How to Write With All Five Senses


by EFR


This might be a little grade school for some of you. Or you might think it’s a little grade school. Frankly, I think we could all stand to be reminded. So there you go.

When you are describing something, it looks a certain way. Yes indeedy. We get that. We got it three paragraphs ago. We got the visual flavor of this city through your description of Corinthian columns, crenellated parapets, vast marble blocks that take twelve oxen a week to tow anywhere useful.

Your description of classical statuary was helpful. I am very much educated by your sighting and detailing the French toe on the shoes of that passing nobleman. I don’t know if I needed all that information about the form and purpose of the city’s irrigation system, but there it is.

And yet, with all that detail, I’m still left with a burning question. And that question is, of course:

What the hell does this place smell like?

Is there incense drifting in a leisurely cloud over the temple district? Does the market smell like olives and spices and not-so-fresh fish? Is there a miasma in the air, like that which was present over Victorian London? (You want to learn about the Great Stink of 1858. Trust me, history is awesome.)

And feel. Are the cobblestones uneven, the graveyard ground squelchy? Does the wind blow hot and dry or humid and cool? Do the stone walls sweat with the weight of the weather?

Is there a spot across from Madame Muessler’s bakery that smells uncannily of apple pie? Are there a lot of people gathered in it, jostling each other, looking for relief from the not-so-fresh fish smell of the rest of the market?

Description, like anything else, is a matter of reactionary chain. People have a spot in a nasty smelling market that brings olfactory piedom. Do they crowd to it or avoid it? Do they think it’s cursed by the shade of the Mad Baker, who added most of the neighborhood’s children to his pies five years ago–who was hung hard and long from the Trewithy Bridge when constables found the grisly remains in his garden?

But you know how I feel about all that stuff, if you read my blog. You know I’m going to tell you to ask why, create flowcharts, etc.

I want to keep this as a simple reminder: you have five senses–possibly six. When describing something important, use at least two of them.

Note: I’m not telling you to cram as much sensory effluvia into your description as possible. This is tiresome. People want description discreetly and want it to flow along with the story. If you have a descriptive passage that goes more than one sizeable paragraph without some small action occurring, it’s too f-ing long.

But when you see your character–or your setting–what else strikes you? What else is important to the scene?

Yes, she has auburn hair and laughing green eyes. I hope her eyes aren’t really laughing–that’s kind of surreal–but otherwise, great.

But what does she smell like? Does she have a tinkling little laugh? Is her voice softer than a baby’s whisper on the private parts of a spiderweb? Is her skin soft and smooth, so smooth that buffing with a chamois would leave it red and raw?

Think about what you notice on a day to day basis. Red cars aren’t just red cars–especially not if something’s wrong with their mufflers. Brakes squeak, tires squeal, exhaust leaves a tangible reek in the air. Your supermodel friend might have an incredibly annoying laugh. Your fluffball Persian cat has tangles underneath her topcoat, and every time you try to stroke her, your fingers get caught and she scratches the hell out of you.

Not only does multiple-sense description add to the realism and depth of your story, it’s also an excellent way to foreshadow conflict. A whiff of rotten scent in a beautiful city can hint at the corruption and decadence beneath. A scarred and muscle-bound mercenary with a sweet mild voice might not be such a bad guy after all. Or it might be the precise opposite–maybe he uses his voice to lure people in.

There you go, just a friendly reminder post. Because I keep reading stories that forget: garbage has a smell. A fire has heat. Magic, in addition to flashing lights, would doubtless also have a sound and a stench. I know, I know, we all do a lot of our research online nowadays and might not be able to pinpoint precisely what gefilte fish smells like, whereas appearance we can see in JPEG form.

But it might be time to leave the internets for just a second. Or–in fantasy context–extrapolate on what you know.




Guest post contributed by EFR. Her first novel, Aurian and Jin, came out last year. Outside of novel writing, she blogs about the general art of writing. Check out more of her work on her website.


16 thoughts on “How to Write With All Five Senses

  1. YES! Smell is always the most ignored sense, I think seconded by taste. Visual and sound must be the easiest and touch, a distant third. I just heard Chris Candor read from her book, The Weight of a Piano, and her prose reminded me how much I suck right now. I used to be pretty good, and I’ve gotten out of shape. The other lovely lesson I gathered was the work ethic thing. Work! Work at it! Why is this a constant two by four message, bonking us aspiring writers on the head over and over again? It’s the gnarly mean voices in our heads telling us to go back to shopping online or doing laundry, because clearly we are much more talented at that than writing. And then the lavender dryer sheet poofs in your face as you unfold it and you’re suddenly thrown back to a memory of doing laundry in the basement of that all girls dorm, enjoying the first independent laundry soap choice of your life, only to realize that it is also the first time anyone stole all of your bras. And you felt so enraged you used your new Mac computer and HP printer to make LOST posters to tape up all over the dorm, describing in fine detail each bra that was stolen and where they can return them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is surprisingly hard to remember to talk about smell. I find writing from the perspective of an animal a useful exercise to increase my awareness of that sense. Humans are still deeply affected by our sense of smell and yet we tend to remember only the most pleasant or unpleasant experiences of it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you! I needed this reminder. I once described the blended aromas of various ethnic restaurants in a large city as they mingled together and rose up to the nose of a woman standing on a balcony high in a skyscraper. It was fun to write and I think added value. I need to remember to occasionally tickle the reader’s nose again!


  3. I’ve been trying to make sure I put all of the 5 senses in my descriptions. Not using all 5 every time, of course, but putting in the ones that mean the most in a scene of reality. When I first started seriously writing, I leaned heavily on sight. It’s taken some time to get past that and incorporate the other senses.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.