By: Terry Odell
As writers, we’re encouraged to include all five senses in our writing. Most of us are guilty of relying too heavily on sight, with sound a close second, but we shouldn’t neglect the other three. Even so, it’s important to remember not to stop the story to insert sensory images. Otherwise, you end up with a checklist: Sight? Sound? Smell? Touch? Taste? These descriptions should tie into the plot as well as be grounded in the character. You can use them beyond adding descriptions to your scenes. Use them to show your characters.
Two authors I read a lot stop and describe—in detail—every character when he or she first appears in the scene. It got to the point where I stopped reading them because these descriptions did nothing for the story, very little for the character, who was often never seen again.
When I was training tutors for the Adult Literacy League in Orlando, we had the class members fill out a survey to determine whether they were visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners so they could better help their students. Some people learn by seeing, others by hearing, and some need to touch something or be moving around. The same goes for your characters. You should know what senses are dominant for them. A character who’s an auditory learner will respond differently than one who’s more visually oriented.
When you’re writing, it’s important to bear in mind what your character would notice. For example, I hear birdsong. My sister-in-law can identify what kind of birds I’m hearing without ever seeing them.
A friend of mine, a musician, is also far more tuned into hearing than seeing. She’ll listen to the news rather than read it.
The sense of smell is another important sense. It evokes powerful memories. I can’t open a bag of birdseed without being carried back to my great-uncle’s chicken farm where I helped feed the chickens when I visited.
My husband worked on a farm when he was young. He has fond memories of those days, so the smell of manure will evoke an entirely different response for him than it does for me.
When your character walks into a room, what does he smell? What memories might it invoke? What emotional reactions? If a cop enters a homicide scene, what’s he going to smell? How will he react? If your character is visiting her mother in the hospital what does it smell like? But don’t stop with one sense. What’s she hearing? How does it affect her?
Taste can also evoke memories. Sitting at the dinner table, eating a dish that doesn’t quite measure up to Grandma’s. Why not? What’s missing?
Again, tie characterization into your sensory descriptions:
He ambled to the bank of vending machines and selected a cup of coffee he knew would taste like cardboard, not because he needed a caffeine jolt, but to avoid dealing with the thoughts bobbing to the forefront of his brain like a punching bag clown.
Then there’s touch, probably the most neglected sense in writing.
Is your character getting dressed? What does the fabric feel like against the skin? When exchanging a handshake, what does the other person’s hand feel like? Can it be a clue to character? Can it add tension?
She absently rubbed her hand where Windsor’s had touched her when he took the flashlight. A frisson ripped through her. It had been an uncallused hand, with very well-tended nails. On a handyman? Her mouth dried up. Her brain whirled. It made no sense. Who was he? Undercover cop? Private detective? Didn’t fit.
Again, don’t limit yourself to a single sense in your descriptions. Taste, smell, and touch play well together. Is your character eating a hot fudge sundae? How does the cold ice cream feel on her tongue? How does it contrast with the warmth of the fudge? Another example:
Randy arranged half a dozen pillar candles on the coffee table and lit them. The scent of vanilla filled the air. Sarah picked up her bowl. An ice cream purist, she turned the spoon over as she put it into her mouth so that the initial sensation on her tongue was the creamy richness of the ice cream, not the metallic taste of the spoon. The vanilla-scented candles intensified the ice cream’s sweetness.
It’s also important to understand the physiology of how the senses work. Eyes need light to see. Don’t make the mistake one author did. She was creating tension by having the characters in total darkness, yet they were able to see each other’s eye color, the colors of the clothes they wore. If you’ve turned off all the lights and closed the blackout curtains, your characters won’t be able to see anything. But it’s a good place to heighten the other senses.
You can also use the senses to create conflict. In a romance, for example, what if your hero is a visual person? He wants the lights on during lovemaking so he can see his partner’s responses. What if she’s a kinesthetic person? She wants it dark to heighten her sense of touch.
Or this example, where simple differences in learning types can create tension between two characters:
Rebecca shoved the book aside. “Words don’t make sense when I read. When I hear them, I can remember. Copying them from a book helps get them in my brain, but not always. If I try to take notes in class, I get so far behind what the teacher is saying that I miss it.”
“Then why don’t I read it to you?” Tim asked.
“I can read,” she said, a bit too snappish. “It’s just— Words don’t stick. Numbers are so much easier for me. I was always okay with math.”
Although Terry Odell had no aspirations of becoming a writer until long after receiving her AARP card, she’s now the author of over thirty novels, novellas, and short stories. She writes mysteries and romantic suspense, but calls them all “Mysteries With Relationships.” Her awards include the Silver Falchion, the International Digital Awards, and the HOLT Medallion. A Los Angeles native, she moved to Florida where she spent thirty years in the heat and humidity. She now enjoys life with her husband and rescue dog in the cooler, dryer climate of the Colorado Rockies, where she watches wildlife from her windows. Website, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Amazon,