Thursday, August 9, 2012

Using the Five Senses in Your Writing

by guest author Morgan Busse

Morgan Busse loves wacky socks, a good cup of tea, and cargo pants (a mother can never have enough pockets   ) She is the author of the medieval fantasy novel, Daughter of Light. Learn more about Morgan at

Before I was a writer, I was an artist. The first thing my grandmother—an oil painter— taught me was to draw what I see. Easier said than done. As an artist, I needed to train myself to see everything, down to the tiniest detail. Lighting, colors, shadows. Where the ears are in proportion to the head? What angle do the shadows fall and how far? Which way does the fur around a cat’s face curve? What colors would I need to mix to create that shade of green? I learned to take apart what I saw with my eyes and reassemble it on paper.

When I became a writer, I expanded my senses. What do I hear, smell, taste, and touch? And how would I write that? I needed to become a student of my world (both the one I actually live in and the one I was writing) in order to flesh out my story.

Here are the exercises I used with my senses that eventually allowed me to capture the world in my story.

Sight: What do you see? Start taking a closer look at everything around you. Ever noticed dew on flower petals? What side of the eye a tear falls? What is the lighting? Dark? Bright? How much can you see when a full moon is out?

The last one I actually did. I have a scene where my characters are on a beach at night with a full moon. I lived on the Oregon coast at the time, so during a date night with my husband, I dragged him out on the beach where a full moon hung over the water and studied what the beach looked like. What could I see, what could I not see? Could I see colors with only the moon as light? The experience helped me write a more accurate scene (not to mention made for a romantic date night J).

Hearing: What do you hear? What does a campfire sound like? The wind? What night sounds do you hear in the country? In the city? What does an empty house sound like? The ocean? Take the time to close your eyes and really listen. Immerse yourself in the sounds around you. And then describe it.

Here is a helpful hint: you can use the Internet to find sound bites. This especially comes in handy when you can hear the sound in your head, but are having a hard time describing it.

For example, one of my characters heard a sound that reminded her of a bird that lived along the coast. But I wasn’t sure what descriptor to use: cry, shrill, etc… So I found a website that had all sorts of birdcalls on it and was divided by types of birds. I went to seashore birds and found the call I was looking for (it was a Sandpiper).

Touch: Go around your house and touch everything. Again, close your eyes so you can fully feel everything beneath your fingertips. What does a hot shower feel like after coming in from the rain? The warmth of an autumn sun streaming through the window? The way your tongue tingles after drinking something too hot? The flip side of a cool pillow on a hot summer night?

See how by describing these sensations, you start to feel them too, just by reading them? This is what you want for your reader, to be fully immersed in your story so that they can even feel it.

Taste: Hmm, love this one. And you can use it as an excuse to visit the Cheesecake Factory for research, right? Just kidding J.

Taste fits in nicely with the other senses. To use the cheesecake analogy, you first see the cheesecake. White, pure decadence with plump red strawberries on the top, with shiny glaze slightly oozing off the side. Smell the sweet, slightly dairy scent. Feel how smooth the cheesecake feels on your tongue. Now describe the taste. Sweet, with the tangy burst of strawberry.

How do other things taste? Not everything is sweet, or even edible. The earthy flavor of black tea, the acrid taste of Tylenol, the slightly metallic flavor of a medium rare steak. Take time today and study what each thing you eat (or drink) tastes like.

Smell: I read that smell is the greatest descriptor used the least. But smell can be your secret weapon as a writer. So take the time to use it and use it well.

Here are some things to think about: what does a forest smell like? In the spring? In the fall? What does your grandmother’s house smell like? A roast in the oven? Christmas time? An old high school gymnasium?

Unfortunately, you can’t look up smells on the Internet, so this is one you will need to go around and practice. Sniff your socks, the shower, your loved one’s hair. My husband loves the way my hair smells after I have been out in the sunshine. Also, candle stores like Yankee can be a great place to figure out smells (I visit candle shops all the time). Maybe even take some paper and write down how you would describe the different smells.

