Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. They’re the senses everyone knows – the way we interact with and understand the world around us – and yet so often, authors forget them when writing a story. That’s a shame, because sense writing is one of the surest ways to enliven a scene and fix your reader firmly in the moment.
The virtues of sense writing
Sense writing is effective because it’s relatable and it builds empathy. We experience the world through our senses, and so communicating a story in this way gives the reader immediate points of reference. They may not have rode into battle atop a giant, but they’ve stood somewhere high and felt that particularly cold, sharp wind. Remind them of that sensory experience, and suddenly it all feels a little more possible.
Sense writing also allows the reader into the body of a character, making that body feel real and vulnerable. If you want the reader to really care when a character is freezing later in the story, add a scene in which they’re pleasantly warm. The reader no longer sees that freezing as a theoretical event within the plot, but as something happening to a body they know is affected by temperature. Likewise, a creepy silence is much more effective if the reader has encountered sound before; it’s all about establishing a context in which the senses are believable.
In short, sense writing is about using the senses to give the reader a more visceral understanding of the scene and the story. In its most basic form, it means being conscious of the senses when writing a scene and deliberately referencing them in description. When your character emerges into a field, they shouldn’t just see the green expanse, but feel the cold breeze on their skin or smell the nearby bed of flowers.Including sensory information places the reader within the scene.Click To Tweet
In its more advanced form, sense writing is about bringing the senses into the heart of a scene – not just adding in senses to buttress what already exists, but setting out to write a sensory experience, and letting a smell, sound, or even texture do some of the heavy lifting in your narrative.
Setting the scene with sense writing
One of the most straightforward and most effective ways to use sense writing is simply in setting your scene. Senses are our primary way of understanding the world, and so they’re often the most effective way to establish a setting or moment for the reader. You can tell the reader that a character can’t sleep and they’ll understand, but if you write about them hearing a dripping tap downstairs, they’re there.
In the extract below, Gregory McDonald sets the scene of two characters playing in a river, first focusing on their sensory surroundings, and then weaving sensory language into the narrative itself.
At the edge of the river, the brown dog, Julep, barked and danced, wanting to take part in the playing but not wanting to get wet.
Reins free, the horse, Runaway, munched along the top of the riverbank.
Skylar let go of Tandy’s legs. They slipped over his shoulders and down his back. Free in the water, she rolled onto her back.
Looking up at his wet shoulders, dripping hair, then into his eyes, she smiled.
– Gregory McDonald, Skylar
McDonald doesn’t launch into describing the sensory surroundings as its own exercise, but rather orbits around the animals before moving on to his human characters, giving purpose to the sounds he communicates. The dog’s barking is a well-observed detail, and he even dips into onomatopoeia with the horse’s munching, not just describing the sound, but recreating it for the reader.
McDonald is careful in his choice of verbs, enhancing the sense of tactility with ‘slipped’, and focusing on the physical interaction between the characters by specifying exactly which parts of their bodies touch.
First, the surroundings are rendered real with small sensory details, then McDonald describes real bodies – it’s not just that Skylar feels Tandy leave him as if he’s a theoretical entity, but that he feels her touch his shoulders and back. The unspoken implication is that he really does have shoulders and a back; a body not just in theory, but in practice. Too much detail is a killer, and fight scenes in particular suffer from writers being too specific with body parts, but this is the author’s introduction to the characters, and something very specific is being communicated.
Finally, note that Skylar’s hair is ‘dripping’. Even in description, McDonald chooses the most engaging sensory language, opting for wording that subtly brings sound back into the mix. If the hair is dripping, then dripping can be heard.
McDonald focuses on sound as a primary sense here, while also involving touch. He could have mentioned Skylar’s ‘glistening’ hair and used sight, but the characters are playing boisterously; putting the reader in the scene means appreciating the dominant senses, and so sound is the default. This is far more effective than simply telling the reader it’s loud, or that one sound is lost in another. Wherever possible, let the reader experience it for themselves.
Controlling reader perception through sense writing
It’s one thing to put a reader in a scene, but quite another to direct how they feel about what’s happening. Sense writing isn’t just about throwing every sensory experience possible at the reader but, as in the extract above, choosing what to share so that they understand what’s happening in a certain way.
In the extract below, Katherine Rundell uses smell to make the reader perceive a group of soldiers as a negative presence.
