Unforgettable Writing: Use all 5 Senses to Add Emotion

by Orly Konig-Lopez, @OrlyKonigLopez

The other day I finished a book and when my husband asked if it was good, my answer was a rather drawn out, “Yeeaaahhhh.” The story was interesting and the author had a pleasant, easy style. She’d done a nice job of showing me what the rooms looked like, what the characters were wearing, what the car looked like … you get the picture.

And that’s exactly what it was—a nice picture.

But that’s all it was.

That nice picture was behind a glass wall. As a reader, I was left admiring the world the author so carefully created from the outside. So “yeeaaahhhh” it was good but it’ll go in the read and forgotten pile.

That’s not the pile you want your books to go in.

What can you do to make sure your book doesn’t end up there? Don’t just paint a nice visual picture, use all 5 senses.

Sight
I know, I know, as a good writing soldier you’ve been holding tight to the “show, don’t tell” rule. And writing is, after all, about drawing a visual picture. So yes, you’ll still be writing mostly visual descriptions. But, make sure every word counts. Include only what strengthens the image and look for fresh ways to describe things.

  • Instead of white sand, sand like iridescent crushed pearls
  • Curly hair can become corkscrew curls that a character has the sudden urge to tug and watch them bounce back

Now put yourself in the scene. What can you show your reader that’s beyond the obvious?

  • A shadow passing outside the window that makes the hair on the character’s arms prickle
  • The way leaves dance with the gentle breeze
  • The slight discoloration on the couch that reminds your character about where her brother spilled a soda the last time she saw him, right before he was killed in the car accident
  • The seam in the wallpaper that’s a fraction off

Sound
Think about the last movie or TV program you watched. It had a soundtrack, right? Characters were talking to each other, music during key scenes, the revving of a car engine, the ringing of a phone. Obvious sounds.

When writing, you have to put those sounds into words. Your reader needs to hear what your characters are experiencing.

  • The raspy sound of a character’s cough
  • The twang of an accent
  • The rev of a motor
  • The jangle of keys

Then there’s the unexpected. Those are the details that will make your reader catch her/his breath and will linger in their minds long after they’re done reading.

  • The tap-tap against a window during the middle of the night, as a branch sways in the wind
  • The squeak-squelch of sneakers on a linoleum floor
  • The sound of a house settling when the air-conditioner turns off
  • A character trapped in the slowest line at the grocery store and agitated at being late might notice the otherwise invisible sound of air bubbles snapping as the guy in line behind her chews his gum

Taste
No “my dog ate my manuscript” jokes here. In real life, you’re constantly tasting something so why aren’t your characters?

  • The cherry chapstick when the guy kisses the girl
  • The melting heaven of a chocolate lava cake
  • The added boost of coffee as the character licks an escaping drop

Don’t stop with the obvious.

  • A character who arrives at the beach will lick her lips and taste the salt from the ocean breeze
  • A character who’s been running on a hot day might taste the grit of dirt
  • Or maybe a character has just gone through a terrible breakup and is looking for a safe haven at her parent’s house. During the drive there she might taste the rice pudding her mom always made for her when she needed cheering up.
  • During a long car ride, a character stares at the passing scenery and catches sight of the Golden Arches and can suddenly taste the Quarter Pounder with cheese and the salty fries.

 

photo credit: jenny downing via photopin cc

photo credit: jenny downing via photopin cc

Touch
Okay fess up, do you touch a flower petal to see what it feels like? Or run your fingers along a brick wall? What about stroking the leather of a couch? If a friend has a new sweater, do you reach out to see if it’s soft as you’re oooing and ahhhing?

Your characters will be doing the same. And the reader wants to feel through your characters.

  • The prickle as an ant crawls up your character’s arm
  • The stab of pain when your character miss-judges the distance and stubs her toe into the side of the desk
  • The sting of a slap to the cheek
  • The comforting warmth of a blanket

There are times, though when it’s not as much what the character is touching but the act of the touch itself.

