Secrets of Writing with the Senses

Secrets of Writing with the Senses

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Our most vivid memories are often associated with at least one of the five main senses; sight, touch, sound, smell and taste. It is how we experience the world (Aristotle came up with the popular 5 senses model, but some neuroscientists claim we have up to 21).

From an early age we rely on our senses for survival; sour food tastes bad, but sweet doesn’t, and sharp objects and loud noises hurt. The secrets of writing with the senses is to look inward and draw from your own experiences.

Writing with the senses can evoke powerful memories

Sometimes a traumatic sensory experience is so embedded we only need allude to the sensation to trigger a strong reaction. Think of inhaling a large cloud of ammonia. Go on, fill up your lungs, don’t be shy, suck it deep in through your nose (Do not do it! Only think about it). Did you feel the sting in the back of your throat? Feel like coughing? How about mothballs – does it remind you of your grandparents’ wardrobe? And Christmas? For me, it’s the sweet scent of pine needles. Summer is the smell of seaweed and sunscreen and the salty taste of the sea. Winter is cold toes and drinking thick cough medicine.

And if you need anymore proof, most of us have a breakup song that still churns our stomachs and gives us pause. Maybe a voice you long to hear, or one you fight to forget.

Writers conjure these, and more complex senses to paint a detailed emotional landscape characters inhabit. Among other tools it makes the characters more than two-dimensional constructs. Senses also help create atmosphere to connect the reader to the story, for a myriad of reasons. It could be empathy. A character is fired from a job. ‘He walked around the city aimlessly. After reading the letter for the third time he felt heavy, as if his expensive suit weighed as much as a sack of potatoes.’

Senses are a great way to hold focus.

Maybe the writer wants you to feel a sense of foreboding. ‘The alley was narrow and dark. Graffitied walls of words the twelve-year old girl couldn’t read felt like a warning. The noises of the men behind pushed her deeper into the unknown darkness.’ You imagine the growing unease the girl feels because they are experiences most people have had. The fear of darkness and of being alone. There are other examples and tips to be found.

It might be a cliché when writing suspense to use a creaking door to build drama with pending action that never comes, only to have a knife slice through the air after the suspense collapses. Or a short description as a means to contextualise a person or scene; delivering what the writer wants you to think or feel about a character or place that might only make a brief appearance. ‘The waiter’s rudeness mirrored the ambience of the restaurant.’ We can all summon an image of what a rude waiter might look like.

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Secrets of Writing With the Senses
Article Name
Secrets of Writing With the Senses
Use all five senses to bring alive your world and enhance the reader's experience.
Publisher Name
Charles Hubbard
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Also published on Medium.