Sight is the most obvious of the senses to invoke when depicting a scene in your written work, but your visual descriptions will benefit when you incorporate your other senses to enrich your writing.

First drafts of most travelogues are full of rich, visual detail, but often fall short on smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings. I’ve learned to add an editing round to incorporate all the senses, and am constantly surprised at all the new memories that are conjured up and the rich expansion of each scene. I’ve noticed that quite a lot of nice metaphors and similes come out of this exercise, too.

Sight

The most obvious and easiest of the senses to describe, sight delivers on color and texture and important aspects of scenes like landscapes, cityscapes, objects, and faces. Your visual descriptions will often benefit from the addition of another sense or two.

Smell

The sense of smell is the most closely linked with memory, and is highly emotive, as perfumers know. For example, you might transport the reader to a seaside village on a Croatian island by describing the slightly sweet, putrid scent of seaweed baking at low tide in the late afternoon sun.

Taste

Did you know that at least 75% of is taste actually formed from smell? Taste can be broken down into five areas: salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami, a Japanese word meaning “pleasant savory taste.” So the aroma of that rotting seaweed contributes more than you might realize to the taste of the oyster you just slurped.

Touch

Unlike the other senses, the sense of touch is generously distributed all over the skin and even inside your body. With five million sensory nerve receptors (and over twenty different types of pain nerve endings) we can afford to spend a little more time on touch. Does the smell of rotting seaweed bring on a tightening of your throat, making it difficult to slip that oyster down? Readers want to know what that felt like (sort of). The feel of a handshake can reveal a page’s worth of character-building visual description. Keep in mind that the most sensitive areas of the body are your hands, lips, face, neck, tongue, fingertips, and feet.

Sound

Hearing is often described as the most important sense because it’s our early warning system. Our hearing separates complicated sounds into tones or frequencies that our minds track individually. We can follow a variety of strains of voices or instruments while also taking note of the slap of water on a boat hull, the whistle of wind through a crack in the window, the tinkle of glasses, a backfiring engine. Descriptions of sounds can backlight a scene or create drama with sudden impact.

Synesthesia

Have some fun with synesthesia, the art of assigning one sensation to another: color to sound, smell to color, sound to smell, etc. Here’s a line from Bruno Schultz’s Street of the Crocodiles: “Adelia would plunge the rooms into semidarkness by drawing down the linen blinds. All colors immediately fell an octave lower; the room filled with shadows, as if it had sunk to the bottom of the sea and the light was reflected in mirrors of green water.”

Reading Recommendations

Bruno Schultz’s Street of the Crocodiles

Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses

James Geary’s I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See The World

 

Image via ShutterStock.com.

 

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Carla King

About Carla King

Carla King has written 3 posts in this blog.

Carla King was turned down by big publishing in 1994, so she self-published her guidebook to bicycling the French Riviera. She made enough money to return to France twice more, which helped her fall in love with the self-publishing process. In 2010, she founded Self-Pub Boot Camp, a program of books, workshops, and virtual classes that step authors through the publishing process. Carla is a frequent speaker on adventures in travel, writing, and publishing. The 3rd edition of her Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Authors, released in March, has been downloaded over 30,000 times. Find her at SelfPubBootCamp.com and CarlaKing.com.

11 thoughts on “Use All Five Senses To Enrich Your Writing

  1. Laura McGaffey says:

    Great article, Carla. Thank you.

  2. As the author of Sensory Seminars this story rang loud and clear with me.

  3. Karl Brehmer says:

    A nice, concise reminder of the importance of the “other” senses.
    (By the way, your Croatian seaweed baking at low tide can only come from a SF story/novel: the Mediterranean has no tides…)

  4. Rodney Burke says:

    well there is one problem with this article. What if one sense deosn’t work for the most part? In my case smell. It’s hard to write about something I don’t experience.

  5. Ohita Afeisume says:

    Hello Rodney,I guess this is where using a lot of imagination comes in. This is our calling as writers. Isn’t it?

  6. Jb says:

    Nice to put it out like that, I’m going to keep a label of all five senses on top of my computer that I can see as I write. Thanks!

  7. Absolutely wonderful ideas to add senses to prose. Thanks so much. I LOVE the synesthesia example you gave. Powerful prose, there. I’ve shared it widely on social media.

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