  • The way a character touches the tip of her finger to the heart-shaped pendant her husband gave her before he died
  • A character tracing the name of a loved one on a headstone
  • A character putting his hand on another’s upper arm in a “keep it under control” gesture

Smell
Smell is an incredibly powerful sense. It’s probably the most nostalgic of the senses, which makes it the ideal tool for flashbacks.

  • Who hasn’t taken a deep inhale of fresh-mowed grass and immediately been transported to a lazy summer day?
  • Or caught the whiff of a perfume and you’re suddenly remembering a best friend or family member who died.
  • What about the smell of a favorite food to transport you back to holidays when the family still got together?

It’s also a fabulous way to suck your reader into a scene.

  • Does the homeless guy smell like car exhaust from sitting on the median of the busy intersection all day? Does his body odor make your character’s nose curl?
  • What about the house your character just walked into? Is that lavender air freshener she smells?
  • Does the chapstick one of the characters use obsessively smell like rootbeer? Maybe your main character hates rootbeer and can’t focus on what the other person is saying to her because she can only think about getting to the bathroom on time.
  • There’s the clichéd perfume on the husband or boyfriend’s shirt when he comes home from a long day “at the office.”
  • Or the hot guy who loses several degrees of hotness when the main character catches a whiff of cigar smoke clinging to his clothes.

Take a few minutes as you’re sitting in your house or walking down the street or in the grocery and really pay attention to what’s around you (without getting arrested, please).

Imagine writing using different senses. Instead of telling your reader that the lettuce was next to the cucumbers and there was a squashed tomato in the middle of the aisle, how could you write that using taste or smell?

Now go back to your manuscript and think about pushing that glass wall aside. Invite your reader in, let her/him enjoy the smells, sounds, tastes that your character experiences.

If you need a little extra inspiration with sense words, click here for a nice starter  list.

Do you uses all the senses in your writing? Pick one of the five senses and share a sentence or two from your work in progress.

About Orly

Orly Konig-LopezAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet.  When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website, www.orlykoniglopez.com.

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43 Responses to Unforgettable Writing: Use all 5 Senses to Add Emotion

  1. Great examples Orly! Love the part about not getting arrested: “Can I feel the way your sweater clings to your breasts? It’s research.”

    Lack of sense imagery is the #1 problem of authors who misunderstand Point of View as a camera on the protagonist’s shoulder. Despite the word “view,” POV is not a camera–it’s perspective that filters all the senses.

  2. Kerry Ann says:

    Great post, Orly! When reading, I want to be immersed in a story (one of the reasons I adore the lush settings of Southern fiction). When writing, I’ve been accused of adding a few too many sensory details for some (yes, I did tone back that first draft). A story is so much more interesting when a reader knows more than the flat details of what a character is thinking/doing. It enables readers to step into a story.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Kerry Ann, I love to linger on those details too. I cut them back when I realized I was stealing their power. Diamonds are sought because they’re so rare – right?

      • I agree, Laura … but I do have a fondness for some of the more poetic prose used in the old school. You should be happy to know that someone told me that when reading some of my excerpts, that they could tell I was a Margie grad🙂 I have you to thank for that incredible experience.

    • I also love Southern fiction for that very reason, Kerry Ann. It draws you in and gives a much richer experience than just following a character around all day.

      • As a Southerner I want to chime in to say that, in general, Southerners have a strong sense of “place” that makes us notice all those sensory details: the clean, cold smell of watermelon on a scorching day, the smell of red clay soil being tilled, the taste of vine-ripened tomatoes from our gardens.. .

  3. Laura Drake says:

    Orly, I LOVE the details like this in your writing…I specifically remember one about a shirt pulling tight across a chest…can you cite the exact example for us? I remember thinking at the time, I’d never read a description like that before, but it was JUST how it happens in real life! Brilliant.

