Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How to Make Your Reader Feel Like They Are There

Laura Smith is here today to talk to us about writing with all your senses! Laura is a fellow YA author whose books include Skinny, Hot and Angry which address eating disorders, dating and divorce, respectively. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and at her website

Utilizing Your Five Senses for Richer Writing

Imagine Christmas this year without the sharp taste of peppermint candy canes, the creamy, rich froth of hot cocoa, the fragrant scent of pine, the crisp chill of a December morning, the tingle of a snowflake tickling your tongue, a rainbow of twinkling Christmas lights, the warm glow of a cozy fire, the melodic notes of “The First Noel” or the tinkle of bells.

Just as we wouldn’t want to miss a single one of these morsels of holiday magic, we don’t want to deprive our characters, plots and readers of those sensations either.

I’m writing this blog from my favorite cozy coffee shop, with amazing atmosphere, but me telling you it’s “cozy” and “amazing” doesn’t do you much good unless I describe it to you using, you guessed it, my five senses. So, why don’t we find a seat and chat about this writing tool.

We could either sit at one of the tall stools along the ledge, looking out the front window, in the giant orange crushed velvet couch that looks like it came out of a Scooby Doo episode or in my favorite, one of the booths with cracked black, leather seats and glossy, polished wood tables. There. We used the first sense - sight – this one is the best utilized sense in writing. Probably, because it’s what we rely on the most to make decisions. We are drawn to the sweater that “looks cute” in a store window before we know if it’s comfortable, if it fits us or if we can afford it. We often choose the dessert on the dessert tray that “looks” yummiest, before we’ve ever tasted it. Using sight, is as simple as explaining what something looks like. Make sure to use a variety of descriptions -- height, texture, color, spatial references and analogies all work. The important thing to remember is that your description should be relevant. We described the seats we could sit in when we were looking for a place to sit, not the tattoo on the barista’s neck or the signs plastered along the windows. These details might be relevant to a different scene or chapter, but not here.

Close your eyes and listen. I hear the whirr of the espresso machine, the clang of ceramic cups, the buzz of multiple murmured conversations and Sufjan Stevens singing in a raspy, melodic voice along to his acoustic guitar over the sound system. Can you hear them? Can you imagine you’re here? That’s what you want your reader to be able to do -- to immerse themselves in your scene, to feel like they’re actually in your story. Whenever in doubt how to use sound in your writing, do what we just did. Close your eyes and imagine what you hear in your scene, than incorporate it into your text.

Yum! Sorry I couldn’t wait to take a sip of my coffee. Sadly, taste is the most underutilized of our senses in writing. With all of the delicious flavors out there, this is such a shame. I often have writers ask me, how can I use taste if my story doesn’t involve eating? My answer is – writing is a creative process. Be creative. Taste is not limited to the robust, caramel flavor of the Fair Trade Highlander Grogg in my mug. Gum can be cool and minty or sharp and cinnamony. I can walk past someone with a cigarette or a bus with exhaust and taste the foul, thick smoke lingering in the air. Kisses are delicious – kissing a baby on the forehead and tasting their sweet, powdery innocence or kissing your grandma and tasting the heavy, floral perfume, she’s been wearing since before time began.

Brrr. It gets chilly when someone comes in through those side doors and lets in a blast of December Ohio air. I’m shivering a little on this squishy, leather seat. To combat the chill, I wrap my hands around the welcome warmth coming from my smooth, ceramic mug as I cradle my coffee. Touch – There isn’t a scene you write that can’t contain some sort of feeling – and we’re not talking happy, sad or angry, I mean the way something feels if you touch it. Use texture, temperature, weather, clothing, furniture – anything your character’s body comes in contact with to convey this tactile sense.

In this coffee shop there is the obvious bold, rich aroma of coffee permeating the place. I love when I get home and unzip my laptop from its case, and the lingering scent of coffee drifts from the keyboard. But there is also the smell of Panini’s, slathered with butter, grilling behind the counter and the pungent odor of bleach, sharp against my sinuses, when I visit the bathroom. Other customers smell of cologne, patchouli, sweat, cigarette smoke or outdoors as they walk by my table or when I stand next to them in line. By adding the sense of smell, we add a rich layer to our descriptions. The sense of smell is tied to memory and experience.

I’m going to finish my coffee and savor the way my five senses are stimulated in this shop. Where are you writing today? Which of your senses is being particularly stirred, or which ones are you struggling to capture? I’d love to hear.


  1. Great post. I think stories really come alive when we use all our senses. It really does make us feel as though we are there.

