Use the 5 senses: How to Tickle Your Reader’s Imagination with Thrilling Description (It’s Easy!)

Use the 5 senses: How to Tickle Your Reader’s Imagination with Thrilling Description (It’s Easy!)

26 Awesome Comments

 

Have you ever been to a 5D-cinema?

I’m referring to these theatres that rattle your chair, spray your nose with a stale scent, and when somebody on the screen sneezes, it sprinkles your face… Yeah, they are basically legal torture chambers people pay entry for.

So why are they such a fun experience?

It’s because these theatres feel more real than your ordinary cinema. And that’s because they talk to more of our senses, not just two (seeing and hearing).

Anything that captures our senses feels a lot more real to us. It is through senses that we experience our entire world. We crave sensory experiences. That’s why it’s so much fun when the snot of that disgusting jailer troll hits us.

Senses are even deeply engrained in our language: We believe it when we see it. We hear it through the grapevine. Something smells fishy to us. We feel for somebody. We might show bad taste.

Ultimately, evoking sensory experiences with your descriptions is one of the most powerful talents you can have as a writer.

If you can do it well, your audience will eagerly suspend any disbelieve and completely succumb to the illusion you have prepared. You will draw your readers deeply into your story and make them feel like they are right beside your characters. They will ultimately truly care about what is going on.

In this post, learn:

  • How you can make use of each sense for maximum effect
  • The best use of sound
  • Why smell has such a strong impact on us
  • Tons of little tricks to integrate senses

But first… It wouldn’t be Ride the Pen if I didn’t have a little goodie for you. Download a (little more than) 1-page summary of this post here, so you can reiterate its points and keep it filed away. Keep this PDF next to you on your desk while writing, then you will never forget to implement its points:

Five Senses, Content Upgrade

The good news is, describing senses isn’t that hard to do. Now let’s take a look at all five of them, one by one, and see how you can best take advantage of them:

1. Sight

That’s the most obvious one. Can you imagine even the greenest newbie not describing to the reader what he is seeing?

In fact, many writers put too much weight on this sense, at the expense of the others.  Don’t overdo the visual description! You don’t have to teach your reader every single detail, it’s much better to leave something up to her imagination.

When you do describe visuals, think of the different qualities of look you could use to make your description vivid. Color is a good example. By using color, you can paint vibrant images in your reader’s mind. What do you think about this description:

“He couldn’t help but notice her extraordinarily sexy make-up.”

Bad. That’s telling, not showing.

“Her bright red lipstick immediately popped out to him.”

Much better. We have now put a colorful image in the mind’s eye of the reader. The image has a color with very specific connotations.

We have also used the word “bright,” which is yet another quality to make your visual descriptions more interesting: Shadows are eerie. Spotlights mean heightened pressure. Dimmed, soft lights can be romantic.

You can add a lot of mood to a scene or to a detail by describing light.

 

5 Senses, Shadows

2. Hearing

Hearing is used fairly often as well. You will mostly describe a sound when the situation draws special attention to it: A door creaks, your protagonist turns her head.

But don’t forget that a sound can also be used for a strong effect! You can employ it to get on your reader’s nerves, to alarm or to relax her. Think of the soothing babble of a little brook. How comforting, isn’t it? Cut to the shrieking sound of nails scratching over a chalkboard. You might even be close to goosebumps now.

Your reader will hate you when you employ an effect like this. And he should, strong reactions are excellent! In the end, he will love you for putting him through all of that tingling torture.

On top of this, you can use sounds for a serious shock effect. How often in your life have you been frightened by a sudden sound? Certainly a lot more often than by any other sense alarming you. Those little acoustic shock effects are deeply engrained in your reader’s unconscious as well.

Imagine the sudden uproar of a chainsaw. And if the guy who is carrying it wears a hockey mask too, you know that you will soon look like a jigsaw puzzle…

3. Smell

Now we are getting into territory that’s neglected way too often. Many writers like to forget smell, because when they are busily visualizing their scenes, it just doesn’t come to them naturally.

But smell can have a huge impact on your reader. To be more precise, the memory of the smell you are describing will have a huge impact on her. Smell is the sense that is most directly connected to the memory part of our brains (through the so-called “olfactory bulb;” great word, isn’t it?).

When you think about it, smell is kind of an animalistic sense – think of dogs eagerly sniffing each other’s behinds. When you describe the smell of shit, you can be sure to get stronger reactions than when you describe the look or the sound of it…

Because it’s such an emotional sense, smell can be very sensuous too. A stimulating perfume in a love scene will catapult your reader right into the middle of the action. They say that lovers can “smell each other.”

4. Taste

In your stories, you don’t get the opportunity to demonstrate how something tastes very often. You couldn’t let your protagonist quickly lick the mask of the guy with the chainsaw, just to report that it tastes… salty?

