writing with the senses

How to Amplify Your Writing with the Five Senses

When we’re drawing from life experiences to create art, integrating the senses into our work will amplify it. Otherwise, how can the person we are sharing the experience with actually get it?

Without senses, art wouldn’t have a pulse.

I remember learning about the five senses a lot as a child in school. There were fun activities and games to help us understand each of them. But as I grew older, the exercises for the senses disappeared to make room for more serious subjects.

And in the workplace—well, you don’t exactly dilly-dally with the five senses too much. Can you imagine? “In today’s meeting, we’re going to divide up into teams, explore our senses together, and come up with a strategy to implement them in Q3.”

Hmmm…not so much.

As an adult, I have found my way back to reconnecting with the senses through writing. And, I am thankful to continue driving forward my creativity—even when I have very little time to spend with it—so that I can appreciate how incredible each sense truly is.

As artistic people, we have to pay attention to everything—always the observer, the realist, the daydreamer, the romantic, the cynic, the philosopher. If we don’t, our creativity will carry emptiness around wherever it goes.

portland streetcar

Help Them Hear It

The whole reason I’m writing this blog post is because of sound. Last weekend I discovered something very cool and I thought I would pass it along to my creative thinkers out there. Mr. H, being a musician/DJ, was equally captivated.

I was hammering away on my third draft…

The night was clear with a bright moon illuminating the dirty sidewalks below—the discarded cigarette still burning in the gutter, the playful plastic bag skipping across the heavier garbage, the chewing gum dotting the concrete skin like a leper, and the questionably alive ExComm curled up next to his shopping basket filled to the brim with his life’s belongings.

Then, I thought…I need a streetcar in here immediately. Even though we have streetcars all over Portland, I realized I hadn’t actually heard one in a while—months, I’m sure.

I was jamming on my editing, so I didn’t want to run over to one to listen to it like I crazy lady. So, I searched for sounds and I found a gem…SoundSnap.

I searched for streetcar, I listened, and I wrote…

A streetcar rattled across the tracks, on its final journey before curfew. Echoing through the city buildings, a woman’s eerie mechanical voice announced the Couch Street stop and the streetcar’s rumble quieted as it slowed down.

Help Them Taste It

Unless they’re robots or not human in some other way, occasionally our characters need to eat or drink something. This shouldn’t be seen as a logistical addition to our novels.

Think about how lovely a cup of tea can taste on a cold morning, or how pleasurable a piece of chocolate can taste after a long day—taste is another opportunity to deeply connect with the reader by conjuring memories of sustenance.

Vi pushed her feet against the cliff to see if it was safe to return. A burning smell lingered in the air, strong enough that she could taste it inside her dry mouth. The knots in her stomach hardened as the new threat became palpable. The grass was on fire.

Help Them Touch It

This can get especially daring if you’re writing a sex scene, where the goal is to arouse the reader if you’re really good at your job, or at the very least make them blush if they’re reading it in public.

I remember writing a sex scene on a lunch break at work once, and it was damn awkward. That’s a good thing though, isn’t it? Chances are, if you’re describing physical sensations in such an honest way, it will come across to your reader who sort of just jumped into bed with you.

Vi ran the palms of her hands up the front of her thighs, enjoying the firm muscle beneath the feminine flesh. She explored her stomach and her backside, satisfied with the way everything felt—strong, but also soft. As Vi began to feel more comfortable with her own touch, protected by the darkness in the tank, she forgot inhibition.

Help Them Smell It

I have an acute sense of smell and I always say it’s a gift and a curse. Food tastes amazing, but cigarettes make me want to puke and die in the middle of the sidewalk.

While writing about food, we don’t say “yum,” we show it by the way the man closes his eyes to take a deep inhale of his dinner at a restaurant. When the woman is walking down the dark alley, instead of the cliché of hearing footsteps, perhaps she smells a stinky cigarette and that scent scares her because she realizes she’s not alone.

Try going beyond the obvious ones like perfume or coffee, and use unusual scents to invoke an experience.

He was bald in the middle, with black greasy hair that was long on the sides. He looked like a worm, the kind that smelled pungent when it rained.