  2. This is really helping me right now. As I am writing a scene taking place in Panera.I can't tell you how many times I've been there, yet it still comes as a challenge to describe the atmosphere.


  3. Welcome, Ms. Smith! I really liked the post, and now I want to go sit next to you in the coffee shoppe and use MY senses!
    I tend to use hearing and smell most. That's mostly because That's what I pay most attention to in my house. I have four brothers and four sisters, we all homeschool, and there's ALWAYS noise. I can always tell if Mom is heading my way, who's going where when, and what kind of cookies my sister is baking.
    I use seeing a lot, as well, but I tend to curl up in my room and write, so there's not as much of that. Touch and taste are, yes, underdeveloped, and I need to keep working at those.
    Thank you very much for writing this post; I really appreciate it! :)

  4. This is such an awesome post, Ms. Smith and you are in one of my favorite places: a coffee shop! :) So glad that I could "visit" with you there! ;)

    Using the five senses is one of my favorite things to do when I write, so sometimes I tend to go a little overboard in the explaining. Do you have any tips so that I describe my scene effectively, but don't go overboard either?
    Thanks so much! This was such a fun post! :)

  5. Thanks for everyone's comments. I wish we could all share a booth at my fav coffee shop and toast mugs to productive, creative writing - cheers!

    Princess - LOVE Panera - especially their chocolate croissants! Pick your favorite drink, favorite food, favorite seat - is it by the fireplace, near the door so you can people watch or tucked in back for privacy? Sart describing those specific things instead of Panera in general.

    Becki - your sister's cookies sound yummy. Bravo for using your sense of smell. You're already ahead of the pack.

    Clarebear - writing is kind of like a song, there are fast parts and slow parts and verses and choruses. You need to find balance with your descriptions - a piano solo and your action - a dance beat, so you don't get bogged down in detail. Steinbeck is one of the few authors who does extended detail effectively. I alwasy read my writing out loud to make sure it flows nicely, not just in my head, but as others might read it. If you're getting bored reading it, chances are readers are skimming down to the action. I also pay attention while reading novels how other authors move from description to action. You'll need to play with it each time. Evaluate how important the description is to the story. The main character's description is going to need a lot more space than describing the Christmas cookie your character is eating - unless they have an eating disorder, or it's their favorite Grandmother who passed away's recipe and the whole book is about that Grandmother. If your character just grabs a cookie off a plate, make it sweet, crumbly, fudgy, but then move on to some fast paced dialogue. Does that help?

  6. I do have to say that taste I don't use all that much. Thanks for posting!


  7. Oh! I love this post so much! And am now dying to go visit a coffee shop. Not that I've ever even drunk coffee in my life, aha! But this is one of my favourite posts on the writing process, because I suppose I never really thought of it before and really needed to hear it, and because I loved being taken away to the coffee shop for awhile!

  8. I struggle using sound, it's hard for me to describe the difference between a clang and a clong! Perhaps I'm tone deaf? My singing certainly is, haha!
    I love using touch. In my writing. If my character hits her toe on a rock I want my readers to wince.
    Great post!

  9. Ellie Ann: Hahahahahahaha!!!!! "If my character hits her toe on a rock I want my readers to wince." That's hilarious!!!!!

  10. Ellie Ann - that's awesome that you use touch - making your readers wince is like watching a 3D movie - yay you! PS - the only difference between a clang and a clong is how you perceive it - write the way you hear it and your readers will hear it the same way :D. Anonymous - think of your favorite tastes - Christmas is such a great time for this - gingerbread, candy canes, your favorite cookie - yum! and start infusing these into your writing. And Emili - you must try coffee - soon!

  11. "Writing is kind of like a song." LOVE that! This does help. Thanks, Ms. Smith! :)

    Emii- I second that you must try coffee soon! It is wonderful in the mornings. :)

  12. Thanks for this helpful reminder! I'll definitely use it for my work-in-progress. I've got a good handle on the sight aspect of things, but taste and tactile things are so fun to write, too!

  13. Wow, what a great post! I love to describe things in writing, and this helps me do it further! =D I will certainly be thinking about these in my descriptions. :D

  14. Heather and Azlyn - thanks for your input on my post. Descriptions can be so much fun. It's easy to forget about them as you drive forward with the plot, so every once in a while, step back and make sure you've peppered your story with some sensory experiences. Peace!

  15. I think I struggle with everything that doesn't have to do with sight description. :)
    My second strength besides sight is probably smell... or taste.
    Description is SO hard!! And sometimes it sounds soooo stupid if you don't do it right.