Use the 5 Senses to Power Up Your Writing
You’ve finished your writing, but it doesn’t feel finished.
Sure, it says what you wanted to say, but it’s… kinda flabby. Uninspiring. Dull.
Sprinkle some zest into your writing by using the five senses: Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste and Touch.
There’s no need to describe everything that can be seen, but a few details of the setting can convey a vivid image to your readers. Take time to choose the best words for the job. There was a small gate across the path tells them very little. Instead, you might write An ancient wooden gate sagged across the path, or The immaculate flowerbeds were guarded by a brisk wrought-iron gate with a sign reading, ‘Beware of the Chihuahua’. Even better, include the description in with the action, for example, by writing Jack pushed open the ancient wooden gate and limped up the path.
Your readers have a set of mental images of various scenes: a cosy cottage; an office; a galleon on a stormy sea; a spaceship. They’ve seen them a hundred times in movies, if not in real life. So if your scene takes place in a well-known setting, you only need to add a few glimpses during the action to remind them: She lifted the oil lamp from a hook beside the stone fireplace. They get it: it’s a traditional cottage. Stopping to add half a page of loving description about copper warming-pans, dark wooden shelves and glowing logs on the fire will merely slow down the story – unless the details are part of the action or play an important role in the plot, there’s no need to mention them. In the same way, readers won’t need to be told that an office contains a desk and a filing cabinet; that’s understood. So tell them how your cottage, office, galleon, spaceship, etc. differs from their expectations: Six clocks stood on the mantelpiece, each showing a different time, or A white cat slept peacefully on the cluttered desk.
Adding sounds to your writing can help to build the mood and atmosphere of your scene. In a cottage, the tick of a clock is a peaceful, reassuring sound. Heard while creeping down the stairs of a haunted house, it could add to your character’s feeling of dread. It can emphasise emotions – the classic cliche to avoid is the tempestuous love scene during a thunderstorm. Or the sounds your character hears can contrast with their emotions in a scene – cheering at a football match as they read a devastating text message, or someone scolding in the distance as their heart leaps with joy at some wonderful news.
Unless your viewpoint character is profoundly deaf, total silence is hard to find. In the silence when no one is talking or moving, we can hear distant sounds of people or traffic, a game show on the TV next door or the clop of hooves in the courtyard outside. In a quiet place, the tiny sounds we don’t notice become magnified: the buzz of an insect, long grass moving in the breeze, the rustle of fabric, a dripping tap or the clicking sounds as a radiator cools. For this reason, describing these sounds in a silent scene can make it vividly real.
If your scene is set in a sunny rose garden in June, or a farmhouse kitchen at Christmas, it’s natural to describe the gorgeous smells surrounding your characters, but you needn’t stop there. How does it smell in a stable, a dungeon, a gleaming modern bathroom, a garden shed, a hospital room? What can you smell at a firework display, at a fairground or when you hug your grandma?
Pleasant and unpleasant smells evoke powerful memories in your readers, so describing smells can be a technique to fill them with remembered joy, disgust or nostalgia.
You can add variety to your descriptions by adding texture words: slimy, smooth, velvety, lumpy, scratchy. When you revise a written scene, take a minute to consider which textures might be present, even if your characters won’t be touching them.
We love to touch things. Don’t deny your readers the tactile pleasure of stroking the rough warmth of a dog’s coat, or running their fingers over crisp linen sheets. There are many interesting descriptive words for texture, so don’t assume that colour and size are the only ways to describe something.
The joy of food is in its flavour, so when your characters eat, consider adding a few specifics about the tastes they’re experiencing, as it helps your readers to identify with them. Remember that if you are writing from a single character’s point of view, the only tastes and textures they can feel are of the food they are eating themselves – unless they’re imagining the taste of other people’s food.
We don’t only experience tastes when we’re eating or drinking; you could include the tastes your character experiences when they bite a coin to check if it’s real, chew their nails after handling dandelions, or put their car keys in their mouth to keep their hands free to carry shopping. Or they might bite at sticky tape to wrap a parcel, or tear at ropes with their teeth to try to escape.
Whichever senses you add when you’re revising your writing, you’ll enrich the quality of your work and give it a more powerful impact – so have a bit of sense!