Engaging the Senses

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Writers draw readers in to their imaginary worlds, their characters’ lives, and the driving story that ultimately leaves the reader wanting more.

And one way successful writers do this is by including every single one of the senses in their writing.

We all know the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

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While there is debate over other non-traditional senses including balance, proprioception and kinesthetic awareness, heat detection, and pain, I’m gong to talk about the big five today.

Too often, writers focus on the sights and sounds in their creative works, but they miss out on the touch, taste, and smell aspects.

Sight and sounds are crucial, of course. We need to see what the characters see, but the other senses get left behind too often.

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For example, did you know that smell evokes more forgotten memories than any other sense?

neon free smells MGD©

Yep. It’s true. I use this very fact in my fantasy series to bring back memories from a character suffering from retrograde amnesia.

Smell can also dictate whether a scenario is dangerous. The scent of gasoline, rotting food, a campfire… all these smells are crucial to our experience as a reader. Who here doesn’t know the joy of a campfire smell? I adore it, and every time I read about one in a book, it immediately brings the scent to my nose. Doesn’t that just enhance the reading experience and make me, as a reader, connect so much more to the book?

hand and light

And what about touch and taste? Who doesn’t want a stirring description of the sweet taste of fresh strawberries picked right from a wild plant? Or the first bite of a rich piece of cheesecake?

As for touch, our fingertips share the greatest number of tactile (touch) receptors along with our tongues and lips. That’s because we use our hands so much to detect the world around us. A description of a good night’s sleep wouldn’t be sufficient without knowing the softness of the sheets or the fluffiness of the pillow. Right?

So when you’re writing a chapter or a scene or a description, make sure you ask yourself which senses should be included. And don’t focus on the obvious ones.

Does every sense need to be included in every description? No. Then we’d be engulfed in sense and unable to wade out of that pool of description. But keep in mind which senses might draw your reader in most during each scene. Which one would draw you in the most as a reader?

Happy writing!

“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”
― Margaret AtwoodDer blinde Mörder

“Snyder: There are some things I can just smell. It’s like a sixth sense.”
Giles: Well, actually, that would be one of the five.”
― Mutant Enemy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“You must learn to heed your senses. Humans use but a tiny percentage of theirs. They barely look, they rarely listen, they never smell, and they think that they can only experience feelings through their skin. But they talk, oh, do they talk.”
― Michael ScottThe Alchemyst

“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”
― Vladimir Nabokov

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14 thoughts on “Engaging the Senses

  1. You make some awesome points… I have a manuscript which includes someone who is trapped in a basement of a house with over thirty cats…. and the cat box smell is so overwhelming, some of my beta readers have told me they could actually smell it by the time they were done. LOL! But I do need to work on touch and taste. Thank you for the reminder! 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on IRISH FIREBRANDS: A Novel ~ Christine Plouvier, Indie Author and commented:
    After reading this great advice, I revisited my posts about examples of sensory-input writing and found 17, including a recipe and a survey for the literary foodies among us. I write long-form fiction that has plenty of room for comprehensive sensory involvement, but as phantomwriter143 suggests, every story can benefit from sense-appeal: “Which one would draw you in the most as a reader?”

  3. I love the idea of striking a balance of sensory details and not overwhelming a reader with all of them at once. Sight and sound are paramount with setting and dialogue, but it’s the other senses that make us FEEL the story.

  4. Great points! I have a hard enough time including what the characters are seeing . . . I’ve got to work on all these other senses too. Alas for description. 🙂

  5. When I worked with a professional crit service, she suggested trying to activate a sense a page. She also suggested making use of light and shadow, not exactly a sense but related to sight. I’d never thought about actively making use of light and shadow before that.

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