You undoubtedly know the advice to include all five senses in your writing. After all, sensory details bring your scenes to life for your readers. But did you know there are more senses than just sight, sound, taste, smell and touch?
Sensory details hold great power. The reason: our brains don’t process sensory words in the same way as “normal” text.
When you read a sentence like “He walked out”, you simply read – well, words. But if you write “He walked out into the blistering cold”, your brain doesn’t only activate the areas processing words. The area which deals with the sensation of temperature will also react! As a consequence, when you read a sentence with sensory words, you inadvertently experience the writing far more intensely.
(I always feel like some kind of a dark wizard when I realize that the words I write down are directly manipulating the brain activity of my readers! But that’s another point.)
All… 13 senses
It’s because of this power of sensory details that writers learn to address all five senses in their scenes. Don’t just describe what a place looks like, but pay attention to its smells and sounds too. Mention what food tastes like, note the sensation of the rough carpet underneath a character’s bare feet… Well, you undoubtedly know the story.
For me as a steamy romance writer, this is especially important when I’m writing sex scenes. Sex shouldn’t occur in a vacuum. A reader wants to experience that thrill as much as the characters – which means sensory details are a must!
I spent some time reading about writing with all five senses these days. My main findings? It turns out the story is far more complex than I’ve always thought.
When we look at how our bodies actually perceive sensory input, there are a couple of senses that don’t really fit into the “traditional” five classes. These senses don’t really have much to do with “external input”, but rather about the internal sensations you perceive from your own body. Although you won’t use these to describe the environment (usually), they are very helpful to draw readers into the mind of your character.
In other words, there are much more than five senses! I ended with 13 I found useful for my writing. Of course this doesn’t mean you need to address 13 senses in every scene you write. But if you’re struggling with, for example, using “touch” in a fresh way, it may help to realize there are actually a lot of different “touches” to choose from.
Sight is the one sense that most authors use abundantly in their writing. I do find, however, that even this sense is used in a rather limited way. (I’m guilty of this myself, too…)
Most of us focus mostly on colour when it comes to sight. We mention that someone is wearing a crimson dress, that the skies are bright blue or that we’re looking out over a vibrant green hill scenery. Biologically speaking, however, our eyes perceive three different things: colour, brightness and movement.
This category is rather self-evident. Of course it helps to use more interesting colour words than just “red” and “blue”, but that doesn’t give most of us too much trouble. This colour thesaurus is a good start.
The difference between light and dark is rather different from the difference between colours. Here you can use words like “sparkling”, “glowing”, “reflective”, or for darker tones “sooty”, “murky”, “dusky”. (There are many others, of course – I’m just giving an idea.) Note, too, that when characters are in a dark environment, they won’t be able to see much colour at all. In such a situation, contrasts in brightness and saturation still help you to create a vivid image.
Our eyes have complex groups of cells which work together to recognize movement. If something moves, it immediately draws our attention. This is something to keep in mind: a dynamic environment in much more interesting than a static one. Do you see the difference between “There was a small brook between the hills” and “A small brook ran between the hills”?
The shape of sound waves determines three aspects: loudness, pitch and timbre. Each can be an interesting sensory detail to address in your writing.
- Loudness. This is, quite literally, how loud a sound is. Is someone whispering or yelling? Does the window crack open or does it actually shatter with a loud noise?
- Pitch. This is what makes a sound “high” or “low” to our ears. Do you hear a squeak or a low growl? Is someone speaking in a deep bass or a bariton?
- Timbre. This third aspect is the most abstract part of a sound, and the one I personally forget most often. Timbre is also known as the “tone colour” – this, for example, is what makes a flute and a violin playing the same note sound different. There are a lot of words you could use to describe the timbre of a sound. “Bright”, “harsh”, “buzzy”, “raspy”, “shrill”, “strained”… You probably get the idea.
Timbre can be a great help in describing voices. Bonus is that it often shows a lot about the emotional state of a character. But for other sounds it is good to keep in mind as well – a shrill squeak of a sword over its sheath, a persistent buzz of insects… Etc.
Taste is one of those senses many people find hard to include. After all, you can’t have your characters eating in every single scene, right?
Which is true… but food is not the only substance with a taste. I personally find that taste can be a very helpful addition in sex scenes, for example 😉 Other sources of taste could be chewing gum, a bloody lip, water in which the character is swimming, sweat trickling over your face, the pencil the character chews on while writing, tobacco, lipstick, bile rising in the throat… You get the idea.
Taste can be divided in different types. Modern science has five types, but other classifications exist; for example, in the Ayurveda we find six types. Because we’re writers, not scientists, I’m just going to list all types together.
Of course, you can use many more different words for all categories. Sweet can also be sugary, syrupy, honeyed, saccharine, vanilla… Or for sour, we have biting, acidic, fermented, unripe, zesty, lemony, etc.
