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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Using the Five Senses in Writing

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

One of the most well-known pieces of writing advice that you may have heard is to show events rather than telling them. While I do like this piece of advice and find it useful to a point, I think there is a better approach. The whole reason to avoid flat out stating everything that happens in a story is to give the reader sensory details that make them feel like they're really there. So why not just make sure you focus on using those sensory details, and let them do all the "showing" work for you?

Let's start by taking a look at each of the main five senses and discussing what using each of them can add to your story.

1. Sight.Describing how things look in the story is simple, straight forward, and can add a significant layer of depth to any scene that will instantly give your readers a front row seat to what's happening. It's also probably the easiest to accomplish and one that is remembered more than others. The only thing you should be careful to avoid doing when using this type of sensory detail is to refrain from using common colors in your description, such as "blood red" or "fire engine red" and "midnight black" or "dark as night." While readers will immediately know the color you are referring to, it becomes boring and rather cliché to hear them in every piece of literature.

2. Hearing.When's the last time you remember seeing a scary movie without a bunch of creepy music playing in the background? The truth is, you probably haven't, and for good reason. What you hear has a direct effect on what you perceive the environment to be in a story. If a horror movie had happy music playing in the background, you might expect a different outcome than one that was playing ominous, you're-about-to-get-your-head-cut-off music. The same is true when writing. Just like good movie scripts do, well-written books suck their audience into the current scene by taking advantage of this sense. It doesn't matter what the scene is, there will always be some type of noise that the characters encounter, whether it's just the hum of the refrigerator, someone coughing, or an enormous crash of thunder as a streak of lightning touches down close by. No, not every line needs to have auditory details in it; that would just be overwhelming and silly. But don't forget about this useful sense either. Especially paired with one of the other main senses, it provides a pretty powerful environment.

3. Taste. Out of all the five main senses, this one is probably the most forgotten of all of them when it comes to writing, without surprise. It's hard to find a good place to include details about taste, other than with food. It adds a lot to meals of course, but apart from that, it can be used to describe things in the environment that give off an aroma that you can "taste" to describing blood in someone's mouth without directly stating that they're bleeding.

4. Smell. Another one of the seldom used senses in writing, smell proves to be useful tool. It's particularly good for building suspense if a character is in a dark environment and is trying to figure out where they are. It's a prime way to triggering memories for characters within a story.

5. Touch. What better way to establish urgency than to have a character groping their way around in the dark? What better way to establish a sexy, romantic scene than to describe the soft, caressing touch of a lover's body? What better way to make a reader want to pet that soft, fluffy kitten? What better way to pull your reader into the slimy, sticky muck? You get the point. There are so many different textures to explore in this awesome world we live in. My toddler knows that perhaps better than anyone. And there is no better way to explore those textures than by sense of touch. Using this detail in your story will give your writing texture as well and make the situation much more realistic to the reader.

Using the main five senses clearly has the potential to give depth to your story and make the environment a vivid one. It will even help take care of that pesky "show, don't tell" rule that editors often try to hammer home. But remember: Don't just describe what you see and hear; feel, smell, and taste your way through your writing too. Even better, don't just limit yourself (or your audience) to the main senses. Pain and temperature are two additional sensory details that really make your writing pop; they're easy to relate to, and they heighten the environment quite well. They can even help develop the mood for a particular scene.

With just a little bit of work, sensory details can transform a great piece of writing into an extraordinary one.