Stink, Stank, Stunk, and All That Clairvoyant Jazz - Describing the 5 Senses Plus Intuition
So, we know by now the importance of adding sensory details to every scene. It helps the reader visualize exactly what’s going on, with layered particulars. Linking a few senses together in a scene establishes a foundation for the reader. Using the five senses, and the sixth, intuition, helps readers experience everything the characters see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and perceive. When implemented correctly, the writer shows without telling which is one of the main goals of writing.
To see what the character sees without telling the reader what the character saw is the dance writers must execute as they write their story. As a reader, I don’t want a list of items in the character’s environment, I want to understand what they encounter. Let’s use the beach as an example. A writer worth their salt won’t tell readers their character, Sara, saw the beach and bright sun.
Instead, a writer might approach it this way:
Sara stepped a toe in the hot sand searching for a spot to park her chair and beach paraphernalia. She squinted in response to the sun’s glare, and wiped a tear from her irritated eye, having forgotten her sunglasses at home. Heading toward the waves, she was bathed in warmth from the glow of the bright yellow ball sitting high in the cloudless sky. As she wound her way past bikini-clad ladies and scores of vivid-colored umbrellas, she stopped to admire a sandcastle built by a family of laughing kids whose mom yelled at them to come and eat lunch. The scent of coconut suntan lotion wafted up her nose. Ah, she found it, the perfect locale to plant herself. The squawk of a swooping seagull was lost as rough waves hit the shore.
In the above passage, I’ve incorporated the sense of sight, hearing, smell, and touch, linking them together so that they complement one another. We see what Sara sees through her eyes and other senses. We glean through word choices that it’s a hot, crowded day at the beach. The sun is strong and causes her to squint and tear. We imagine the smell of coconut suntan lotion as it invades her nostrils. We hear with her, the sounds of laughter, yelling, seagulls and crashing waves.
Sensory Words and Ways to Depict Seeing
Brown eyes stared into blue.
He goggled at the dramatic scene happening before him.
She eyed him from Louboutin shoes to perfect coif.
Sounds help us discern the happenings in our environment. Describing sounds or voices in writing helps readers get a clear picture of the scene and characters. Sounds can be scary, foreboding, creepy, pleasing, soothing, and a thousand other things.
Describing what a character hears, transports the reader into the setting. If the wind is howling and rattling the windows and rain is battering the roof in a steady torrent of loud plinks and plunks, the reader understands the character is experiencing the elements of a storm. When a character is home alone and hears someone fumbling with the doorknob then the door opens with a slow creak, the reader senses danger, just like the character. Characters can be portrayed with different sounding voices too.
Sensory Words and Ways to Depict Hearing and Sounds
Frog in throat
Autumn leaves crunched under her feet.
Thunder shook the house with every boom.
Church bells rang out in the distance.
The concoction foamed to a fizzing plume.
If hamburgers and hot dogs are sizzling on the grill in a scene, we hope that causes readers to conjure thoughts of barbeques and summer gatherings. We hope the description of the meat cooking triggers an odiferous memory where the reader perceives for an instant that familiar fragrance. In the above example with the hamburgers and hotdogs, the writer implies the aroma of the barbeque without saying what it smells like.
Different scents in can evoke certain emotions among readers, if they are weaved with thought. Certain scents can be congruous with the action in the scene. For instance, the fragrance of sweet-smelling perfume, or the subtle scent of an alluring musk can do wonders to build anticipation for an upcoming love scene. Aromas can also serve as purposeful incongruent elements. In an intense scene filled with drama, an inviting scent like that of bread baking or cookies fresh out of the oven can feel counterintuitive to the action, but adds texture and surprise to the event.
Sensory Words and Ways to Depict Smell/Smelling
Wafted through the room
Invaded the nostrils
She tucked her nose into the velvety folds of a pink rose and breathed in the delicious bouquet.
Sniffed a foul odor . . .
He stunk of tequila and stale tobacco.
She breathed in his fresh scent, savoring the moment.
When your character comes into physical contact with someone or something, the reader wants to know what they feel. What does it feel like when they brush up against a lover or handle something with their fingers, hands, toes, etc. Touch confirms what our eyes see.
Describing touch can convey temperature, texture, and mass of an object or person. Is something smooth, hard, pliable, or bulky? Is someone’s skin soft, are their hands warm or cold, are their abs tight with muscles, is their hair course or greasy? The sense of touch can provoke calmness or arouse sexual tension. It can stir up memories or cause a character to cry out in pain.
Ellie slipped into bed, skimming across the cool, pristine sheets. Ezekiel’s arms surrounded her pulling her in closer. His warm skin smoldered through the T-shirt he had let her borrow. He stroked the length of her bare arm, riling goosebumps, then settled on her hip. Her entire body tingled with glorious sensation.
“It feels so familiar, so right, with you,” he whispered.
He brushed the hair from her face and nuzzled near her neck. His sweet breath washed over her, before he pressed his heart-shaped lips to her skin.
"Uh," Ellie muttered, in a breathy voice.
She slid nervous fingers across the sheets, up to her hip, and grabbed his hand, holding it against her chest, needing him as near as possible. He curled his body into an intimate spooning position, so close every part of him nudged against her.
In the above passage, we feel what Ellie feels, the cool sheets, his warm breath, his smoldering skin, the stroking, his curled body, um, yeah, etc. We detect the sexual tension, feel the same anticipation Ellie feels about what may come next. We know this through her nervous fingers, her tingling body, the “uh” she utters softly. He’s curled his body into hers. What’s going to happen? We gather all of this without using words like she felt, or he touched.
Sensory Words and Ways to Depict Touch
His warm breath washed over her.
His tongue brushed the length of hers. Slow. Determined. Expert. Smooth as honeyed silk.
Saliva slid down her throat, cracking open blisters.
Yum or yuck! What does your character taste? The sense of taste is often overlooked when writing a scene. It’s not all about food and drinks. Incorporating taste in a scene can spice things up and add meaning. Imagine your hero leaning in to kiss the heroine for the first time. Does he taste her strawberry lip gloss or winter-fresh gum? Envision the salty taste of blood trickling into an injured character’s mouth. If the scene is set properly, it can transport the reader into the passage and perhaps into the mind of the character. Including taste in your writing is a fun and interesting way to keep readers engaged. Try to remember to use it as you write.
Sensory Words and Ways to Depict Taste
Hints of cinnamon
He tasted of peppermint and . . .
The whiskey had a pleasant, mellow flavor.
Intuition – the 6th sense
Intuition is the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning. It’s instinctual. Taking it up a notch is clairvoyance, perceiving things or events in the future or beyond normal sensory contact. Since I find both abilities intriguing and overlapping, I like to use this sense when building certain characters. Let your protagonist or secondary character access their third eye. If weaved in appropriately it can add a unique richness to, not only your character, but your scenes, and story as well.
Sensory Words and Ways to Depict the 6th Sense
Other worldly insights
Her intuition warned of danger.
There are of course hundreds if not thousands of ways to depict the five senses and the extraordinary sixth sense in your writing. Add to the above lists and keep them handy so you can refer to the different words and phrases as you write. You’ll thank me when you see your scenes blossom. You’re welcome!