Saturday, October 20, 2018

Writers: How to Engage the Five Senses

Writers, have you ever received a critique saying that your story wasn't immersive enough? Have you ever heard, "Show, don't tell?" Have you ever struggled to convey your story's setting in a way that doesn't devolve into paragraph upon paragraph of dry exposition?

And readers, have you ever read a scene that felt like talking heads in a white room, with nothing to paint a picture of the surroundings? Have you ever felt detached from the main character, like you've become an outside observer instead of being welcomed into the character's deepest thoughts and feelings?

If you said yes to any of those questions, I've got a technique that will help you!

The writers among us, that is. The only help the readers will receive is an understanding of one reason why they may not click with a story. Sorry, guys.

Let's talk about THE FIVE SENSES.

Before you roll your eyes and tell me, "Yes, yes, we learned this in kindergarten," hear me out. Your story is lush and alive and teeming with creativity . . . in your mind. The challenge of writing is to transfer that vision to the page. It's harder than it looks. You have a living movie reeling through your thoughts, but the page? The page is blank until you start putting that movie into words.

And some things get lost in translation. I've written story elements that seemed so clear and obvious in my mind, only to have beta readers get confused.

I've written descriptions I thought were the most brilliantly vivid words to grace the page, until I reread it the next day and found it flat and lifeless.
Image result for bored gifs

I've been writing long enough to have gotten better at this over time, but it's still something I wrestle with, particularly in first drafts. It might be a skill we writers will never perfect, but can continue improving.

So how do we transform lifeless prose and blank white rooms into that Technicolor movie in our heads?

Engage the senses.

Sight. Sound. Smell. Taste. Touch.

When you draw on all of them, your setting--and more importantly, your character's experiences within the setting--will come alive.

You may find yourself leaning on one or two of the five senses and neglecting the others. I depend most heavily on sight, as do most writers, I suspect. My default is to describe what the setting looks like. Perhaps that is the most important sense most of the time. After all, if the reader cannot picture what a place looks like, it's very difficult to choreograph action or ground a scene.

But sight alone is not enough. Your character has more than eyes--he or she has ears, a tongue, a nose, and skin, and all of these are just as busy experiencing his or her surroundings as yours are. In battle, your character will not just see an enemy horde. He will taste dirt and blood, hear the moans of the dying, feel his arms vibrate with a heavy sword strike. Cozied around a campfire, your character will not merely see the flickering orange flames. She will feel their heat and smell the smoke and hear the crackle of popping logs.

When dispensers of writing advice admonish you to show, not tell, what they often mean is that instead of cruising over the landscape with a cursory "he did this and she felt that," you should dive deep into the sensory experience.

Here are a few examples, some from my own writing, others from published books I've read.


Image result for pixar gifs
Throngs of people choked a road winding uphill toward the castle. [The Brightest Thread]

What do we see? Crowds, a twisty road, and some sense of a castle.

Shadows pooled between the trees. [The Brightest Thread]

We see a forest, and the verb choice gives us a sense of mystery.

Norwood stood at his dented and stained herb table, the backdrop of his curio cabinet displaying rows of green-hued bottles and jars, most of which held some sort of powder, paste, or plant. [Fawkes, Nadine Brandes)

These little details--the dented table, green bottles, powders and pastes--are potent enough to create an entire aesthetic for the room.


Low, rumbly voices filtered through the undergrowth, too muffled to make out the words. [The Brightest Thread]

In one sentence we know there are multiple speakers, they are some distance away, and they are either male or monstrous. (Correct answer: they're ogres.)

The yellow flags above me snap sharp and loud in the breeze as if to emphasize my owner's words that yes, she's quite aware such a high count is utterly ridiculous. [Storm Siren, Mary Weber]

"Snap" is a punchy verb bolstered by the two adjectives "sharp" and "loud," which together call to mind exactly the sound you're supposed to hear.

Image result for pixar gifs SMELL

The warm scents of buttered loaves and seasoned roasts were all that was left of the feast. [The Brightest Thread]

Is your mouth watering yet?

Moist air wafted past my nose, carrying the odor of a brewery--malt and hops. [Reapers, Bryan Davis]

In this scene, we're getting a sense of where the protagonist lives, and the smell of a brewery adds a unique detail.

The odor of fish mixed with the scent of roses, berries, fresh bread. Blood from the slaughter stall constricted my throat. [Fawkes, Nadine Brandes]

Ah, nothing like the blend of aromas from a seventeenth century London marketplace, am I right?


It took her awhile, but her reaction is priceless!!
He tosses a berry in a high arc toward me. I catch it in my mouth and break the delicate skin with my teeth. The sweet tartness explodes across my tongue. [The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins]

Mmm, now I'm hungry for berries . . .

(Oddly enough, I had a terribly hard time finding more good examples for this sense. It seems that the mere mention of food is often enough to conjure an idea of its taste. Other tastes often found in the books I read are blood, alcohol, salt, medicine, etc.*)

*Sounds like I read fantasy. *wink*


Aleida jumped off the log and stumbled on unsteady feet. Her skin buzzed with the aftermath of magic. [The Brightest Thread]

We all know how it feels to stumble or feel unsteady. We also get a sense of electricity with the word buzzed.

Thorns scratched her ankles and tree limbs whipped past her face. [The Brightest Thread]

Rather than just knowing the character is running through a forest, we feel the scratches of thorns and branches reaching out to block her way.

Prickly vibrations raced along my cloak from the baggy sleeves to the top of the hood, tickling the two-day stubble across my cheeks and chin. [Reapers, Bryan Davis]

Here a sensation is woven into the book's first clues about who the protagonist is (a male wearing a cloak).

