When I made a conscious choice early in my writing career to include all five senses in each short story or scene, no matter what, readers began telling me, “I really felt like I was there.” The shared experience of senses invites your readers into your narrative, drawing on memory to paint a vivid picture they can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste.
Readers know the swish of long grass against their shins, smoke tinging a morning red, a mouthwatering cake baking in an oven, the coppery flavor of a bitten tongue, the painful zing of an electric shock. Constant sensory input, telling them what’s going on. Nothing builds a fully three-dimensional story for your readers like filtering all five senses through your point-of-view character’s physical experiences.
However, utilizing the senses in your prose requires some finesse and some thinking outside the box. All five senses should appear in each of your scenes, but some are harder to incorporate than others. Here, I’ve outlined both the order of frequency that each sense typically appears in prose, as well as suggestions for digging deep into representing each included sense.
Written story often (but not always!) relies heavily on the sense of sight. Even when you cut out all filter words for looking and seeing, your prose still describes visuals, i.e. what seeing characters witness unfolding as action and description.
But beyond just describing what’s happening, you can deploy specificity to empower descriptions of what your character sees. Colors! Physical descriptions of characters! Sizes! Textures, even!
Adjectives are your friend here. You could describe the peeling blue paint of the house. You could also describe the blue house sagging in on itself. Regardless of your writing style, readers can now envision this house as blue and neglected.
Next most frequent behind sight comes the sense of sound. Obviously, dialogue and accompanying tags describing tone modulation count here. Crashes and bangs also tend to find their way into action scenes.
But hearing characters should also pick up everyday noises—the click of an object set down, wind rushing through leaves, footsteps crunching against gravel or clicking against marble, clothes rustling as they’re put on. Opportunities abound to incorporate natural, common sounds your reader would expect to hear standing within the scene.
While smell vies with touch for the third most common sense behind sight and sound, I argue that touch comes next. Characters who touch things are characters moving and living within a scene. Writers love to give characters action tags using their hands (especially holding mugs of coffee or tea, boy howdy). There are opportunities here to go beyond describing the mug as warm by including the smooth texture of the mug, a chip in the handle snagging at a palm, the raised interruption of vinyl logos.
But touch goes beyond hands. There’s the chill of snowflakes landing on an arm, the pinch of new shoes on feet, the sting of an insect in an underarm (this has happened to me), tickling sweat, a side stitch, burning lungs, headaches.
Touch goes even further than skin contact, interacting with both sight and sound. Hearing the rub of a finger drawing a smiley face in the steam on a window suggests the smoothness of the glass and the wetness of the condensation. Scraping a fork prong against a glass plate sends shivers down the spine (ugh). Chalk on slate.
Need I go on? I hope not. Just thinking about the texture of chalk on slate sucks.
Here’s why I place smell after touch: it often gets left out of scenes altogether.
Although, scent does tend to come up when something bad has happened (the scent of must in an abandoned house or that of rot upon discovering a corpse) or in close proximity to a love interest (men sure do get described as smelling like chocolate pretty often, don’t they?). But what about upon entering a house? Does it smell like candles? Dust? Dogs? Or how walking across a hot parking lot smells like melting pitch and tar?
Even though we lack the sense of smells that animals have, we still pick up scents wherever we go. Everywhere smells like something. Shoe stores like freshly-stamped vinyl, classrooms like unvacuumed carpet, parks like mowed grass (and allergies), offices like burned-up dreams. A character getting their face smashed into plaster might pick up the scent of dust and chalk.
However, because scent takes a backseat to sight, sound, and touch in our senses priorities, scent should be described sparingly. We smell all the time, but generally notice scents most often when they change.
Unless you’re a toddler in your licking-everything stage, taste comes last among the senses for obvious reasons. Not a lot of opportunities to taste things comes up beyond eating food or drinking a beverage. Or intimate scenes, of course.
Or does it? Have you ever noticed the way breathing near a lot of metal, like with your head under the hood of a car, tastes metallic? Or how dust settles on your tongue on a windy day? There’s also the flavor of plastic if you’re the type to tear open a package with your teeth. The bitterness of shampoo suds when you mess up your shower. The saltiness of sweat during hard work. Or just the general taste of cold on a winter evening.
While working taste into a scene represents more of a struggle, there are ways. For this reason, I suggest only including taste in a scene once unless you have good opportunities for more. But taste should still appear at least once. You just have to be clever about how you incorporate flavor.
Got any questions about using the five senses to charge your prose? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about YOUR experiences with writing the five senses, I want to hear them (craft discussions are, after all, the whole reason I write this advice column).
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