By Gloria G. Adams
If you’ve been in the writing world for very long at all, you will have heard the admonition to “show, don’t tell.” The best way to do that is to bring all five of your senses into play. It makes everything more real and relatable to your reader. But how do you do that?
Prolific author Dandi Mackall suggests making a chart of the senses and going through your manuscript to see how often you’ve used each sense: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. You may find that you’ve missed one or two of them altogether!
One effective strategy is to go to an actual place. Maybe it’s a beach, a restaurant, a lake, etc. Soak in everything around you. Then write down several things you experience from each of the five senses. Do the same for the scenes in your story.
What can you touch with your hands or feet? Sand and surf? Rough concrete sidewalks, mud between your toes, silk fabric? What touches you? The wind? The brush of someone’s hand against yours? Or-eww!- is that a spider crawling on your leg?
Smells can set a mood; a kitchen can smell like freshly-sizzled bacon or rotting garbage. Compare the feeling you get in a room full of clean baby fragrances to a long-empty room that’s clogged with dust and dirt or moldy walls.
Sight is probably the most often used sense; amp up your adjectives to give your reader a feeling as well as a picture. Use “scabrous” or “brambly” instead of “rough,” “gelatinous” or “feathery” instead of “soft,” “silvery” or “dingy” instead of “grey.”
Sounds can make your character cringe, tingle, jump, scream, or cry. Sounds can remind them of a childhood memory or warn them that disaster is about to strike. Use them to add drama to your scenes. Think of the sudden roar of flames, a loud horn, cheery bird calls or raucous rooster crows, a child’s frightened scream or happy giggle.
Taste gets overlooked frequently. But it is something that everyone experiences and can pull your reader right into your scene. Who hasn’t accidentally burned his or her tongue on hot coffee or cocoa? What dessert has been either sensual in the extreme or as dry as cardboard? Next time you eat something, think about how you would describe it in your book and use it to make your characters more interesting.
Bring one of your characters into each of the settings below and describe how he or she experiences all five senses in each one.
1. A hair salon
2. A butcher shop
3. A hospital
4. An urban alleyway
5. A farm