Make Sense

Jody Lebel
Published on: 20th December 2013

Raise your work above the mediocre with the use of all five senses. Drawing on the senses will breathe life into your characters, setting and may even enhance the back story.

She wore a pretty blue dress.

Use the sense of sight: She wore a blue dress, the same one she had on the day we met. The one that matched her eyes, showed her curves, and made my mouth go dry.

The male character above doesn't describe the dress, the pattern or style, but what he remembers about it, what it does to him when he sees it. And we are swept along.

1) Sight. Sight is the cardinal sense. Generally before you smell, hear or taste something, you see it. When you're writing, don't just see it, really see it. Get specific.

The full moon rose slowly over the trees.

The full moon rose slowly over the trees blanketing the farm with its pale glow. An old hound dog kept watch from the safety of the rickety porch, the sparkle of the wet grass reflected in his eyes.

Use comparison or contrast.

The moon rose slowly over the trees and rained down beams of light through the branches, like a mother ship searching for her workers.

Or add a unique detail that will deepen the POV (point of view).

The full moon rose slowly over the trees casting eerie shadows on the campsite. It gave John the creeps and he edged closer to the fire. The same moon rose on the night the three children went missing.

2) Sound. The world is not a quiet place. Even in the still of the night you can hear the hum of the refrigerator or the ticking of a clock. My cat snores. Close your eyes and listen to the rustle of a candy bar being unwrapped or the sounds of birds at a feeder. Then describe the sounds, not the action. Use this newly discovered sensory information to enrich your story.

The room was noisy.

Marco sat alone at the table nearest the door so he wouldn't miss her. The room was noisy. The clank of heavy plates drifted from the kitchen and fought with the steady hum of couples in conversation. Ice clinked as it settled in his water glass. He ran his fingers over the drops of condensation and watched them make tracks down and onto the tablecloth. His watch read 9:30. She wasn't coming.

What does dripping water sound like? You wouldn't write drip, drip, drip. Make your readers hear it. You could use splat, or plonk, or plop. How about rain? Listen the next time it rains. You might be surprised to learn it sounds like bacon cooking.
3) Touch. Let your characters feel their surroundings through their skin and their bodies. Loud music is felt all over. It comes up through the floor, in through your feet and hammers in your chest. Really loud music pulses in your ears. A good writer would use all of those sensations to describe the scene. He went for a swim in the cool pond.

The sudden plunge into the cool water took his breath away and raised goose bumps on his arms. Kamir had been swimming in this pond since he was a kid. Swirling his hand in the dark water, it still held the promise of boyhood laughter and summer bike rides. (At this point I would also add how the woods and water smell, but that's
the next item in this article.) Feelings can be non physical.

Her marriage felt like the beach after a storm; messy, tangled and trashy. 4) Smell. Smell is the sense that is most linked to memory. A simple smell can take you back to grandma's house at holiday time, or back to your desk in grade school. (For me, that would be the smell of coloring crayons.)

"That stinks," said Seth, holding his hand over his nose.

"That stinks like rotten meat," said Seth, clamping his hand over his nose. (Clamp was a stronger word for a stronger smell.) He staggered back until he hit the wall. "I'm going to be sick."

Stay away from 'nose wrinkling'. It is way overdone in today's literature. Also keep away from having your character "make a face". That's telling. Show us. Eyes squeezed shut, his face caved as though he were going to cry.

You can layer smells. Let's go back to the swimming pond.

He took in a deep breath and smelled the damp earth, the kind worms loved, and rotted trees from the nearby woods. That, along with the pungent bite of algae and slime in the water, an odor that stuck on your swimsuit long after it dried.

You can use the sense of smell to suggest mood.

The girl's willingness to commit a crime smelled like an opportunity to Clark.

Something smelled fishy but he went along with it anyway.

5) Taste. My personal favorite and the sense that gets the least use in fiction writing.

When you do get to use taste, don't rush it.

The cake tasted good. (You can't get much more boring than that sentence.)

The sweet butter cream icing melted on my tongue. The word delightful came to mind. I closed my eyes to savor the richness of the warm spice cake and knew I would have a second piece before the end of the night.

Your characters don't eat or drink very often, so use taste to suggest other things.

Winter has always tasted like hot chocolate to me.

Her kisses tasted like strawberries in the sun.
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