When it comes to writing, the deeper the connection you can make with the reader, the better off your book will be.
I’ve talked about this in the last two blogs posts (How To Write In Deep POV and How To Master Show, Don’t Tell, for those playing at home), and how using these writing tricks have elevated my current WIP—a four-book supernatural YA series I’ve been tinkering with for a number of years.
Along with showing and deep POVs, I’ve been improving my manuscript using the five senses, as (I’m hoping) the following examples will show.
How To Invoke The Five Senses
If you aren’t already aware of the concept, it involves including the five senses in your descriptions and character actions:
You can, of course, include The Sixth Sense if your story involves seeing dead people or Bruce Willis.
Sight is obviously the easiest to add because characters tend to do a lot of looking, watching, and describing what they see in the world around them. How you invoke sight on a sense level is to go deeper than a basic description. Use emotion, color, and texture where to can to really give some life to what your characters see.
“He followed her gaze. The darkness deepened and spread, the black tainting the green surrounding it and changing the beauty of the trees. Deep, jagged cracks opened along the smooth bark as it melted and twisted into rough chunks. The shape of the trunks deformed. Leaves blackened and curled at the edges while the branches wilted under their weight.”
Black tainted green. Deep jagged cracks. Smooth bark melting and twisting. Leaves blackening and curling. Branches wilting. Descriptive words that invoke the image of rotted trees in a way that’s more visceral than just simply writing “He followed her gaze and saw dark, rotted trees”, don’t you think?
Sound is one of those tricky senses. It comes off perfectly in a visual medium like TV because a viewer can hear (or not hear) what eerie silence is like. In book form, writing “the room was eerily silent” doesn’t have the same level of impact.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use sound to add something to extra to your scenes, you just need to get more creative with it. Instead of struggling to “describe” how something might sound, use your words to invoke realism, tension, or reactions to sound.
Take, for example, a traffic jam. If you’re stuck in one you might hear engines hum, the muffled bass thump of loud music through rolled up windows, car horns honked in the distance by impatient drivers at the back of the queue. You can invoke these “sounds” using your words. You can also make the reader feel them.
“The siren split the air, the high pitch stinging Josh’s eardrums after making his body flinch. Palms pressed to ears, he peered out the doorway in search of the source.”
When using sounds, play with them. Footsteps echoing in the dark can add great mystery. A sound perceived as imagined or misunderstood by a character adds tension. Create a relaxed mood with trickling water or action with a rush of crashing waves.
Ah, smell, a sense that can either be wonderful or woeful, the stark difference of fresh-baked cookies vs. decaying flesh. When it comes to adding a little smell sense to your words, it’s great to pair it with real-world comparisons and universal memories.
“The wintergreen scent perfumed the air and the clean mint burned in his nostrils. It was as strong as the earthy grit of dirt that coated his throat that day, etching the aroma into his soul. Sometimes he dreamt of those smells, waking in the morning to find they’d clung to him as he slept.”
Perfumed air. Clean mint. Aroma. All words that invoke a feeling of scent. Mixed with a real world comparison of “the earthy grit of dirt” and it’s a sensory delight.
Smells are one sense where the written word has an advantage over visual media such as movies, so be sure to use it. Have a character lament about a lost love when they walk past a florist flush with fresh blooms. Or a mystery plotline kicked off by the discovery of a nausea-inducing scent wafting from a creepy basement.
Taste can be one of the easier senses to invoke, after all, food is a big part of both the real world and any fictional ones. It can be slotted into your writing through descriptions of how food looks and tastes, or used as an effective way to bring about some nostalgia by linking it to favorite foods and childhood memories.
“Sarah snapped a young twig off the black birch as she pushed through another patch of cluttered trunks, chewing on the end as they emerged in an open area. The minty sweetness coated her tongue, giving her mouth a burst of winter coolness, reminding her of her childhood before the reality of the night caused her stomach to drop.”
Later in this same scene, this taste sense is brought up again and used to reflect the darker turn the story takes:
“What is this place?” Sarah’s stomach turned. Saliva filled her mouth but it tasted of acid, bitter and sharp, overtaking the sweet black birch sap.”
By incorporating taste into your work you can add more depth to scenes, especially if you also tie it to an emotion or a great simile.
If you want to enhance your story world, touch is the sense for you. Characters touching objects, walls, furniture etc, not only creates a sense of setting but also brings it alive. Same deal if you want to bring about a connection between characters. A hug during a time of need brings comfort, or a vice-like grasp around someone’s wrist builds drama and tension.
Touch isn’t just limited to physically feeling objects or others, though, you can also impart the sense in different ways…
“He licked his sandpaper tongue across his dry lips and swallowed.”
Did you immediately picture dry lips or recall how it feels to have them? The universal truth of never having chap-stick on hand leads to a description anyone can relate to, all made possible by invoking the sense of touch.
As you can see, using sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste can really add something special to your words. How often you use the five senses in writing is up to you. If you can invoke the senses in every scene, go for it, but don’t force it. Use them organically and combine them together to make your fictional world come alive.
— K.M. Allan