Her mother was not there, but the soldiers had crowded into Feo’s bedroom, filling her room with their smell. Feo flinched away from it: smoke, she thought, and a year’s worth of sweat and unwashed facial hair.
– Katherine Rundell, The Wolf Wilder
In this scene, the soldiers are an invading force, but Rundell emphasizes how invasive and unpleasant they are via sense writing. The writing is so effective here because the soldiers don’t have to do anything to be particularly unpleasant.
A lesser writer would belabor the idea that they’re unwelcome, perhaps having one of them knock something over to show they’re a destructive force that doesn’t belong. Instead, Rundell turns their presence into an assault on a specific sense, and leaves herself far more options moving forward.
Of course, this is only the base level of what Rundell’s doing – her choice of scent as the dominant sense is bound up in Feo’s relationship with wild animals, and the specific smells she mentions underline the idea that she lives with her mother, and the masculine presence of the soldiers is a particular kind of uncomfortable, unfamiliar invasion.The sense you choose to emphasize can alter how a scene is read.Click To Tweet
Consequently, the reader feels the disgust and discomfort of the soldiers’ presence far more personally than if it was only happening to the character. A broken ornament would be no loss to them, but that they can smell these men makes the imposition far more immediate.
This doesn’t only apply to specific moments – often, you can establish an entire character or setting with some focused sense writing.
Establishing atmosphere through sense writing
Sometimes, it only takes a small detail to fix a concept in the reader’s mind. In The Hunger Games, antagonist President Snow is described as smelling like blood and roses. It’s a single, nauseating bit of sensory information that instantly paints him as a cloying, repulsive figure. It’s a lasting effect, too: describe someone’s smell, and you program the reader to be aware of their proximity to the protagonist. On some level, they instinctively don’t want them to get too close.
Really, though, characters are the tip of the iceberg. You get all kinds of context and dialogue to drive home your point. Where some authors will really be glad of sense writing is in establishing a setting, or even the mood of a story, where space is at a premium and the reader just wants the plot to get going.
In the extract below, a character describes the feeling of being aboard Noah’s ark. The story positions its protagonist as a stowaway giving an outsider’s account of a story that’s been cleaned up for general consumption.
They put the Behemoths in the hold along with the rhinos, the hippos and the elephants. It was a sensible decision to use them as ballast; but you can imagine the stench. And there was no one to muck out. The men were overburdened with the feeding rota, and their women, who beneath those leaping fire-tongues of scent no doubt reeked as badly as we did, were far too delicate. So if any mucking-out was to happen, we had to do it ourselves. Every few months they would winch back the thick hatch on the aft deck and let the cleaner-birds in. Well, first they had to let the smell out… I am hardly squeamish, but even I used to shudder at the scene below decks: a row of squinting monsters being manicured in a sewer.
– Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters
Barnes’ intention in this scene is to render the ark a) real and b) oppressive. That final line is a killer, but it’s also not enough – what it does is sweep up all the minor revulsion the reader has been prompted to feel and package it into a single moment.
From that point on, the reader has a clear idea of the ark as a dark, dingy, noisy, stinking place of stress and upset. It may seem like a lot of space to dedicate to smell, but by really exploring the smell, by making it a real problem, Barnes loads it with meaning. The smell is neglect and suffering, but it’s a symbol of neglect and suffering to which the reader can instantly relate.Properly explored, a single sense can set the scene.Click To Tweet
The phrase ‘leaping fire-tongues of scent’ is a powerful metaphor, and often this is a great way to really communicate sensory information to the reader. Sometimes, though, sensory information makes the best metaphor.
Sense writing as metaphor
As I said above, sense writing is effective because the reader is used to experiencing the world through their senses. Because of this, it can be effective to use sense as a metaphor, especially for more nebulous emotions or feelings that the reader may engage with less directly.
The clichéd example is describing a shiver passing up someone’s spine as a metaphor for a more complex feeling of dread, turning their emotional state into a tactile experience. In The Goose Girl, Shannon Hale does something similar, though far more original.
The resonance of Falada’s voice came softly, an echo of what was once spoken, like the voice of the sea from a shell… The voice of the wind entered that same place inside her where she had always heard Falada’s, though its tones were unlike. It was an icy finger of thought, a rush of words that expected no response, as indifferent to her as to a tree.
