Five Senses to Good Writing

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by Debbie Vance

Good writing should interact with all of the senses. This is not new knowledge. We all love reading books that make us really feel–feel the cool, November air rushing in our faces as we run down the leaf-strewn street to the library just before it closes, cheeks flushed pink and tongues bitter as we enter the warm, semi-stale air of the library, replete with silence and dust and the smell of old books…But despite our best efforts, we all have a tendency to ignore a particular sense or two in our own writing, leaving a sensory gap the size of a mangy tabby.

Let’s review. There are five senses. (Unless you count intuition as the sixth, which is not a sensory experience so much as a feeling…Unless you can make it a sensory experience, in which case, more power to you!)

1. Sightautumn road
2. Smell
3. Taste
4. Touch
5. Hearing

Now let’s look at an example. The following excerpt is from Alice Elliot Dark’s short story, “In the Gloaming”:

Out of habit, she took note of the first lightning bug, the first star. The lawn darkened, and the flowers that had sulked in the heat all day suddenly released their perfumes. She laid her head back on the rim of the chair and closed her eyes. Soon she was following Laird’s breathing and found herself picking up the vital rhythms, breathing along. It was so peaceful, being near him like this. How many mothers spend so much time with their thirty-three-year-old sons? She had as much of him now as she’d had when he was an infant–more, because she had the memory of the intervening years as well, to round out her thoughts about him. When they sat quietly together she felt as close to him as she ever had. It was still him in there, inside the failing shell. She still enjoyed him.

On top of beautifully crafted syntax, of hinting at just enough back-story in a present action moment, of revealing new insight into the characters, this is a well-constructed sensory moment.

Sight: Alongside the narrator, we see the first lightning bug, the first star, the darkening lawn, night-blooming flowers, etc. Sight is not usually the forgotten sense, though, since it’s easiest to show where we are and what’s going on around us by visual cue.

Smell: “The flowers that had sulked in the heat all day suddenly released their perfumes.”

Taste: There is not much in this paragraph to build the sense of taste. You don’t have to use all five senses in one paragraph or one moment, but you should be aware of what senses you are or are not using and make sure you don’t routinely miss one or the other. (In this story, the preceding paragraphs talk of the mother’s past smoking habits–blowing smoke rings for her children–which is packed with taste. Cigarettes evoke a very specific taste experience.)

Touch: “She laid her head back on the rim of the chair.” We, too, feel the chair rim pressing into our necks. The mention of when Laird was an infant, to me, evokes a set of touch experiences–the mother holding her infant, breast feeding, etc. And the very proximity of the mother to her son suggests touch; you can sense the slight distance between them and the potential it creates for touch, or the lack thereof.

Hearing: “Soon she was following Laird’s breathing and found herself picking up the vital rhythms, breathing along.” We hear his rhythmic breathing, and hers synching with his. “They sat quietly together.” The only sound we hear is breathing. The effect of this is to draw us intimately into this moment, as if we were right there, breathing along and waiting for something else to break the silence.

Fiction (or any writing) should create a whole and vivid reality. It should create a world complete,  allowing the reader to step gracefully over the line of fiction and feel as the characters feel. This does not mean, however, that you should shove a taste here or insert a scent there just for the sake of having it. If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it. Let your writing be natural. And always always always, read other writers. Take a few moments to sit down with a story and really examine the elements of its craft. What senses are being built in this paragraph or scene? How has the writer successfully built this sensory experience without displacing the momentum of the story? Find what works well and practice it in your own writing.

As always, write on, writers.

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