Help Them See It

With writing, arguably more than the other senses, we focus on describing what we are seeing in our own minds—what our characters witness unfolding before their eyes. That has to translate to the reader, so that they can see a colorful world beyond the rows of black letters resting on white pages.

This doesn’t have to be overkill, like the mailbox in front of the house. Unless her husband is fighting in a war in a faraway place and the only way they can communicate is through letters (remember those?).

Maybe it’s been weeks since she’s heard from him and she wonders if he’s dead or alive. She watches the mailbox from the moment she wakes up, and glances at it one last time before she cries herself to sleep. THEN describe the holy hell out of that mailbox.

Bright buildings nestled against the wide river, while sleeping volcanoes topped with snow loomed in the great distance. The many bridges of Port City each had their own character—steely, colorful, plain, modern, and antiquated. They had been the victims of a demolition long ago to keep the citizens trapped inside the city. Only foundational bones of the structure remained, suspended mid-air, hugging the banks of the sweeping river to stay upright. The center of each bridge rested at the bottom of the same watery grave.

forest view

It’s important to keep an open mind, to evolve as artists, and not be too stubborn in our ways. We’re pretty lucky to have such amazing technology at our fingertips. And though an mp3 or a YouTube video can never replace real life experiences, boundless tools are ours for the taking.

If technology isn’t your thing and you’re struggling with incorporating any of the senses into your books, take a day to devote to each one and record them in a journal. You can do this anywhere at anytime, whether it relates to your work in progress or not.

The worst that can happen? You might discover something very awesome.

Do you write or create art using all of the senses? Or, do you tend to focus on a couple?


indie books

35 thoughts on “How to Amplify Your Writing with the Five Senses

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    Hey what a great post Britt. Loved it. I really ought to make more of a conscious effort to ‘show’, using the senses. And, good find! I’ve immediately bookmarked SoundSnap.

    As for s*x scenes, see, I can’t even write it. I’ll leave that, and violence, to those that are better at it 🙂

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Me too, Roy! I really challenged myself on this book to connect with the senses—sound, especially. That’s one that I wanted to explore the most, because I thought of the character being more animalistic with a heightened sense of hearing. SoundSnap is a godsend…have fun with it!

      Haha, fair enough! I struggle with the violence, but not the sex. 😉

  2. Casey Sheridan says:

    *note to self-SoundSnap*

    Great post! The example you gave for each sense was wonderful.

    “Without senses, art wouldn’t have a pulse.” – I love that! It’s so true.

    When I first started writing, the senses were an after thought, and considering I write a lot of sex, it was a bad thing not to pay closer attention to the senses. After all, sex is all about the senses.

    Now, I take the time to sit back and think about a scene I wrote and ask myself “What are the characters hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, etc?”

    Again, great post, Britt.
    xoxo

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      SoundSnap is super cool! I was finding random YouTube videos before, but the sound quality is terrible.

      I think it’s tough to grasp the finer details of writing when we’re just starting out. We’re still trying to find our way. That’s one of the wonderful things about sticking with our craft…we can explore new possibilities over time.

      The senses are a fun theme to work with during the editing phase. Have fun with those sex scenes! 😉

  3. Carrie Rubin says:

    Great advice, and something we all need to be reminded of. Description is tricky: too much and our readers skim; too little and they’re not anchored in the scene. Using the senses is a way to get strong description in without going overboard. Wonderful post to help guide writers through this, Britt!

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Agreed, that description can be VERY tricky. They’re crucial, but we don’t want to lose the reader. Making the scenes come alive through the senses is a game-changer.

      Thanks, hon! Hadn’t done a how-to post in a while—and I typically shy away from them since I feel like a non-writer after all these years—but the SoundSnap discovery needed to be passed along.

  4. diannegray says:

    This is a great post, Britt. SoundSnap bookmarked – check!