– Shannon Hale, The Goose Girl
The simile of the shell is effective sense writing, giving the reader a familiar sound to which they can relate, but the metaphor of the icy finger is even more powerful. This metaphor uses touch and temperature to describe thought, turning something entirely without substance into an immediate, relevant sensation.
Of course, this is the whole point of metaphors – to turn a complex idea into something on which the reader can get more purchase – but consider really investing in the idea of communicating difficult concepts via the senses. I’ve talked about the power of a conceit before, but even just extending a metaphorical sensory experience can be incredibly effective.
If, for example, your character’s embarrassment makes them feel like they’re on fire, consider building on that imagery and weaving the idea of heat throughout the rest of the conversation. A single metaphor is effective, but establish consistent imagery, or even a motif, and you give your reader a reliable way to instantly understand and engage.
Sense writing outside the senses
Sense writing isn’t just about communicating the sensory information of a scene, but about considering which sensory information is relevant. Sometimes, the most relevant and effective sensory information is strange, inconsistent, or even absent. In the extract below, author Gregory McDonald plays with sensory information as his protagonist recovers from a beating.
A meter ahead of him, the people who had risen from their seats, allowing him to crawl under the stands, were sitting in their seats again, pounding their feet like pistons again in rhythm to the drums, cheering on the biggest and most amazing human spectacle in the world except war. Fletch knew they could not hear him retching and choking. He could not hear himself. He was sure his appearance to them was as unreal as the rest of the spectacle they were watching.
…The light under the stands was weird. It was midnight. There was no illumination under the stands. The powerful light from the parade route filtered under the stands through the densely packed bodies above. Nodes of light, apparently sourceless, quivered in midair.
– Gregory McDonald, Carioca Fletch
The focus here is on how ‘unreal’ the moment feels. As a huge carnival takes place close by, Fletch is injured and struggling to recover. The sound of retching and choking is instantly recognizable, and so to specify that this can’t be heard is unsettling: like leaning forward to sniff a freshly baked pie and smelling nothing. It communicates how loud the crowd is being, but it also suggests the reader can’t trust their own sensory expectations. Their, and Fletch’s, primary tool for understanding the world is out of whack – that’s an invitation to panic.A lack of sensory information – such as an eerie silence – is inherently unsettling.Click To Tweet
This is followed not just by the visual of strange light sources, but by even the story’s doubt in what’s being seen – the nodes aren’t just ‘sourceless’, but ‘apparently sourceless’. The reader isn’t even afforded the comfort of a definite oddity.
I mentioned earlier that this kind of withheld sensory information – the creepy silence right before the monster attacks – works best in a world that’s been established as a place with consistent sensory rules. Remember, though, that you’re the all-powerful author; if you end up using withheld or warped senses late in your story, you can always go back and add some regular sense writing early on to lend it impact.
Of course the five senses I mentioned above aren’t the only ones we have, and involving lesser known senses in your writing can be just as effective. We may not discuss them as frequently, but senses such as proprioception, equilibrioception, nociception and chronoception also have a place in your story.
Having a character feel dizzy or pained communicates their body as a real, functioning entity, and since these senses get taken for granted, they’re even more effective when warped or withheld.
Getting the most out of sense writing
One of the great things about sense writing is that it makes you consider elements of your story in a new way. If a scene is set in a room, for instance, you might think there isn’t much to hear, but you also know that it’s not exactly silent. Can you hear traffic outside? Is the wind shaking the trees, or is a badly wired lamp buzzing in the background? Just trying to find sensations is a mini-exercise in world building.
Likewise, considering a character’s scent can be a window into how they spend their time, what they choose to eat, and how the decisions you’ve already made can shape their attitudes and actions.
The best way to begin effective sense writing is to consciously insert sensory information into your story. Decide, for instance, that you’re going to use two senses when you describe a setting, or that you’ll attach a specific sound or scent to at least one major character. Finding the right place for this detail will begin training your sensory instincts, and making the choice should prompt you to do a little digging and creative world building.
Do you have any effective sense writing techniques, or think one sense is more effective than the others? Let me know in the comments. For more advice on improving your writing, check out How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words, or for a scene that can really benefit from sense writing, check out The 4 Decisions That Will Help You Write An Amazing Flashback.