This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.
Most of our characters have five senses through which they can interact with and report on their world as they experience it. And thank goodness for that! Since that’s the position most of us find ourselves in as well, experiencing our characters’ interpretations of their worlds creates empathy between reader and character—a bond that, when strong enough, will keep readers turning page after page.
As writers, we decide which senses to include and when to include them, but how much of each sense is too much (or too little)? And how can we make sure readers stay firmly planted in the perspective of our main character(s)?
Let’s start with a short exploration of each sense and how one might commonly incorporate each.
This is the most frequently implemented sense in fiction—and by a long-shot. Seriously, if you’ve never done this before, open a book—any work of fiction that’s within your grasp right now—and turn to a random page. It shouldn’t take too long for you to find an example of sight being implemented in order to describe a scene.
Now actively seek out the other four senses: hearing, touch, taste, and smell. How many examples of those do you see on that page compared to that of sight? That’s right, probably not too many.
Sight is implemented all of the time because, for most of us, it’s easy. For example, let’s describe the experience of entering a cave for the hypothetical hero we’ll use in this post:
The cave was dark. There were long shadows growing along the walls as the light from behind her grew farther away. Stalactites grew downward like so many jagged claws.
Boom. All related to sight, all the first things that came to mind (for the purposes of this forced example, anyway). It’s a stilted, cardboard-feeling example, but an example nonetheless.
I don’t have any data to back this one up, but I’d wager hearing is the second-most used sense in fiction. Imagine you’re our hero back in that cave. What do you hear?
Bats chirping? The hushed rush of water somewhere? The echoey footsteps of our hero as she works her way deeper into the underbelly of the mountain?
Now think about each of those examples and what they add to the mood. Some could be creepy, some could offer promise, some could be left to interpretation depending on how the use of the other senses (or visceral responses from the character herself) help shape them.
The point is that the use of hearing alongside sight has now helped our readers feel even more immersed in the scene—something we should aim for regardless of the genre we might write.
Outside of erotica or romance, this sense has the tendency to become lost—at least where the feeling of things outside the body is concerned.
What do I mean by that, exactly? Think about writers who describe their characters’ stomachs as turning, their hearts pounding, or the choking feeling in their throats. Those are, of course, implementations of touch, but they’re super introspective (not that they’re not important!).
A challenge I issue to myself (and to other writers!) is to put the sense of touch to work in the world beyond the visceral reactions of the perspective character.
What does the cave in our example feel like, then? Since we’ve heard water running somewhere, maybe the walls are damp, and our hero’s hands grow moist and gritty with fine minerals as she uses her hand to guide herself along the wall. Perhaps she ditched her shoes at some point, and the cave’s uneven floor has her stub her toe every third step.
With the inclusion of those touch details, now we’re really experiencing the cave through our hero. But can we find even more ways to immerse ourselves and readers in this scene? Let’s see what a sense of taste might add.
Unless our character is able to eat rocks, she probably doesn’t have a lot in her immediate surroundings that’s worth chomping into—unless she foraged for something previously or had the wherewithal to bring a snack with her!
Perhaps she has this taste hitting her tongue—it’s like rotten eggs, but not quite. It kind of hangs near the roof of her mouth, only furthering that choking feeling we talked about in the section on touch. To try and chase this taste away, she removes her cantina from her backpack and puts back an earthy swig of grainy water from the stream she passed before entering the cave.
See how there are opportunities for interplay between the five senses as well? By mentioning where in the mouth the taste was lingering, we incorporated a sense of touch, and the same goes for mentioning the water she puts down is not only earthy, but grainy.
If we’d only stuck with the sense of sight and hearing, we’d have never had the opportunity to bring the same depth to the scene.
I’m always thrilled when a writer remembers to incorporate a sense of smell from time to time. Smell, though the least used where writing is concerned, is the sense most strongly tied to memory. That being said, incorporating the smells of our heroes’ worlds can do wonders for engaging readers and triggering deep connections between them and our perspective characters.
Back in the cave, we know our main character is dealing with this sudden taste of rotten eggs. As she wades deeper into the cave, the taste only grows stronger—and she finally realizes why.
The stench of it burns in her nose, the hellish smell of the earth’s bowels choking her. She breathes through her mouth and wonders if now might be the time to retreat back into the wild.
We’ve now explored this cave with each of the five senses. Now let’s examine how to make sure our use of each sense is as impactful as possible.
We’ve already established that our perspective characters are already the filters through which our readers experience the page. With one layer then already between readers and the book’s world, why put even more layers in there to further distance readers from the action?
Simply put, we want to minimize the filters between the reader and the narrative dream.
So how do we keep close proximity to character in our writing, then? By minimizing filtering.
I think the best way to understand filtering is with some examples. I’ve included one for each of the five senses below.
- She saw long shadows growing along the cave’s walls.
- She heard the bats chirping, the hushed rush of water.
- She felt her hands grow gritty and moist as she ran them over the cave’s wall.
- She tasted rotten eggs near the back of her throat.
- She smelled sulfur rising from the depths of the cave.
Notice a pattern? Each sentence starts with a big flag that says I, THE AUTHOR, AM NOW RELAYING SENSORY INFORMATION TO YOU THROUGH THIS CHARACTER.
Okay, so maybe it’s not that extreme, but the saw/heard/felt/tasted/smelled business is exactly what I’m getting at when I write about filtering.
So why avoid this? Let’s look at each example again, though this time with the filters removed.
- Long shadows grew along the cave’s walls.
- Bats chirped, and the hushed sound of rushing water echoed from somewhere deep in the cavern.
- Grit and moisture collected between her fingers as she ran a hand along the cave’s wall.
- The taste of rotten eggs choked her.
- Sulfur—the stench of it was enough to chase her from the cave.
Which examples are stronger overall? Of course I did embellish the latter a bit, but even with those ornamentations set aside, I think it’s plain that removing the filters of she saw/heard/touched/tasted/smelled put readers into the scene much more deeply.
When we do without the filter-y sensory verbs, we can report on the action directly. Readers will (read: should) assume that the sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, and smells on the page are being experienced through our perspective character, especially if we’re working with a close POV, like the first-person or a close third, for example (for more on POV, check out these posts).
Aside from immersing readers even more deeply in our scenes, avoiding filtering should also help us trim down our word counts, something that I know can be a bother when we hunt through our manuscript’s pages in search of superfluous passages. If you need to get that word count down, why cut story when you can simply discard your story’s filters?
When including sensory details, it’s always worth it to try and strike a balance in the inclusion of all five senses. Don’t leave one or two (or gods forbid, four!) behind in lieu of sticking with those that are most familiar to us and readers.
And, when incp=orating these, aim to minimize the filters through which readers experience the action. Get them as close to your worlds as possible, and you just might find that some of them never want to leave.
As you move forward with your manuscript, push yourself to include the senses you might find more challenging to implement. In the very least it’s a challenging exercise, but with great challenges come great rewards—for you and readers both.
Thanks for reading. Want this kind of analysis on your own pages? I’m also available as an editor. Be sure to check out my editing services page for an idea of how we can work together to make your manuscript the best that it can be.