Monday, September 23, 2013

Grab Your Reader With the Five Senses

In any writing—non-fiction as well as fiction—try to use all five senses in telling your story. It will help to put your reader right THERE.

Those five senses are:
• Sight
• Sound
• Smell
• Taste
• Touch

Sight is probably the easiest and most commonly used of the senses. And it is great to use colors and word pictures to make us “see” a scene. Use specifics: instead of saying “colorful flowers,” use “the delphinium’s bursts of magenta and blue” OR “the show-stopping red hollyhock blossoms.”

But close your eyes and try to describe the scene with one or more of your other senses.

Smell is perhaps the strongest sense of them all and certainly evokes the deepest memories and feelings. “My first boyfriend smelled like sawdust and Necco wafers.” Or “the potent brew of flowers, cigarettes and something musty I couldn’t identify.”

Sound: How can you put the reader into this scene? Birds chirping, flowing water in a creek, the rustle of wind in the trees. What picture does this phrase evoke: “a voice like 35-year-old scotch.”

Touch: “chalk dust slick on his fingers.” Touch can also add texture to the scene with the tiny mention of a character being scratched by a bush, touching the fragile petal of a flower, caressing a silk party dress. Mood can be intensified by the choices you make.

Taste: a metallic taste in a character’s mouth might signify fear or it might give the reader a clue about something in the plot. Memories flood back with the description of fresh-baked bread, or hot cocoa on a cold night.

When I wrote about a rodeo in my book, the reader wants to know, not only what you see at this event—the crowd, the cowboys, the horses, bulls, etc., but they want to hear the cattle bawling, the horses whinnying and snorting, the cowboys yelling, the crowd cheering. The reader wants to smell the dust, the manure, the sweat, the tobacco, the leather. He/she wants to feel the nerves and the fear before the cowgirl rides, the thousand pounds of muscle and bone beneath her, the jolt of every jump, the hard leather of the saddle, etc. The reader wants to know, how does fear or nervousness taste? How does victory or failure taste? What do dust, sweat, all the smells in the air taste like?

I’ve heard the advice to use all five senses in every scene. That probably isn't practical, but including more than sight is a way to connect your reader to your story.

As an exercise, imagine that you've walked into any of the following places. Write a paragraph, a page incorporating all the senses about you what you find: Your grandmother's house, an emergency room in the hospital, the trailhead into a dense forest, the classroom on your first day of school. See if you can evoke a particular mood, such as sorrow, anger, disappointment, fear, or anticipation.

How do you use the senses in your writing?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.


  1. This is a great post, Heidi. Sometimes we forget the importance of using the senses to pull our readers into a scene.

    For example, we might be writing about a high school graduation. Citing the processional of students garbed in black caps and gowns proceeding slowly down the aisle to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" evokes sight and sound. Depending on the experiences of different students, some might taste the sweetness of success, the bitterness of unfulfilled desires, the sourness of unpleasant memories, etc.

    How does the gown feel? the tassel? the dress or tie underneath. Is she tingling with nerves? Is sweat soaking his shirt and making him fearful that his deoderant will fail? Ah, another sense introduced...

    I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that your reminders about the value of the senses as vital contributors to excellence in writing cannot be overestimated. Thank you for sharing.

  2. At a conference, we were given the challenge to write five sentences for each sense then pick the strongest of the five and put them in a paragraph. As I embark on a new novel, I plan to do this for every scene setting. Taste is the hardest!

  3. Good stuff, Heidi ... until I got to the assignment! Oh, and 'sawdust and Necco wafers'? I thought I hung around some weird people.

  4. When I judge contests for beginning writers, I see a lot of "eyes only" descriptions. I took a workshop from mega-author John Sandford, and he emphasized using the senses, especially smell, because it does evoke so many memories. I can't open a bag of birdseed without being taken back to my uncle's chicken farm. When I'm writing and I put my characters into a new scene, or have them meet a new person, since I write deep POV, I'm always trying to step back and experience the encounter from their viewpoint, and to hear, see, smell, feel, or taste (should the scene relate to that sense) what they do. And, as always, it's important to remember your POV character. Cops will "experience" a room differently from artists, for example.

    Terry's Place

  5. This is such a good reminder—too many writers forget to immerse us in sense imagery once the characters open their mouths and words start falling out! I think most manuscripts could be improved by randomly flipping it open and adding a sensory image or two to each page.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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