Write Engaging Scenes Using All Five Senses

Quick — does your novel need an IV? Or maybe emergency surgery? It might be because your descriptions are flatlining. 

You’ve already heard that to create lush, engaging descriptions in your novel, you need to “show, don’t tell.” But “show” implies “sight,” which leaves out our other four senses entirely. To have your reader experience a scene as intimately as possible, you must also incorporate sound, touch, taste and smell. These senses are often neglected, if they’re even addressed at all.

To give your descriptions a jolt of electricity, follow these guidelines from Novelist’s Boot Camp by Todd A. Stone.

Sight. Sight is the most passive of the senses. Our eyes are always open and we need do nothing to see an object, so there’s very little involvement and the object remains external. Visual images are also easy to interrupt; we simply close our eyes or look away. Although you can maximize the power of visual description using the drills in this mission, description using only sight is still the least intimate — not only is seeing passive, what we see remains outside the body.

Sound. More intimate than sight, sound causes a physical change in the body — the vibration of the eardrum. It takes more effort to block out sound than it does sight. Sounds are also more easily remembered, especially when they are repeated in a rhythmic fashion. Just think of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the thunderous “louder! louder! louder! louder!” of the heart beneath the floor. This is why we can remember childhood rhymes long after we’ve grown up and commercial jingles long after we’ve grown tired of the product. Description that evokes sounds is more memorable and more intimate than description that relies only on visual images. Sound, however, is still generally passive — the stimulation can come from a distance.

Touch. Touch sits squarely in the middle of the senses’ spectrum of intimacy. Touch is easily remembered — much more so than visual imagery — and touch memory is stored in a different part of the brain than sight or sound. Touch can be either active or passive — our characters can both touch and be touched. Distance is important — whatever is stimulating the sense of touch must obviously be close. Touch can also be used as an intimate character marker — a character’s leathered, roughened hands signal something significant, as does cool, smooth, fatty skin. But whatever is stimulating the sense of touch most often remains outside the body, making description that uses this sense more intimate than description using only sight or sound but less intimate than description using the remaining senses.

Smell. Smell would not seem like an intimate sense, yet the human brain’s neural connections tie certain smells to certain primeval instincts and emotions, making it one of the most intimate of senses. Smells can produce strong, emotional reactions even when very faint. There is some truth to the cliché that a ghostly whiff of perfume can bring a powerful man to a dead halt. Smells must be taken into the body — that is, some tiny particle of what you’re smelling has to enter the nose and come in contact with the olfactory receptors. Smells have strong associations: Warm cookies might evoke Grandma’s house, pipe tobacco might bring good old Uncle Billy to mind, and the piney odor of disinfectant might take you back to a grade-school locker room. Sex has its own smell, as do honky-tonk bars, new cars and well-worn leather. It has even been suggested that certain people can smell another’s fear or excitement. To have a more powerful, more intimate effect on your reader, use the sense of smell in your description.

Taste. Taste is the most intimate of the senses. The taste buds, mouth, and gums provide fast-track access to the body and to parts of the brain. Sensations that originate in the mouth can cause very powerful, very emotional reactions almost instantly. (Perhaps partly because so much of the way something tastes depends on the way it smells.) In order to activate the sense of taste, a stimulant must enter through open lips. In other words, the person must — voluntarily or not — take something into his body by opening up to it. There are also tastes that reflect emotions — for example, fear — that are even more intimate, since they originate from inside. Whether your character tastes the agony of defeat or the sweetness of a lover’s kiss or the coppery taste of his own blood, description using the sense of taste can be the most intimate of all.

For more life-saving tips for your novel, check out Novelist’s Boot Camp by Todd A. Stone, published by Writer’s Digest Books. It’s filled with an arsenal of tools for planning a writing strategy, outlining your story, creating realistic characters and more.

What’s the most engaging description you’ve read recently?


Rachel Randall is a Content Editor for Writer’s Digest Books. She edits, writes for the Writer’s Digest Blog, and procrastinates on her own novel from Cincinnati, Ohio.