Now that would be moody, but it wouldn’t make much sense…

However, on the rare occasions your character puts something in his mouth or licks something, be sure to describe the taste. Certainly your character (and your reader) will pay attention, because taste is a sense that’s bound to get a very strong reaction.

After all, taking something into your mouth or touching it with your tongue is a very intimate act; it’s a personal thing that goes deep into the private sphere. Think of your character taking a beating and biting the hard and dusty curb or tasting a lovingly prepared dish of pulpy monkey brain. Tastes like that are hard to swallow.

You can also describe an emotion as so dense, your character can “taste” it in his mouth. Intense fear is sometimes described as a “taste of copper.” It’s like the feeling is so strong it finally becomes physical. And what does success “taste like,” can you tell me…?

 

Description 5 Senses, Lick it

5. Touch

Finally, we have touch. It’s a very sensual sense as well.

Like with tasting, be sure to describe it whenever you get a chance. When your character touches something, tell your audience what it feels like and draw them in. How pleasant does the soft fur of a kitten feel? And how uncomfortable is the stingy hail of a thunderstorm? You have all the power to make your readers live, love and suffer with your figures.

You can use touch especially well to describe the nature of objects or people: The silky smooth feeling of a light summer dress, grandpa’s grey and raspy beard. Just make sure you have a reason to describe how it feels; somebody touching it should be the trigger that allows you to explain.

So there you have it, all of the five senses. The sixth sense is then best suited to a Bruce Willis flick.

Now it’s that time again…

Writing Prompt Time! 😀

Pick one of the scenarios below, and describe it by including as many senses as you can:

A character walking into a car repair shop

A character having an encounter with a wild boar

A character shopping at a bakery

A character taking an elevator up to an observation deck

Post your mini-scene in the comments below! I want to see you guys applying the content of this post. You will remember it much better, if you use it right away. Give it a try!

The End

Now go ahead and use senses in your stories! In the future, I want you to always think about them when you write your scenes. Is there a smell, a taste, a touch you could describe? What does your character hear?

When you use senses in your descriptions skillfully, your reader will feel like he was present in that scene of yours. He can then listen to your scene, smell it, touch it… and he will never forget the way your scene tickled his senses…

Header Pic: Santy/Fotolia; Shadow on Wall: Mark/Fotolia; Lick it: Open Clipart-Vectors/Pixabay

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26 Awesome Comments. Join in!



26 Comments

  1. Bryan Carlile

    The ratchet of of a pneumatic drill pierced the air. Old oil clung to every surface leaving it greasy. It’s acrid smell clung to your clothes. The taste of battery acid filled the air. Bob leaned over the engine bay of a 1969 Camaro, black with patches of gray primer. His dark hair slicked back, he was an Adonis of the shop and everyone knew it. When he smiled the air seemed brighter. Every time he said “Trust me” he meant he was going to bend you over a table.

  2. Keri

    Okay, here goes, “He dished out heavy handed advice that went down like chalk. His CTA chimed  “Good luck with that!”

    If only more writers whose words open hearts were coaches and teachers.
    Thanks for the inspiration, Alex and sharing your gift.
    ~Keri 

  3. Alice

    Thanks. Here’s my go at it.

    Eleanor held her breath and darted into the elevator as the doors swished shut. She squeezed past the fat man in the Hawaiian shirt and a woman holding a toddler with pink bows in her hair and grabbed the smooth rail just as the elevator jerked up. There was no chance she could back out now. She lost count of how many times the bells dinged counting off another floor farther from the ground. The 86th floor was touted as an open air tour of the city. Hopefully, it would smell better than the BO of the guy standing next to her. When the doors swished open on the 80th floor, Eleanor waded out behind the herd. She immediately spotted the sign directing her to the second elevator up to the observation deck. She popped a wintergreen lifesaver into her mouth and concentrated on the hot mint flavor. It wasn’t her favorite mint but the flavor made her taste buds cringe and distracted her as she stepped onto another elevator. She closed her eyes and counted backwards and held tight to the brass bar attached to the wall. Movement around her stirred up a floral perfume, and soft, silky fabric brushed her arm. Whispered conversations between the other riders calmed her nerves. A bell dinged and the doors whooshed. A tiny voice said, “We’re here.”

    Eleanor opened her eyes. On the ceiling a three dimensional piece of art resembling Liberty’s crown was the first thing she noticed. She crept out of the elevator and followed a family into the enclosed room and out onto the open deck. New York City at this height made Eleanor’s heart race. Skyscrapers, bridges and parks. This is New York. Clouds almost close enough to touch. But she didn’t look too long because as the clouds floated, it felt like the Empire State Building was swaying in the breeze. Eleanor immediately threw up.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Very unobtrusive, Alice, very unobtrusive…! I had to smirk while reading this, your scene is bursting of sensual description. And it does immediately make us feel, hear, taste and smell everything (and everybody…). Well done!

