you like to make love with the lights on and see the expression on your lover’s face or do you prefer the dark – knowing what is happening only by touch and sound and scent?    

            Stories need to build on one basic tenet: to convince the reader the story is real – doesn’t matter if it’s science fiction or fantasy – the reader needs to believe the story is real, that it may have happened or could happen in the real world of their imagination.  The trick for us as writers is to get the reader to smell the story’s reality, to taste it, to feel it, to see it, to hear it.

            As authors, we enter the world of imagination when writing a story; our senses must be alert to details that exemplify the story thematically as well as physically.  We need to be open to the sounds and sights and aromas that our characters have around them and we need to convey what is going on in any one given sense – internally and externally.  Only then can we develop fully actualized three-dimensional characters.  It’s vital to use the right sensory detail at the right moment.  This is where your writer’s imagination kicks in and uses what sense(s) it needs for your story’s reality.

 Use of the five senses not only tells our reader the experience of our characters at any given time, but can also infuse an ordinary story with deep layers.  In art, it’s called “underpainting” – building layer upon layer upon layer.  Subconsciously, we know the layers are there, but what we experience is the full-bodied result of those layers.  Gestalt theory called it “the sum being greater than the total of the parts”. 

            By using the five senses, you can invoke what is going on in their outside world.  Remember, it is your characters world – their point of view.  How one character is affected by the world around them through their senses may not be the same as how another character is affected.  This is part of the glory of using the five senses – they can be utilized to make your characters whole and multi-faceted and unique.  Even secondary characters come to life.  No matter how little time they are given in a story, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be fully developed.

            The ripple effect of using the five senses is your story is fleshed out and developed.  It bursts forth from your pages and your reader achieves that “fly on the wall” quality – they feel they are really there in the pages of your book.  All effects come through the five senses or sensory memories of the reader as well as of the writer.  By imbuing a reality in your story with the five senses, you bring about a magical quality.  You join the abstract world with the physical world. 

            Sometimes a story develops directly from the sensory details that suggested it.  The creative starting point often is simply some details of the senses, and recording that detail or those details starts an imaginative process from which a story is evoked.  Many are locked in our subconscious and only need the key to set them free.

            In his story, “A View of the World” (The Charlton Press, 1989), Thomas Kennedy uses memories of senses he had locked away from a time in high school when he worked in a shoemaker’s shop.  He draws on his memory of the sensual smells of the shop – the aroma of raw leather straps, the glue, dye, tins of polish – the grumbling stitch of the heavy sewing machine, the whack of the nailer, the scrape of the sander, and the moan of the waxing wheels.  From these stored memories, Kennedy has written a story of how a young apprentice and the shoemaker schooling him view the world.  The shoe shop and all its sights and sounds and smells serve as the backdrop to their totally opposite views of life.


Think of the five senses as plotting devices. 
While writers are always aware of the sensual aspects of a character, they can use this awareness to solve the problem of what happens next. A character’s senses can guide you, as writer, through difficult transitions into action. Use them to establish an alliance between character and reader by making the reader aware of what our hero/heroine notices. How? Whether or not the reader understands the cultural background, customs, religion, or politics of a character, she roots for the heroine, for example, because the reader can identify with what she sees, hears, tastes.

            As our senses prompt us to action in life, so can they move our characters and story forward in sequence. Our senses create, and sometimes rule, our moods and actions. Let them do the same for you characters.

            Through his/her imagination, your reader experiences the same sensory stimuli as the character, and thus, feels present in the scene. Providing a three-dimensional environment in which your character functions will enable your reader to step into the scene and experience the same sensory perceptions and anticipation as that character.

            Ask yourself: What first catches the attention of your character? What sense? What does your hero/heroine sense first? Smell? Taste? Note that the mouth and tongue are the most sensitive. This first impression, via your character, will be your reader’s first impression of your hero/heroine and begin to set the stage of your story.

            It won’t take pages or even paragraphs to convey these perceptions. A sentence or even a word or two will usually suffice. Revealing the senses is easy; remembering to show the reader how the character reacts to what he senses can be the “elusive elements” in a scene.

            Sensory writing should create scenes that are alive with emotion and will reel through the mind of your reader as though on a movie screen. If you do your job properly by identifying with what your character experiences in every scene, your reader will savor every moment will live each transgression and every triumph.