Most people know that our taste perception is built from five different basic tastes, but did you know we also have basic smells? There are ten of them; all other smells are combinations of these basic smells. To include sensory details in your writing, you can for example use the one or two basic smells that best fit your subject.
- Fruit (fresh and sweet, all fruit except citrus)
- Citrus (the zesty smell of lemon, lime, etc.)
- Fragrant (light and natural smell of e.g. flowers and perfumes)
- Sweet (rich and warm, like vanilla or caramel)
- Minty (fresh and cool, like mint and eucalyptus)
- Nutty (the toasted smell of almonds, melted butter and popcorn)
- Woody (earthy, like pine, cut grass and smoke)
- Pungent (unpleasant natural smells, like manure and mold)
- Decay (sour smell of rot, like rotting meat, burnt rubber and gas)
- Chemical (sharp, synthetic smells like ammonia and paint)
So far, so good, right? With touch, however, things get interesting!
For a long time, I used touch only for what a character felt – soft velvet under fingertips, that type of thing. But there’s much, much more to that simple sense of touch. We can divide it in four categories: touch, pressure, itch and temperature.
This is touch as you know it: the stuff you feel on your skin. Think of…
- Smoothness (polished stone vs. rough wood)
- Softness (fabrics vs. stone)
- Sharpness (knife blade vs. edge of a wooden table)
… you get the point, probably!
But touch doesn’t only depend on the texture of the object (or person) you’re touching. The sensation is also affected much by pressure – in other words, how heavy is the touch? Some aspects to keep in mind:
- Weight (lifting a heavy stone vs. a pillow)
- Duration of pressure (a quick poke vs. a compression bandage)
- Frequency of pressure (multiple touches vs. a single push)
These days, when my hero lifts my heroine, I try to stop rhapsodizing about her soft skin a little and remind myself of the weight of her body in his arms or the pressure of her against his chest.
Well, we all know itching, don’t we? Is it touch? Is it pain (see below?) No idea, but it’s too important a sensory sensation not to mention it!
Describe an itch well – that horrible tormenting, irritating crawling just under your skin – and your reader will probably be itching too. As I said, we’re basically dark wizards.
Finally, there’s the perception temperature – or, officially, thermoception. Our bodies have different sensors to detect warmth and cold, and as with itch, everybody knows them. So pay attention to the way the wind, the water, other bodies or the floor under your character’s feet feel! Some useful words:
- For cold: biting, crispy, piercing,cutting, numb…
- For warm: blazing, blistering, clammy, cozy, feverish…
And then we get to the “new” senses – the ones that your body definitely registers, but that don’t really fall within any of the five familiar categories. Tension, for example. We all know how tension feels, don’t we? And yet it’s not really touch…
Tension can be useful if a character is nervous or angry. Or when they are holding something very tightly. Or when they stretch out to relax. Why not take a moment to describe that nagging strain in their muscles, or the stiffness of their fingers as they cling to something?
Or describe external instead of internal tension: the tautness of a tense body, for example. (Or, especially in sex scenes, of specific body parts.)
Another very abstract sense that is nonetheless of great importance. Our sense of balance keeps us to our feet. Especially when we’re no longer so stable, that becomes an important sensory detail.
Think about it for a moment. When do you feel dizzy, or light-headed, or wobbly on your knees? A lack of balance can be a great way to convey emotion, tiredness or intoxication. How exactly does that inner sensation make the character feel? Like they’re walking on a wobbling ship’s deck? Like they’re about to pass out? Can you use some sensory words to describe the sensation?
Related to balance, there’s also the concept of proprioception. (Cool word, isn’t it?) This is our sense of where our own bodies are, so basically our sense of what our limbs are doing around us. Do your characters ever lose track of their own movements? Does it feel like their hands and feet are moving by themselves, or as if they don’t even belong to them anymore?
I have considered putting pain in the category of touch, but it really isn’t. Like tension, pain is something that comes from inside of us more than from the outside. And a good, sensory description of pain can have your reader flinching together with the character. Again, draw them in!
To describe pain, you can often use touch words – blistering, cutting, charring, etc. But there are more abstract options too. Why not use sight words to describe pain? Blinding, dull, blotchy… Or sound words? Think of of shrill, buzzing, roaring… You can get pretty creative here, and everything is better than just saying “His knee hurt”.
Use sensory details wisely
In short: there’s a lot more to writing sensory details than just some colour and smells. Of course, as with everything, the trick is not to go overboard with it. Don’t cram your scenes with mentions of your character’s strained shoulder muscles, clammy armpits and nagging knees all the time. Then again, if you’re trying to convey just how exhausting a specific long hike is, these inner senses of balance, pain and tension may be exactly what you need!
Did I forget any senses that you think I should include? Or do you have other great advice to use sensory details in writing? Let us know in the comments!