Beyond the Five Senses: Using Sight, Sound, Touch, Smell, Taste, and other senses in storytelling
Are there only five senses?
How many do we use in our writing?
Utilizing senses in a scene is one of many techniques we use as we create an illusion of reality in our stories.
Sight and hearing are perhaps the most commonly used senses in a book. Vivid writing creates a picture in the reader’s mind, and so the reader should see and hear what the character does, especially if we want the reader to enter the story and fully experience it with the character.
Touch, smell, and taste are senses that often involve a closer psychic distance. Adding these senses can make a scene come alive. I once read a middle grade novel, where the sense of smell was used on the first page of every chapter. It was very effective, but I noticed the technique within a few chapters and then it felt formulaic.
There are other senses we can use, too.
Balance is a sense, especially if the character experiences losing her balance. Temperature is also a vivid sense, as is pain.
We do not need to say that the character “saw” or “heard” or “tasted” whatever they see or hear or taste. Though at times we may use these words, we should be aware that adding the sense words to the text could create another layer for the reader and increase the psychic distance.
Mixing senses in the same sentence is effective.
The senses can show what is actually happening:
The sentence, “Icy rain blew into my hood and dripped down my neck . . .”, uses both the sense of touch and temperature. This also invokes the visual setting of blowing rain. (Thief Eyes by Janni Simner)
Or can be a metaphor or simile:
“. . . when teachers try to say our real names, the sounds always get caught in their throats, sometimes, like crackers.” This sentence not only uses the sense of sound, but also taste, at least for me, because I almost feel a dry cracker crumbling down my throat when I read this. (My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson)
Picture book writers may choose to include senses that are not easily shown in illustrations. Sound words are common in picture books. The sense of smell is also powerful.
Senses are enhanced during periods of stress, so a writer may compress more senses into a paragraph or page in a way that would feel over the top in a slower scene. In an intense situation, a character may not feel senses in a typical way, especially in the moment, because they are in a state of sensory overload.
Senses mirror the emotions of the character. A character that is feeling sad, will not tell us about the beautiful rainbow in the sky (sight) and the smell of the roses blooming in the garden (smell), but would share about the rain and the dark clouds and the rotting mulch surrounding the garden plants.
A useful exercise: analyze a scene of your own or a scene in your favorite book by highlighting every sense, each in a different color. What senses are used? How often? Are there additional places where you can or should add a sense?
Using all the possible senses will add vividness to a manuscript and make the story feel life-like.
Sarah Blake Johnson