    • Thanks, Laura. 🙂
      Including the paragraph before as a bit of set up for the mood:

      “Interesting choice of tie.” My left eye twitches. I try to soften my tone but the words escape, unchecked. “She gave it to you.”

      Vale’s shoulders tip back almost imperceptibly, just enough to make the crease across the front of his shirt pull smooth. “I know what tie I have on. I thought she’d like it. That you’d appreciate the sentiment.” His right eyebrow pops up, challenging me.

  4. jillhannahanderson says:

    I love this, Orly! I’ve read books like you describe (most were written years ago when word count didn’t matter and publishing was a nice, healthy fat pig) and although I can put myself in the picture they’re describing, it sometimes takes away from the story. Who cares if the lilacs were in full bloom, the blades of grass, tall and pointy, if I have no idea what the MC is feeling!

    • Carlywrites says:

      I like the description of a ‘nice, healthy fat pig’ Jill🙂
      I agree with your point that too many details can take away from a story. Although I do think using sensory details is important and something I need to improve in my own writing, I’m always turned off when novels spend too long setting the scene or do that in place of action. Usually a few choice words are excellent for setting the scene ( as in Orly’s above example of a girl tasting saltwater on her lips at the ocean) but when authors go on for four paragraphs about how the ocean shone like a blanket of shimmering topaz it’s not really for me.

    • Exactly! How we react to the things around us says so much about who we are. As Laura pointed out in a comment above, you don’t want too many diamonds, but used carefully those little gems will make your characters come alive. And that’s when the reader starts to care about them.

  5. Carlywrites says:

    Hi Orly, new to your blog but so glad I found it. Absolutely love this post. You’ve really made me think about whether I’m being one-dimensional in my writing. Most of my stories centre on feeling and monologues rather than sprawling description, but I still think the other senses have been neglected. For example you’ve made me realise I don’t think my character actually eat or drinks anything the whole way through and just adding how the carnival smelt when she visited, as well as how it made her feel would certainly improve one scene for instance.

    Thanks, looking forward to more🙂

    • Welcome to WITS, Carly!!
      I’m glad the post made you see your manuscript through a different lens. A few sense additions here and there will make a huge change. And you just might have fun writing them too.🙂

  6. I try to use at least 2 senses in a scene. It does make a big difference when you are trying to set the tone of a story.
    ‘The inviting smell of fresh bread drifted through the door making the juices in his mouth flow. He stopped on the porch and closed his eyes letting the aroma bring a vague feeling of comfort and safety.’

  7. Sharla Rae says:

    Great reminders Orly. Sometimes we get so caught up in the action that we don’t set the atmosphere that helps the reader “experience” that action. Thanks.

  8. cerrissakim says:

    I am working hard during revisions on show don’t tell but it should be show, feel, hear, taste, smell!

    Thanks for the concrete examples and the reminders. Great post Orly!

  9. Rebecca White says:

    Ah, Orly. Your post was of much help in my never-ending search for just the perfect touch for a paragraph! And I do mean touch; I’ve been trying to include sights and smells and sounds in each scene, but I don’t always include the sense of touch.
    I love this blog, because I always find something new and helpful. But I’m afraid I’m never going to finish all the editing from all the new things I learn. –!!
    And since I love this blog so much, I’ve decided to include some of the current WIP regarding a minor rural Southern character. Hopefully I’ve pictured her well enough to pull readers into the scene.

    … I’d just passed the fifth floor landing when I heard the fire door open behind me, and a familiar high-pitched piggish squeal echoed against the brick walls of the stairway.

    “Well, hey thar, bitch.”

    I turned slow to face her. Mae Ella stood there, stuffed into a stained tank top the color of grasshopper spit. Her hot pink Capri pants looked like they’d been used to clean a public toilet. Her mud-brown short hair stuck out at odd angles, and drips of sweat ran down her temples. Her tiny pursed lips looked like she made a habit of sucking on pickles. She’d gained maybe sixty pounds since the last time I’d seen her, and she’d been a good two-twenty on the hoof then. Her rank-onion-and-grease scent came strong on the stairwell’s air draft. She held a nine-millimeter pistol in her pudgy right hand.

