Lesson 80: Using the Five Senses

Let’s start with the basics, shall we? The five senses are sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.

I polled all of our TWM writers, and all of us said we use at least three of the five in every scene but not necessarily in their usual way. Before I explain that further, let’s focus on another guiding principle: less is more.

Several years ago, I took a class on setting where the teachers applied the “less is more” principle by describing two offices using minimal imagery. The first office had a wall of windows overlooking the tops of high-rise building. The glass desktop held nothing but a name plaque, one silver picture frame, and a laptop computer. The second office was dimly lit through yellowed windows. The stainless steel desk was dented and overflowing with paper, files, and a half-eaten donut. A cigarette with smoke curling from the end rested inside the black plastic divet of a full ashtray which teetered on the edge of the desk.

Stop. What else do you see? Are any of your others senses engaged?

In the second office, can you smell the stale air and cigarette smoke? Do you see the chipped, putrid green linoleum floor and feel claustrophobic? You didn’t feel claustrophobic in the first office, but did you see the gray carpet and contemporary artwork on the white walls?

If you didn’t see everything in the above paragraph in the original description, I’m betting I was close. The beauty is that, whatever you filled in, you saw the whole office, the man who worked in it, and already made a judgement about his level of success.

The trick with this minimalist description is that, when you go back to that same room later in the story, you can’t add details that weren’t there the first time unless it’s something like this: His sleek glass-topped desk was littered with papers tossed about like a toddler’s toys. By using sleek and glass-topped desk I’ve reminded you of the whole office and that it’s normally neat. The added description of papers tossed about like a toddler’s toys not only sets the visual, it alerts you that something’s wrong.

Pretty snazzy, huh? And all of this description is “sight.”

As the scene unfolds, add at least two more senses coming from the POV character. Hearing and touch are fairly easy. For example, the POV character pulls out the chair in the first office. I might describe it this way: The cold metal chair snagged on the grey carpet, forcing me to tug harder than normal. A ripping sound ricocheted off the white walls. I wanted to crawl inside the abstract painting to my left and lose myself in its splashes of red, orange, and blue.

Taste and smell are obvious in scenes with food and less obvious in others. In Darcie’s “Spin” story, she uses Kisrie’s addiction to peanut butter cups to show her main character’s coping mechanism rather than just describing the candy’s taste. In my “Driven to Distraction” story, a soldier smells his mother’s bread and his spirit relaxes because he’s finally home. Smell and taste are visceral and sometimes jolting, so we shy away from adding them simply to have all five senses accounted for in every scene.

Start with a few sentences of visual description. As the scene progresses, add touch and hearing along with more visual, but make it organic to the POV character. Add taste and smell when it makes sense and also when you can elevate their impact by connecting an emotion or memory. As long as you keep adding small details as the character notices them, you can avoid jarring the reader with things she didn’t originally see.

With pen to paper,


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