Use All Five Senses

How do you like this:

Hank walked into the living room where Mary was serving breakfast. He spoke to Mary as he wolfed down his eggs.

Compared to this:

Mary heard Hank’s familiar footsteps as he entered the brightly lit kitchen. She pulled the sizzling pan off the stove and pushed the bacon onto a plate, concerned it smelled just a bit burned. Hank pulled back the curtains and looked out at his wife’s petunias, just now flowering with the first red and blue blossoms. He offered his morning greetings before he let go of the curtains, and when he turned to face her, she was smiling and whistling slightly. She put his plate on the table, the eggs still steaming. She came up behind him and put her arms around his chest and kissed his neck just where his hair was shortest. She could smell his shampoo. He reached up to touch her at the same time he spooned salsa on the eggs, trying this time not to overdo it.

What’s the difference? Well, not much happens in the first instance. We learn that Hank eats quickly and that he talks with his wife.

But in the second, we tickle all five senses.

  • Sight: brightly lit kitchen, petunias that are red and blue, steaming eggs
  • Sound: Hank’s footsteps. Sizzling bacon. Mary whistling.
  • Touch: Mary hugs Hank and kisses his hair
  • Smell: Slightly burnt bacon. Hank’s shampoo.
  • Taste: Salsa.

It’s much too easy to report what you see in your mind’s eye (the seacoast). But if you were really there, you’d hear things (gulls, crashing waves), you’d touch things (sand, the foam on the waves, driftwood), you’d smell things (the salt air, something being grilled in the pub behind you), and you’d taste things (freshly fried fish, salt, Bookbinder’s sauce on the shrimp). So if you just report what anyone could see in a photograph, you’re denying the reader much of the experience. (As I wrote “Bookbinder’s” above, I started to salivate.)

Careful use of all five senses can draw a reader right into your world. As you imagine your scenes, put yourself right in the middle and ask yourself what you see, hear, feel, smell, and touch. Then sprinkle all these things into your writing.

Here’s an excerpt from Broom 1, page 82. I don’t address all the senses, but tick off the ones I do:

I remember dust flying everywhere. I had a mouthful of grit, which tasted just like you might imagine grit to taste, sort of gritty. My eyes were shut tight with my arms still hugging my face. The broom, faithfully tied to me by the safety harness, hit me square between the legs, and I’ve already described how that feels, though it wasn’t as bad this time.

I wasn’t ready to see anything just yet, so I took silent inventory with my eyes closed. My left leg and left arm were starting to sting….

It was time to open my eyes. The stinging in my leg was getting insistent. I took inventory of my surroundings. I was indeed on the mesa, though the canyon was feet away. The tree I’d gotten to know so recently was down the slope a bit. I noted with satisfaction some broken limbs. The tree’s. Not mine.

The situation, of course, is flying through a tree. It hurts!

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