Adite Banerjie | Paromita Goswami | Preethi Venugopala | Reet Singh | Ruchi Singh | Saiswaroopa Iyer | Sudesna Ghosh
Using the Senses in Writing
Using the 5 senses in writing
The five senses are SIGHT, HEARING, SMELL, TOUCH, and TASTE. The one we use most commonly in writing is sight, followed by hearing. We all describe what something or someone looks like, and we include sounds sometimes. But what about unlocking the other senses? Especially incorporating the sense of smell can add authenticity to a scene. If someone walks through a forest, what would they smell? If you enter someone’s place for the first time, what fragrances linger? If you’re in an intimate scene with a loved one, what’s their scent? Similarly, a reader might feel ‘right there in the middle of things’ if you make him/her think of how something feels. Textures can be described and compared in all sorts of manner and for all kinds of situations. Someone’s weapon, clothes, plants, the air on skin, a body to be explored… As for taste, it isn’t just important when it comes to food in fiction. Imagine a childhood memory, a love scene, a certain tang carried on the wind. Doesn’t that invoke a closeness with whatever is happening as well as a closeness to whomever it’s happening?
Here are 3 tips for using the senses in writing:
- Don’t overdo it. It doesn’t have to be all senses in one scene, and certainly not in consecutive sentences. Imagine yourself in that scene and decide what you would notice when and how, then decide whether that’s important to the plot.
- Use comparisons and descriptive words that will ring a bell with the reader but also fit the character’s ‘voice’ and the relevant situation. If you feel like it, you can mix your metaphors, for example by making a loud sound seem like ‘an angry explosion of red’. Make sure to use not just ‘X smelled like Y’ or “X tasted like Y’. There are whole groups of sensory words to use for each smell, and even new words or word associations you can try out. Adjectives help, like ‘tinkling laughter’, ‘coarse firmness’, ‘seductive sweetness’…
- Make it personal. The way a protagonist sees, hears and especially smells or feels/senses things can be different from stereotypes. Make use of their background to describe a situation – or turn things around and use the description of something to give the readers a glimpse of their past, their preferences or their plans. A woman who knows what silk feels against her skin or who remembers a certain flowery perfume is a different woman than one who thinks of squalling ever-hungry infants when a machine makes noises, for example.
And here are 5 instances when appealing to a reader’s senses is a great idea:
- When first describing a location or person (so much can be revealed with so little, like a heroine noticing the hero’s laugh or an investigator hunting after a particular smell)
- When a character’s senses are heightened, e.g. due to imminent danger (we tend to pay close attention then, like noticing the absence or presence of a certain sound)
- During an intimate scene, even just a kiss (when feelings come into play, we love to focus on every detail – but often end up dwelling on one the most, one that will stick with us and then later on trigger memories)
- When something is completely unfamiliar to the reader (especially in world building for genres such as fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian YA where creatures, plants, places and magic might need descriptive passages and explanations)
- At the very beginning of a book or chapter, to set the scene. Again, this works for all genres. Sometimes, a descriptive passage that appeals to the senses can appear in one version as the first lines of a book and in a different version as the last lines, to emphasize change. Or they can be the same, to show that the story has indeed come full circle.
As an example for descriptive writing that uses the senses, here are the first few paragraphs of my royal romance novel The Prince's Special Bride:
Marie hadn’t seen that much of the world yet, but she was sure of one thing: The Maldives had the most beautiful sunset on earth.
There was something inexplicably magical about the way the countless, unashamedly blazing hues of the sky were reflected by the endless expanse of the sea. No skyscrapers and smog like she remembered it from her early childhood. No sudden, dulled outburst hardly remembered, but a drawn-out concert of colors, the sky flirting with the ocean until it was suffused in its glow. Even the busiest and most hard-hearted of the tourists took a moment to admire the spectacle, to bask in its glory for a fleeting moment of natural bliss.
As the Night Manager, Marie was always on duty shortly after the sun set upon the paradise that was Kuramathi Island in the Rasdhoo Atoll. Yet she never missed these few moments of calm and reverence. She had a favorite spot to watch it, and she knew the path so well she could walk it blindly.
A little away from the hustle and bustle of the hotel, someone had once thought of building a small tree house at the border of the palm grove encircling the resort. Marie suspected hardly anyone knew about it, apart from the occasional lifeguard who perched there during daytime. Nestled among foliage whispering in the gentle sea breeze, it was only visible if you knew what to look for, but it provided her with a breathtaking, uninterrupted view of the horizon.
Marie shook some sand off her feet—all the staff were barefoot at this hotel—and reached for a rung of the rickety ladder. A soft sound made her stop in mid-movement.