As writers, we are especially aware of the five senses, especially when we focus on setting or descriptive writing. The five senses should work together to transport our readers into our character's world and to bring the story to life.
However, if you're like me, you might need to brush up on how to use the five senses in your writing to the fullest potential.
I didn't used to give the five senses much credit when it came to my writing. But the truth is, the five senses have a power to connect with our readers in a deep way.
How to Write Using All 5 Senses
It's all well and good to tell you you should use the five senses in your writing. But how? Here are some ways you can draw on each sense to immerse your readers in your story:
Write With Sight
Don't simply tell your reader how you feel or what is going on, my writing group told me. Show them.
I began to experiment, and I soon discovered there is more to writing visual descriptions than “green trees” and “blue skies.”
Here's an exercise: Ask yourself, “What am I seeing?” and follow with, “Why does it matter here?”
You might start with a man walking by, but I challenge you to look further.
Maybe the man has tattoos covering his arms—can you see any colors or shapes? Describe them. Pay attention to the way he walks. Does he stare at the ground or straight ahead?
What do you really see? What do you not see? What does it mean?
When you focus on sight in writing, you're giving readers the details they need to picture the character and scene.
Write With Taste
Describing taste can be a fun way to keep your reader intrigued by the details. So often we forget to describe the way something might taste or what that taste means. We can write straightforward description of how a character is experiencing a taste, or consider other ways to convey it.
My favorite way to describe what something tastes like is with a metaphor. This might be awful, but my favorite comedian, Tim Hawkins, compares the flavor and taste of a Krispy Kreme donut to “eating a baby angel.” How true is that, though?
My roommate describes her hot tomato soup as “coming in from a blizzard, kicking your boots off, and sitting in front of the fire.”
The metaphors we use have the power to transport our readers to places that evoke memories and emotion from their own lives, allowing a deeper connection to be made.
The next time you sit down to eat your favorite food, see if you can capture the literal tasting notes of the food as specifically as possible and then consider how that taste makes you feel.
Quick tip: cook books and recipe websites are terrific places to study how to write about taste if you get stuck.
Write With Smell
Generally we categorize smells into two options: good or bad. But smells can be a powerful tool to help you tell stories.
Consider the last time you caught a whiff of something that took you back in time: mothballs reminding you of your grandparents' attic, sour milk's stench like the cafeteria trashcans in primary school, or the earthy smell of fresh-turned soil ready for planting.
When you begin to describe a scene, close your eyes and envision all of the possible smells that surround you. Smells do not only describe food and body odor; they can be used to describe the weather, a room, or a situation.
Try describing some smells yourself, paying attention to both the source of the smell and why it's there.
Write With Sound
The most popular way to describe sounds in writing may be through the use of onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia occurs when the word makes the sound it denotes, such as slam or pop. And those are fun, especially when making up your own.
Besides onomatopoeia, I never thought there was another way to really describe sound until I started really listening.
There are noises all around you. As I write this, I hear the click of keys, the low hum of the air conditioner, the whoosh of a car passing by, soft laughter from another room—the soundtrack of a quiet, peaceful morning.
Have you listened to your environment? Have you listened to your characters' environment? And have you unlocked what the sounds are really telling you?
There's more to listen to than the sounds of your external environment, too.
As I wrote my own memoir, I found myself constantly asking myself what I was hearing internally. Sounds are not always external buzzes and bangs—sometimes they come in the form of thoughts and voices. Some of those sounds are truths and some are lies.
Some sounds tell the reader where you are or what you are doing without actually having to tell them.
Write With Touch
Describing the way things feel is just plain fun. The number of adjectives available for the sense of touch are endless.
My two favorite ways to describe touch are through temperature and texture.
Her fingers skimmed the cool, silky water.
How do things feel against your skin? Rough or smooth? Blistering or frigid? Slimy or slick? Consider how a feather on your arm might be a different sensation than the same on your foot.
When you're writing about touch, the physical is important to describe, but even more important is the invisible, the different aspects that are “touched” but not with your hands.
The Key to Unlocking the Five Senses
As you have probably noticed by now, the key to unlocking the five senses is the question behind the description. The question of why you are seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, or feeling something.
Vivid writing becomes powerful when those sensory descriptions are directly related to key attributes of your character, setting, conflict, or other element of your story.
Once you've established the sensory description, ask the question, “What does this mean?” What does it tell your readers about your character and their world?
You don't want to bog readers down with unnecessary details, but a few well-placed words using all five senses in your writing in various places can immerse your readers in your story and subtly show them what's really going on.
Which sense is your favorite one to explore in writing? Is there one you often forget? Tell us about it in the comments.
Close your eyes and imagine one of your favorite places: a local coffee shop, the beach, the small bakery in Paris . . . take yourself anywhere. Then, take fifteen minutes and practice describing this place while asking the deeper questions—what does each detail really mean to us?
When you're done, post your practice in the practice box below and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!