  4. Tina Lonabarger

    Today of all days, the car repair shop is the last place I want to be. The heat of the sun feels as though my bones are scotching. I take a deep breath my lungs find no relief. I walk into the garage and it was like nails on the chalkboard rattling my nerves as they grind metal. The mix of oil and gas was so strong I can taste it. 

    The mechanic directs me to the office to pay for my oil change. I pay my bill, get my keys. I can almost feel the ecstasy of my air conditioner. 

        1. Alex
          Alex

          Ok, here we go. 😉

          Use the same tense always (“is”/”was”).

          You also use senses in a rather abstract way, as metaphors or imaginative images (bones; nails on chalkboard; ecstasy of air conditioner). Just keep it simple and describe by detail; that’s more effective.

  5. Eddie

    well, here goes…

    The bakery was filled with smells Matthew had never dreamed existed; cinnamon with notes of vanilla, the sweetly bitter tang of rum, and the yeasty fragrance of fresh dough. Saliva filled his mouth, threatening to wash out the scent of lemon zest he could feel lingering on his tongue.
    Displayed behind the glass counter were a great assortment of pastries. A giant frosted chocolate cake on one corner, honey glazed cookies on the other, with jelly-filled doughnuts, banana bread sprinkled with crushed, melted brown sugar, and a mountain of syrup-soaked raisin pancakes in between.
    The server who met his gaze smiled at him, a dimple appearing on her smooth cheek. “Would you like something to try?” Her voice was melodious, the cadences like perfectly timed bells ringing in sweet harmony. He reached for his wallet, the well-worn leather familiar to his fingers as he opened it.
    The server chuckled. “You don’t need to pay,” she huskily whispered, handing him a chocolate-soaked croissant in a crisp white napkin. He reached out to take it, the sillage of her perfume almost as intoxicating as the vanilla air freshener on the counter.
    “Really now? What about the second?” He bit into the croissant, his mouth filling with the smooth texture of the chocolate, the astringent bitterness catching at the back of his throat.
    She fingered the fine silver necklace at her throat, its glint as attractive as the index finger twisting it. “We’ll just have to see,” she winked, her eyes as dark as the cinnamon stick on the giant frosted cake.

    that was a one shot. and it was exhilarating. thanks, Alex. your blog is always a great place to visit and get motivation as a writer.

  6. Kate

    My ancient MG gasped and sputtered to a halt just as we reached the ramp to the shop. I got out and walked in, inhaling the intoxicating scent of burning Castrol. Peering through the haze of cigarette smoke, I saw the outline of my favorite mechanic. Total darkness couldn’t obliterate anyone his size. It always amazed me that he could fold himself into any of the tiny cars that he worked on.
    We discussed my immediate problem. My car had breathed her last. I had a race to drive the next weekend, and my odds of placing would be greatly reduced if I were pushing my car around the course. Together we rolled her into a stall and Richard lifted the bonnet. When he pulled the starter, she coughed in agony. We leaned into the engine bay and examined the tiny, mortally wounded engine. His tantalizing aftershave wafted into my nostrils like an ocean breeze. “I’ll have her ready for the trials Friday night. Do you have a way home, or would you like a ride?”
    “A ride would be lovely,” I replied. “But only if you’re sure you have the time.”
    “I have no plans other than dinner. If you don’t mind waiting while I clean up, we could eat together.”
    “That sounds nice”, I replied calmly, despite my heart pounding like a jackhammer in my throat.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Nice one. You are not overusing sensual description, but rather incorporating it seemlessly into the scene. And you seem to have a thing for smell.

      The scene reads like it was taken out of a story that previously existed.

  7. kathryn jones

    As the silent metallic doors whooshed together, the rhythmic clickety undoing sounds of his zipper found my right ear, the one with tiny red rosebuds tattooed along the edge. Mingled tendrils of sweet pipe tobacco and woody cognac competed with his expensive cologne, a musky fragrance like that of an ancient mariner. My heart beat like a frightened rabbit, cheeks flushed hot and scarlet, while both knees threatened to melt like butter on a hot day. The radiant warmth of his young, lean body drew mine like a magnet, as a distant flamenco band was dancing under the moonlight…or was that the Musak from the elevator? He gasped lightly as he inhaled, close enough to my lusting ear for me to sense the cool flow of air as it past. His warm exhale brushed my earlobe, caressing each tiny rosebud and defeating any resistance remaining. Just as I felt myself falling vertigo like into the abyss of his allure, our elevator stopped rudely, muffled bell tones announcing our arrival and obedient shining doors flowing open, breaching the womb of my flight of sensual fantasy.
    Kathryn C. Jones 14 September 2017

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Oh la la, Kathryn, that’s a very fitting addition to the post, and a great example of how to create a steamy, sensual scene by (among other techniques) using senses.

      Sounds, color, scents, breath of air, touch, many forms of consistency, surface and texture, warmth, light… it all fits together beautifully.

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