            Appeal to the five senses as a technique for developing your plot into connected scenes is the best way to place your characters in the story rather than simply pushing them through a plot.

            Discovering what happens next in our story is the fascinating part of fiction, writing, and reading. Put yourself in the scene and examine what the character might sense as he encounters conflict. You will immediately know what comes next, because you will see, hear, smell, touch, even taste the elements present through your reader’s actions. More important, your reader will be able to do the same and will keep turning those pages.

             In my workshop, I use the five senses to make characters three dimensional, to help with plotting, and setting.  To add depth to a writer’s story.

            Learn more about Victoria Bromley w/a Victoria Houseman’s two week on-line workshop using the five senses on her website: 


Theresa said...

Hi Victoria,
Great points! I especially like the reminder that's it's not just enough to paint the scene with the senses, but you need to have the character REACT to the sense. It's that reaction that helps cement the reader in the scene--IMO. Thanks for sharing!

Gerri Bowen said...

Wonderful post, Victoria! Useful points to remember.

Deborah Macgillivray said...

Using the senses are vital to making a story come alive. We are very visual creatures, so we tend to think about what we see. But some of the most vivid memories we have in our life will be smell, so when you neglect the other sensory input, your readers won't be able to step into the story and feel everything you want them to. Very good reminder to everyone.

Polly McCrillis said...

Victoria, thank you for the reminder that all five senses can and should be an integral part of our characters. Without meaning to I tend to use sight, sound and touch more than taste and scent. I need to pay more attention to all five and always have a reaction to whatever their five senses pick up. Great post!

Jacquie Rogers said...

Using all five senses is important, but it's also the hardest for a beginning writer to carry out smoothly. I've read many published books where it's obvious that the editor told the author to insert a smell. Also, you don't smell what you're used to smelling, even years later. To this day, I can go on a dairy farm and not smell the manure until someone mentions it.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Interesting comments. I especially identified with what Jacquie said about manure ;) Only different. My grandmother's house had the most unique smell. It was the scent of home unlike any place I've ever been. When I walked into her house I just identified with the scene and have never found anything like it in any of the candles or diffusers etc. Can you say that a scent can cause homesickness. Because it makes me sad that I was never able to capture it any place else.

Leslie Ann aka LA said...

Great post Victoria,

Putting oneself in the scene is often what I forget to do, but when I do, I can feel the sweat, smell the dankness, hear the birds (rainforest here)and then I can go deeper and portray each sense better.

But being honest, I mostly forget and have to go back and edit it in.

I like the idea of the ripple effect, so true.

LA of the Scribes

Victoria B. said...

Glad you liked it, Theresa. Using the senses can do so much for writing! Victoria

Victoria B. said...

Thanks, Gerri! You'd be surprised at what a difference using three senses can make in a scene.

Victoria B. said...

You are exactly right, Deborah. We need to write what our characters see more than anything else. When we add the senses, it opens up our characters and then our stories.

Victoria B. said...

Thanks, Polly. If you use those three the most, pretend your character can't use them in a scene. How would they describe the world around them only using taste and scent? Combine taste and scent with one of the other senses - but only one - and see what happens.

Victoria B. said...

JJ, you have the best memories! And, you are so correct about not smelling what you are used to smelling.

Victoria B. said...

Donnell, it can definitely make you homesick. My mom passed in December, 2010. She lived with us for a long time. One day, a few months back, we were getting something out of our china cabinet - which belonged to her mom - and my boys froze and looked at one another. I looked at them and said I noticed it, too. It smelled like my mom all dressed up and ready to go out with cologne on her pulse points. Definitely brought up many emotions in me.

Victoria B. said...

Thank you, Leslie Ann! I often go back and add the senses after a very rough first draft. I also like to put senses to things where we may not usually put them - we can smell sweat, but we can taste it too, for example. Using the senses is such a great writing tool.

Karen Blake-Hall said...

Great advice. Thanks Victoria. I'll incorporate your ideas into my writing.

Victoria B. said...

Thanks, Karen. Enjoy exploring using the five senses in your writing! It's a lot of fun.

Hayson Manning said...

Excellent post and one that I've printed out and will incorporate into my writing.


Lindsay Villa said...

Thank you! This is great advice for a budding writer like me, and I'll be sure to use this when next I am writing :D

Nabanita said...

Thanks ..Its a great article and I hope I am able to incorporate these points in my writing as well...