Smell can be the sense that ties all the other sense up and brings completion and fullness to a scene. So use it.

In conclusion, when you write, don’t just make a checklist of all your senses. We experience our world through all our senses at once. Do the same in your writing. Taste, smell, and touch can all go together. Sight and hearing and touch. Smell and sight. Use them together and create a 3-D world for your reader to experience.

So let me ask you, what sense do you find easiest to write? Which one to you find hardest to write? And which one do you want to go out and practice right now?

Thanks, Morgan, for writing for us today. Morgan's book, Daughter of Light, is a fantasy novel about a woman who sees visions when she touches another person. It's a great book. To learn more about it, check out the page!


  1. Description isn't my strong point, so thank you!

    1. You're welcome :) It takes practice, but gets easier as you go. Before you know it, you'll start writing scenes in your head as you observe things around you :)

  2. Ooh, I love describing things, and always want to make it sound better. Thanks so much for the post. I think I'm best as sight, and probably worst at smell or taste.

    1. It takes more practice for smell and taste, but worth it. And gives you a great excuse to go out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just say you're learning how to describe for your writing :)

  3. Sight is my strong point out of all the senses. But I usually lack when it comes to smell and taste. Thank you!

  4. Great info, thanks! I'm not a teen, but your advice is terrific anyway!

    I've sent you addy to my granddaughter - a high school student who spends her life reading and writing.


  5. This was such a vivid's made me hungry for details. :) Looking forward to looking more closely at today - thanks for the eye-opener.

  6. On a one page critique I won in a contest, the author told me to make sure I used all five sense when writing. The senses make your story pop with reality.
    Superb article. Thanks for sharing!

  7. This is great! I love using the five senses, it is something I am stronger in as a writer. However, I often forget about smell! I actually can use it in a scene right now, so off I go!

  8. Ooh, this is going to be so much FUN!!! Another thing that I find interesting is that you can actually smell the seasons changing. At least, here in WI you can. :) So I always breathe in through my nose when I step outside to see if the season is changing. :)

    1. Yes! I love the different smells of the seasons. Great observation :)

  9. Oo I definitely agree! I did a writing course a year ago that really zoned in on the 5 senses. At the time, boy did I struggle. But now I've got the hang of incorporating more than just "sight" into my writing. I still struggle with smell. Describing smell. And I really loved this article. I was smelling candles and tasting cheesecake and seeing the beach by moonlight the whole way through! :D

  10. Funny . . . I just started a scene with a scent. Thanks for the post! It's really interesting.

  11. I always realize when I am in the middle of a scene and something isn't working right it's usually because I'm not using all five senses to convey what's going on. And as soon as I do, the writing moves much more smoothly.

    Great post!!

  12. I love using the five senses in my writing!

    Thanks for such an interesting post, Morgan!

  13. Echo Madison!

    Thanks for this post, Morgan!

  14. Great post. Really helpful; it made me want to go try writing sense descriptions RIGHT NOW!!!! :)

  15. So taken with this article, I went straight to amazon and bought Morgan's book (thanks for the link). That's the first time I've ever done that.

  16. From Amo Libros:
    Great article!! I went to a teen class at writers' workshop a few weeks ago, and one of the girls had this beautiful piece full of all five senses. The driveway was cracked, the twigs snapped like rice-crispies, the air felt damp - or at least, I assume it did. It certainly felt damp as I was reading! It helps a lot to give very concrete details, too. On the elevator pitches we worked on, the same girl had a bit that went something like: "MC knows their parents are dead: there are three skid marks on the road to prove it." For me, at least, adding the three skid marks just made the whole thing POP in a good way. It gave my mind a solid picture to focus on.
    As for myself, I usually do sight and sound alright, and if I'm really in the zone I can do touch as well, but I have a lot of trouble with taste and smell. There are only so many words one can use to describe tastes and smells: spicy, aromatic, acrid, etc. I suppose I could describe the air force museum as smelling like hot metal and old plastic. Does that work well for you guys? does that get smell-image across?