Using Sensory Description… But Is It 5 or 20?

A frequent tip you’ll hear in writing workshops, seminars, and blogs is to include the senses in your descriptions. One workshop I attended mentioned trying to include all 5 senses on every page. I took this to be a bit of an exaggeration, as that would be a LOT of description on every page. But it gives you a goal to shoot for so you remember to include sensory description as much as possible.

My personal rule of thumb is to attempt to get all 5 senses to show up in every chapter. This is actually much harder than it sounds, so let’s dig into a little bit.

Sight

Sight tends to be the easiest of the senses to remember because you can describe what the character is seeing in terms of surroundings, other people, gestures, or even what’s inside their head. However, since this one is the easiest to include, don’t forget to include little details that we all notice without realizing it… colors, shapes, changes in the surroundings, locations of objects or people in relation to the POV.

Sound

Sound can be relatively easy because you can describe voices if you include a lot of dialogue like I prefer. But I find I forget to includes sounds of everyday life that we all tend to tune out, but are there nonetheless. Things like cars passing, low murmurs of voices at parties, background music, etc.

Touch

Touch could be the bread and butter for a romance writer. Touch can be a very sensual experience. Wonderfully descriptive words come from touch – rough, smooth, silky, hard, soft, lush, scratchy. Think about textures of furniture, of food, of clothing, of skin, of pets, even the air. You get the idea.

Smell

You would think that smell would be easy to include, but unless there’s food involved, I find I really have to think about smells. (I guess I love food.) Smells surround us, but unless they’re strong we don’t think about it much. Next time you get out of the car or enter a new building, think about what it smells like. Does it smell like a hospital? Like Christmas? Like a trash bin? Like piney woods? Like flowers? What do people around you smell like? Like what they just ate? Their cologne? Their shampoo? The pool water they just swam in?

Taste

This is perhaps the hardest sense to include regularly because most of us only think of taste in terms of food. And, at least for my characters, I don’t have them eating in every chapter. However, taste can come into play in ways that are more subtle. Have you ever tasted the metallic flavor of blood, or the lips of the person you just kissed, or a scent in the air is so strong you can taste it?

Other Senses

I heard a trivia question recently saying that there are more than 5 senses – which, as a writer who tries to include these details in my descriptions, I found fascinating. In researching this a little, I discovered that scientists are still divided on the additional senses. Some link them to specific sensory organs in our bodies (eyes, ears, olfactory, tongue, skin – but also inner ear, etc.). Some consider that there are subcategories to the main 5. Either way, here are some additional senses that most of the websites I reviewed agreed on:

  • Temperature – Hold/Cold
  • Balance
  • Pain
  • Sense of where your limbs and body parts are
  • Thirst
  • Hunger
  • Time

Just think of all the new ways I can incorporate sensory description into my books now? Not only that, but several articles pointed out that other animals have heightened versions of these senses. Dogs smell 100x better than humans and so forth. For my paranormal books, this gives me even more I could include.

I’m having to think of how I might change up my rule of thumb to fit these new parameters. Maybe I make sure that at least one sense is on every page? Or still do 5 per chapter, but pick and choose based on the context? Either way, I’ll be having lots of fun with these.

Reactions

Finally, senses are excellent to include in your writing not only to give your readers mental pictures, but also to give your characters something to react and respond to. Are those lights too bright? Is the grey sky making them sad? Is the furniture garish, refined? Is the smell good, pleasant, a turn on? What’s their opinion? Do they have an emotional response to this instance of a sense or senses being used? Or is it background noise that surrounds all of us every day and just rounds out the world? How much you describe that sense in that instance should depend on how the important it is to the character. Background noise would just get a brief mention. Something impactful should get a longer description.

I love thinking of all the different ways I can include and describe the senses in my writing. Since I learned this trick, it’s one of the few things I deliberately go back through my books and make sure it’s included. And I find that I now look for it when I read, and miss it when it’s not there. Such a simple way to subtly build the world your characters live, work, love, and breath in. Don’t you think?

http://hms.harvard.edu/news/harvard-medicine/extra-sensory-perceptions

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s