All Together Now!

Now that we've seen the five senses in action, let's see what it looks like when multiple senses are used together.

Image result for disney tangled i have a dream gifs

Birdsong filtered through the branches. Every rock and pine needle poked her slippers, but it didn’t matter. She was out; she was on an adventure and about to set her parents at ease. The thought of someone detecting her absence and giving chase prodded her into a light run. How good it felt to stretch her legs. [The Brightest Thread]

The only explicitly referenced senses are hearing (birdsong) and touch (poking her slippers, stretching her legs). But notice how other senses are implied? You might have pictured the forest, since branches, rocks, and pine needles are mentioned (sight). You may have even assumed the temperature (touch again) or imagined the scent of forest air (smell).

In well-written description it's not the quantity of senses used, but the quality that depicts the mood.

The important thing isn't to reel out a grocery list of sensory inputs every time your character walks onto a new scene. It's to use whichever senses are most important at the moment and let the reader's imagination fill in the gaps.

And that, my writer friends, is one way to immerse your reader in every scene you write! It's not the only tool by any means, but it certainly goes a long way in painting a vivid picture that lives and moves and breathes.


Assignment #1: If you're looking to practice this method, try reading a chapter of your current work-in-progress and highlighting every sensory description. See which senses you use most often. Consider which senses are underused. Look for places you haven't described any senses at all. Then dive in and make some changes!

Assignment #2: Crack open a favorite book and page to your favorite chapter. On a separate piece of paper, make two columns. In the first, list all the senses that the author explicitly describes. In the second, list all the extra, unwritten senses you imagine as you read. Have fun!


  1. This was so incredibly helpful! I find that I never describe ANYTHING in my books, so this post was exactly what I needed!

    1. I'm so glad it was helpful, Nicole! That was my goal! <3

  2. I love when books use the five senses. I needed the reminder for my own writing too.
    You showcased all of the senses so well in 'The Brightest Thread.'

    1. Same! Awww, thank you, Skye. It was so fun to share that story with you. *all the hugs*

  3. Oh my goodness, this post came at SUCH a good time! Because I'm getting geared to write for NaNo, and I was literally thinking JUST yesterday or the day before how I need to really engage the five senses while writing. I've been trying to do some worldbuilding and thinking about how things feel, not just look. Because I FAIL at that and I want to do better with this book. I can describe what you see, but so, so often forget to incorporate smells and temperatures and tastes and all that good stuff. So I find it crazy that you post this right when I've been pondering this very thing! It was perfect!

    Your examples were fantastic (THE BRIGHTEST THREEEAD! <3333). It really helps showcase how to use each sense. And I love how you pointed out that we don't have to EXPLICITLY mention every single thing. Just the mere mention of a wood fire can often bring up the correct smells for the reader. It's all in the balance!

    Thank you so, so much for this! Definitely something I need to work on when writing!

    1. OH. And your gif usage was perfection. XD

    2. Really?! Perfect coincidence! :D (I'm ridiculously excited about your NaNo project, by the way, even though I'm still catching up on your blog posts about it.) Anyway, I'm happy this came at such a good time!

      Awww, you. <333 Some senses were harder to find snippets of (wow, grammar), especially taste and smell. Yes, you said it--even a strong visual description can hint at other senses as well, or vice versa!

      Hahaha, thank you. The taste gif is my fav. XD

  4. Ohh, this was SO helpful. Thank you so much!! I am currently working on revising my WIP and am looking foreward to implementing some of these tips.

    1. Hooray! I'm glad it came while you're revising--some of these tips are a lot easier to implement when you're sniffing down your mistakes instead of drafting a new story. Have fun! :D


    Honestly, description is something I've been trying (but failing XD) to figure out for years, so aaaaah THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS POST, GIRL!

    Also, I'M SO GLAD YOU INCLUDED SNIPPETS FROM THE BRIGHTEST THREAD. Because The Brightest Thread = storytelling goals. <333

    P.S. That last gif is so perfect! XD

    P.P.S. I MUST TRY THESE ASSIGNMENTSSSS. They're definitely something I want to do now, but they also sound super helpful for editing! :D

    Liv //


      I used to be the same way, but now I tend to have the OPPOSITE problem, in that I slip into purple prose sometimes. XD Anyway, I'm glad this was helpful!

      LIVVVV. YOU SWEET PERSON. ^__^ I loved having you as a beta.

      P.S. A Tangled gif is never out of place. ;)
      P.P.S. Let me know how they work out!

  6. Your choice of gifs is quite excellent.

    I went through the whole 'show not tell' crisis last year, but it's difficult at times to absorb and apply certain information until someone shows it in your own writing.

    1. Why thank you. *bows*

      Examples are so helpful, I agree! A lot of writing techniques didn't really click for me until I received critiques. :)

  7. I love this post! I find that I rely on sight a lot, especially colours, as I love how they can set the mood. I also tend to use smell a lot. :) Your examples were great, you're wonderful at description! :D

    1. Awesome! I'm a big fan of mood-setting colors too, so I totally understand the dependence. ;) Awww, thank you, Melissa! <3 Have fun beefing up your descriptions!

  8. THANK YOU FOR THIS TRACEY. :D This is a big struggle of mine. I'm always trying to write vivid descriptions that will transport people into the story, but they always end up...well, really boring. :P I really need to use all the senses! I think I'll give that first assignment a try! ^_^

    1. Yayyy, I'm so GLAD! Not that it's a struggle, but that the post is useful. XD I hope you have fun with the assignment--let me know if you learn something! <3

  9. I like your examples! Taste is always the hardest for me to incorporate. XD

    1. It was also the hardest one to find a good example for, so you're apparently not alone. XD