Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A to Z Challenge: Use All Senses

There's more to telling a story than simply relaying events to a reader in chronological (or whichever you prefer) order.

No, readers need to be drawn in. They need to share experiences with the story's characters. That can't really be done if the reader can't get a sense of what's going on around the characters.

Where are they?

What are they seeing?

Touching? How does it feel?

What are they smelling?

What are they hearing? How clearly?

I'm not saying that I'm looking for five pages of pure description. But still, hinting at a characters surroundings would be good. Otherwise we readers have nothing but a thick white mist around the characters in our mind.

So how does one do that? Especially since writers can't use pages of description?

By having the character notice things. Not a million things at the same time. Just the most immediately pressing ones in tense situations. So seeing and feeling, most likely.

If a situation is more relaxed, people tend to notice more. And so should your character. Only don't make it obvious. Think of how you perceive things. Do you make a point of making a list of every single thing about a new room? Most likely not. But certain things will catch your eye. Like a window glinting. Or a scatter cushion being out of place. Something like that.

The same for the other senses. Your character won't try to take stock of every tiny little thing. But something will stand out. A high pitched whistle. The smell of unwashed bodies. The dry, almost gritty taste of smoke.

Always remember two things:

1) It's about balance. Never focus on only one sense at a time. But don't use all of them at the same time either, unless the situation is overwhelmingly strong. Or if you character has keen powers of observation.

2) Quality over quantity. Too much description can slow a story to a halt, so rather go for well chosen and well blended moments that mean more and put a reader firmly in the story.

Look Out for These:

1) "White" scenes where the characters don't react to or interact with their surroundings.

2) Pages and pages of meaningless description.

3) A lack of certain senses in description. Especially taste and smell, since they seem to be neglected the most.

Which senses do you forget about in description? Do are you a minimalist when it comes to description? Or do you have to restrain yourself?


  1. My writing teacher kept telling us "sense of place!" which I think really goes toward these five senses. It grounds the reader, and I've noticed improvement in my writing and my classmates when we included it. Great reminder!

  2. Here is one of my favorite quotes from Neil Gaimen.

    "He had kissed her goodnight that night, and she had tasted of strawberry daiquiris, and he never wanted to kiss anyone else again."

    Taste is one of the most evocative of the senses. I kissed a woman who tasted of strawberries and to think of strawberries, to see them, and especially to taste and smell them always brings back that moment to me. It helped that I was in Love with her and it was our first passionate kiss, but just reading those words of Gaimen's and I am brought back to that moment and I am kissing her again.

    It doesn't need to be the five senses all at once. It doesn't need to be a lengthy descriptions, the words on paper just need to have depth, heart, soul and passion behind them. They need to evocative of a shared experiences of the senses as well or the words, no matter how many you use, will be just words to the reader.

    The best a writer can do is to evoke the spirit of their senses and hope to find common ground with their reader. Don't disregard length of writing, Faulkner got away with it or brevity as Hemingway got away with, just worry about what your writing means to you. There is no one else to please (except when writing for money and that person isn't your reader it is your publisher).

  3. Great post! I think I have the most trouble describing what my characters see. I do fine with the other senses. I wonder why that is?

  4. Excellent tips and good description of what to do. Safe to say I will never be guilty of pages of description.

  5. I tend to go heavy on visuals, especially if it has to do with technology and/or architecture. The senses I neglect and need to add more of are smell and taste.

    The Golden Eagle
    The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

  6. Great post. I use to describe too much, but I've honed my craft over the years and I've cut down a lot. I make sure to use all the senses, but perhaps taste is the one least used.

  7. Great post Misha. I tend to be very minimalist. Perhaps edging towards white sometimes :-)

  8. Excellent post! I am rubbish with descriptions so these tips are really useful!

  9. Smell is the sense that brings back memories stronger than any of the others. When I write I try to introduce characters with something about them; either the way their breath smells, or how rough their hands are. But you're right; all in moderation! Great post.

  10. Great post! Usually when I'm editing, I do one pass where I look at each page for sensory input other than sight.

    BTW, I tagged you on my blog this morning with the Lucky Seven meme. (I hope you haven't already been tagged.)

  11. I tend to forget about taste (unless it's a kissing scene) and I overuse sight (I'm a very visual person). Sound is my favorite though and is so evocative. I have a deaf character on a book and that was a fun challenge.

  12. Excellent advice! I try to incorporate the more unusual senses into my descriptions - like taste rather than sound, or smell rather than sight. It makes the scene a little more vivid.

  13. Well said. I also think it has to feel normal and subtle. Otherwise, it feels like forced descriptions. Easier said than done, yes. ;-)

  14. Enjoyed your post, and am going to have to go back and read your other posts now. Lots of helpful information to mull over...

    Thanks for stopping by my blog the other day :)

  15. When you describe the expressions feelings and senses in a very true form within a book, you make the writers go crazy and lost in the fantasy!!


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