Monday, 25 April 2011

Using all the Senses

We’re encouraged to use all the senses in our writing:  sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. 

I’ll let you into a secret. At school, we had one English lesson each week called ‘Prose Writing’ – and I hated it! I didn’t want to write descriptions of ‘A Summer Meadow’ or ‘A Storm at Sea’ using the five senses.  I wanted to write about PEOPLE – what they said, what they did and, even more importantly, how they felt.

Maybe I should have tried harder in those Prose Writing lessons, because I still struggle with descriptive writing – and with using the five senses. I don’t consciously think about using the 5 senses when I’m writing.  If they’re there, it’s instinctive, rather than planned.

I think the so-called sixth sense can be equally important.  Hunches, suspicions, 'gut' instinct, intuition, even foreboding and premonition, can play a big part in creating suspense in a novel. 

For me, there’s another sense – emotion.  The heroine’s emotion when the hero kisses her is far more important to me than what his lips taste like or the smell of his aftershave. Her inner reaction to his anger or his sweet-talk matters more than what his voice actually sounds like or what music is playing in the background.

The reader knows what the senses are. She (I say this because romance readers are usually women!) has probably held a man’s hand, smelt his aftershave, heard his laughter, seen his frown or smile, and tasted his lips. I can leave a lot of that to my readers’ imaginations, I don’t need to spell it out for them with adjectives or similes. What I want is for them to FEEL the character’s response to all these things and that’s where I concentrate my energies.


  1. I agree, sensory description, for its own sake, can get in the way of expressing more subtle and heartfelt emotions. There's a great para at the start of one of Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster stories, where narrator Bertie dithers about how much 'descriptive stuff he ought to bung in,' for readers who might be expecting it. There follows a highly amusing few lines in which he attempts to describe all he can see and hear, from the spot where he's standing, but it lacks any real feeling whatever :-)
    Thanks for visiting me - the bruises are fading now!

  2. Nice post Paula.

    My thoughts: I like descriptive writing when it puts me "there" with the character. On the other hand, descriptive writing that goes on and on telling the details, for example, of what each piece of furntiure in the living room looks like is like listening to a boring speaker drone on. I believe the best rule of thumb is to keep it simple and to use it to advance the story rather than to just make a word quota.

    Visiting from the A to Z Challenge.


  3. I'd much rather know what's going on with people, the other stuff should come in small doses, I feel.

    Moody Writing

  4. I really like that you identify emotion as an additional sense. What a beautiful perspective. :)

  5. I like the emotion sense. It is such an important part of storytelling.

  6. Thank you all for visiting.
    Karla, some novels I have read are overloaded with sensory decription which, to my mind, often detracts from (or even replaces) emotions.

    Lucy - totally agree about using it to advance the story. Thansk for dropping in!

    Mood - yes, small doses is exactly right!

    Jeffrey and Josh - I actually think emotion is the most important sense to show in our writing.
    A novel can be full of amazing descriptive writing, but if there is no emotion, then as far as I'm concerned it's failed.

  7. Just stopping by from the A to Z challenge. I agree with your last sentence. I hope you have a great week.

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