    Sometimes I get caught out doing things to get the sensation of doing it (dragging my feet on the ground, jumping out of my chair, listening to the sound of my fingernails scratching my head) – yes, people think I’m insane and they’re probably right, but if you can take a reader to ‘that place’ you’ve won half the battle 😀

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Yay! Dianne, I don’t know if I ever told you, but your ninja typo post from forever ago has helped me tremendously. I always do text-to-speech on my computer as a last step for any writing project. I use it at work as well, and I have showed it to my coworkers. My computer voice guy is named Alex. So, my husband always knows what it means when I’m spending time with Alex!

      Ah, geez. I do weird shit like that all the time. It used to be random dance choreographing in public and now it’s writing choreography to get it right.

  5. Jilanne Hoffmann says:

    Whoa! My experience is already amplified by the new blog theme. Whoa! Too cool for school! Anyway, ya gotta be careful when writing sex scenes at work. May lead you to forget an important call/meeting and head out in search of your man. 😀 Otherwise, lotsa good advice here!

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Haha, awesome! I had some fun messing around with the new theme. Gotta mix things up on the blog!

      I certainly don’t write sex scenes at work now. I used to have dedicated lunch breaks at a previous job, where I could write during the day. 😉

  6. lillianccc says:

    This is a great post and a great reminder for all of us who write in some capacity about letting our readers experience more. Plus, it often helps the writing become more relatable and tangible for people. I think I was born with a heightened sensory awareness which, like you mentioned about smell, is both a blessing and curse. I’m particularly sensitive to loud sounds and smells so I’m always that person jumping at small noises or wrinkling my nose from cigarette smoke that’s coming from half a mile away. But like you said, if it helps with the creative process and result, I’ll take it. 🙂

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Thanks, baby cakes! Sounds get to me too. I feel like such a brat, because the sound of the dishwasher, washing machine, and even our fridge drive me crazy. I’m fortunate to have appliances that make my life easier, but those sounds! 😉

  7. Les Petits Pas de Juls says:

    You’re doing a fabulous job here and in your books to transcend the words and take us with you to the words and feelings you describe. It’s always pure pleasure to read you and discover new things about ourselves through your senses.
    Thanks for showing us the way.

    And nice new lay-out for the blog, by the way! 😉

  8. Kate Johnston says:

    I have never heard of Soundsnap — but I shall try it. I think the kids in my creative writing courses would really get a kick out of listening to the sounds of a street car — and then trying to guess what it is based on what they’re hearing!

    Beautiful writing examples, too!!

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      SoundSnap is beyond awesome! Yeah, your kids can have a field day with it. If you do the exercise with them, I’d love to hear about it. That would be a great blog post, of course! 😉

      Thank you, sweetness.

  9. Eli Pacheco says:

    Yes, this new blog theme is on point, Britt! As for your post … wonderful. I’ve just begun my first fiction attempt. In sports writing, a goal has been to convey something someone who wasn’t there could experience, through me.

    Calling upon the senses is crucial to that. This post serves as a reminder I owe my blog readers that insight, too.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Thanks, Eli! Mr. H was playing some music one Saturday night and I got down to business with my blog redesign (holding a beer, of course!).

      That is SO exciting that you’re writing fiction, Eli! You’ll be great. 🙂

  10. Zen A. says:

    This is such a lovely post. I do try to incorporate all the sense in my writings, but I think I mostly focus on taste and touch (not in the sense of sex though, haha. I couldn’t!). As someone who loves food it is absolutely important to me that the deliciousness of said food carries through my words to the reader. I want to make their mouth water. When it comes to touch, I’m talking about tactile things… perhaps rippling fabric, or slimy good, or a scratchy wooden sensation. 🙂

    I do like sight as well, but I sometimes worry about going overboard with too many descriptions!

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      You do a great job with incorporating the senses, Zen doll! I very much enjoyed Puppet Parade…you really whisked me away with your novel, because the senses were very well played. And, you certainly make me drool over desserts all the time on your blog. 😉

  11. Minuscule Moments says:

    Really enjoyed reading these Britt and I love to write using a all of all the senses at different times. I close my eyes and walk through what the experience is like sometimes its only one but rarely all at the same time. I think smell can bring me back to a memory so quickly. I do like to use it when I can. Love the sound app what a great idea.

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