    “We been lookin’ for you,” she said amiably. … She gave me an obscene smile, and her eyes almost disappeared into the fat on her cheeks. “But I gotcha now, whore. High time, ‘s what I say.” She sniffed and wiped her nose with a swipe of her forearm. “I cain’t believe I finally got ahold ‘a you after all of us lookin’ all this time. I got to admit, you done hid yourself pretty damn good down here—” she paused to spit on the concrete floor “—but you cain’t hide fer ever. Not from me.”

  10. This is a perfect post for me as I begin edits on a new manuscript. I’m printing it out so I have it as a reference to improve each scene.

  11. Great post, Orly.

    A sticky note has just taken a prominent place on the edge of my computer screen with the words SIGHT, SOUND, TASTE, TOUCH and SMELL printed on it in CAPITAL LETTERS.

    Those 5 senses are an integral part of our craft. We see, we hear, we taste, we touch, we smell…. our story is alive.

    Thanks again for reminding us why we’re writing in the first place.

    • Thanks, Ron!!🙂
      The 5 senses are an integral part of our life. And yet, we get so caught up in making our characters squirm that we sometimes forget to make the scenes come alive.

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  13. ericjbaker says:

    These are great reminders. It has taken me a while to develop a five-senses approach, and I think it has become ingrained, at last. The second draft will be my opportunity to really layer those character experiences into the story and bring it to life.

  14. Lovely post and wonderfuly hints and tips. Absolutely true about including sensory input to engage the reader. The writer needs to also make sure the thoughts/sensory input used fits with both the character AND the situation. Also WHAT they are signalling to the reading audience about the character.

    In time of stress both mind and senses narrow rather than broaden. During stress/emotional upset the character is not going to notice non-relevent sensory input unless that input is so “out of place” as to force itself into the character’s consciousness so to have them notice something means it is important to them somehow and the reader should understand why.

    If the MC describes sand as irridescent crushed pearls (something few would have ever had the opportunity to see) tells the reader that the character is more than rich. If the MC just broke up with a significant other and while driving sees the golden arches and tastes a burger – it becomes a person who turns to food during problems/stress and therefore possibly someone with a weight issue.

    The sensory details a character notices defines the character to the reader.

  15. What a really well done post!

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  17. Ken Hughes says:

    A fine analysis, full of rich examples to inspire us.

    Especially, I think description is worth particular attention because it can be the fastest way to impress a reader. Art and back cover text make a promise, but very often what clicks in the reader’s head is finding a really wow-worthy image on the first page. And that usually calls for, not one flawless line, but a combination of senses that bring a moment completely to life. It brings the book’s chances to life too.

    I’m with Kathryn Craft and Susan Stuckey too: besides creating the moment, what gets described DEFINES the moment perfectly. The character’s state of mind needs at least as much coloring as the world around her.

    For me, the tricky part is covering all these senses in the middle of everything else in writing, because five of anything is a lot to keep track of. I’m working on a couple of posts about organizing the senses as a scene evolves, starting at bit.ly/5SensesBy2. Kate Hodges talked about using at least two senses per scene; mine starts with that.

    Does anyone else have ways to decide which senses to mention when?

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  19. jtzortman says:

    What a fantastic article this is! Lots of great suggestions in this blog, just as I’m rewriting a manuscript, too. Thanks for all the wonderful suggestions.

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  21. tessbartlett says:

    I loved this piece so much. How easy it is to slip on subtle senses, but when used in writing they make such a difference. I know when I am travelling I tend to be more in tune with my senses because I’m in a new place. I just have to remember to do the same every other day. Thanks for the reminder🙂

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