Using the Five Senses in Fiction, Part One: Sight & Sound

Good writing is like enjoying a hot cup of chocolate on a snowy morning. It activates all your senses: sight, smell, touch, taste buds, and even sound. I was going to say it’s like sex, but this is a daytime gig, and my mommy reads this, so. . . hot chocolate anyone? :P

As a writer, your job is to paint a vivid picture in the mind of your reader. Or as I like to think of it: download your vision into their brain. But since you lack a flash drive for that, you’ll have to rely on the five senses. And that’s all you need. I know this not because I’m a good writer, but because I’m a reader.

Our senses are pretty much the most powerful tool accessible to a writer. Each one is amazing in its own way, but combined they immerse the reader into the story. By using the five senses, you can invoke the experience of your characters in their “physical world,” and weave deep layers into the story, giving it a magical quality.

“The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where the human perception begins.”— Flannery O'Connor

All five senses are powerful individually, but they each have their limits. So combining them is the most effective way to create scenes that are alive. But please don't overload your reader with ALL the senses—we’re not looking for their heads to explode. Well, unless they gave you a 1-star review in the past. Then, by all means, do what you must.

And speaking of heads exploding, I didn't want to overload your senses (hee hee). So here are the first two I'd like to talk about today: sight and sound.

SIGHT

Since your aim is to show the reader and not tell, visual description is the most used of all senses. And of course you can show with each sense, but sometimes we just get lost in describing what we see—because it’s so vivid in our minds—that we forget to share that full experience with the reader.

We live in a visual-driven world, so think of your book as a movie screen for your readers. Instead of boring your reader with scene after scene filled with flat description, offer them a layered setting for them to explore.

• Make sure your visuals enhance mood and themes.

• Use Pinterestto find inspiration, and to practice description.

• Describe with emotion to achieve a natural flow for the story.

• Drive the emotions through the eyes of the POV, so we connect with their feelings on the most personal level.

• Use verbs and nouns to help describe in addition to adjectives.

• Use colors to add layers of meaning, variation, depth, and feelings to your scenes.

• Colors can symbolize mood amongst other things and are perfect for incorporating forshadowing. Check out the chart below for reference.

 

 

 

SOUND

 

Our readers mainly “hear” what’s going on in the story through dialogue. But this is just one aspect of the hearing sense in your writing; what your characterhears is also significant. Some sounds can tell the reader where the character is without saying it out loud.

Describing the noises you find on a busy morning at Dunkin Donuts: the people talking, the barista taking orders, the cash drawer opening and closing, or even the sound of the milk foaming—all can tell the reader where the character is without ever saying it out loud. (Combine that with sight, such as describing the stain on the pink and orange “Ds” of the logo on the friendly girl’s shirt, and it gets a little richer. Let’s not even get into the aroma of coffee and donuts filling up the air. No, really.Let's not. It makes me hungry. )

As the author, it’s up to you to incorporate sounds in your scenes and placing your reader in the middle of it all.

• In dialogue, your reader should be able to tell which characteris talking through their unique tone of voice.

• Sound adds extra depth and meaning to a scene. Use it to make your setting feel real to the reader with background noises. It can be as distant as a train passing a couple blocks away. As simple as water boiling on an uneven stovetop and the pot clinking away. Or even the frail sound of someone breathing.

• Use it to heighten the emotion. Sounds can make your character tense or happy. Imagine her being awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of squeaking floors, knowing she lives alone. I can already hear the fast pounding of her heart in her chest. Or imagine the anxiety of a new mother when her baby cries, versus when the baby is laughing.

• Use onomatopoeia sparingly! These are words that imitate a sound, such as boom, hiss, grunt, gasp, or clinkingas I used two paragraphs above.

• Noise is everywhere. Just imagine you’re watching your scene in a movie. What do you hear?

 

You don’t have to use all five at the same time, nor do you have to fill every single scene with them. Just sprinkle the senses around in different combinations, and your reader will experience the same emotional perceptions as your character. Let them see it, smell it, hear it, taste it, and feel it. Yea, baby. Work it! Ahem.

Although, for the last three you'll have to come back next week Monday! And if you have anything to add to sight and sound, please share in the comments! ;)

 

See Part Two—Smell, Touch, & Taste here.