Using the 5 Senses to Make Our Stories Jump Off the Page

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I recently took a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to do some research for the book I'm currently writing. Besides being a lovely girls' weekend with my twin daughters and my Mom, I was also unplugged from the internet.

It didn't take me long to realize that while I was unplugged I was much more aware of little details that normally get lost in the noise and hustle of life and cyberland.

With the vivid display of the trees changing color, the cool lake air, the steady lapping of the waves against the rocks, and the hint of wood smoke from our fireplace, my senses were heightened and the world around me sprang to life.

I carried my notebook and mechanical pencil with me on every hike. I'd often find a smooth rock to sit on so that I could write down my sensory impressions of the setting, those little details that often escape our notice amidst the busy chaos of normalcy.

I was reminded again of just how important sensory details are to the life blood of our stories. It's always the easiest to describe what we SEE. But we can't stop there. We have to learn (and that takes practice!) to infuse our writing with TASTES, TEXTURES, SOUNDS, and SMELLS.

When we learn to use all the senses, we grow one step closer to being able to SHOW our stories versus TELLING them. It's so much easier to say, "The day was dreary." It takes much more work and skill to show the dreariness through the stench of the rotting fish, the sticky rum on the floor, the endless dripping of rain down the chimney, etc.

As we strive to make our stories jump off the page through our use of sensory details, here are just a few things I've learned over the years:

1. Find a balance with how much sensory detail to include. The amount we include will relate to a number of factors including our genre and writer's "voice."

For example, historical writers have to bring an unfamiliar era and setting to life for modern readers by interspersing time-period related details. And so we have the liberty to use more details not just for the sights of a bygone era, but also the smells, sounds, tastes, and textures.

Some writers will naturally have a flowing voice that lends itself to more description. While others may have a stark, even brash tone, thus requiring more effort to include all of the senses.

Whatever our genre or voice, every writer (even historical) can look for ways to seamlessly weave in the sensory details so that the reader experiences the setting as if he or she were really there but doesn't realize how we plopped them there.

2. Try to include each of the five senses in every scene at least once. While I've heard some authors encourage the use of all five senses on each page, I don't think that's always realistically possible with the pacing of our novels.

However, I've made it my goal to try to weave in the use of all the senses at least once throughout a scene. That may not always work. After all we don't want to contrive a smell or taste in a scene where it's not needed. But the guideline serves to stretch and encourage me to be more aware of ways to bring the scene to life for my readers.

3. Have our sensory details do double-duty if possible. When we read an article (like this one) urging us to include sensory details in every scene, we have the tendency to randomly start adding in things.

But before we add a description, we can ask ourselves, "What purpose is this description serving?" "Why do I need to include it?" I usually try to have a couple of reasons for adding something. I don't want to just get in the habit of dumping a scent or sound because I haven't had one in a while.

Instead, I want the sensory details to do double-duty, to bring the scene to life AND set the mood, foreshadow something, add authenticity, to reflect emotion, to move the plot along, or build character.

While it's not always possible to make our descriptions work for our story in more than one way, we do want to be cautious about just tossing them in. Instead add them as strategically as possible and make sure to keep them true to the point-of-view character.

4. Broaden our usage of smells and tastes. The English language doesn't have a lot of vocabulary to describe taste. After all our tongue can only distinguish between sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. And smells are tricky to describe too. We can often describe the thing that smells, but not the actual odor itself.

One way to increase our usage of smells and tastes is to use comparisons. For example, instead of saying the garbage smells putrid, we can say it smells like canned cat food and overripe bananas.

Another technique is to link smell and taste to our other senses. For example, we can say something like the spicy chili made me cry (combining taste with sight); or the odor from the boy's gym bag assaulted me (combining scent with touch).

What about you? Have you unplugged recently? What was the experience like for you? Any other tips you'd add for how we can utilize our senses to make our stories jump off the pages?


  1. This is absolutely great advice and something I try to do in my novels. Thanks for posting!

  2. Jody, you were here??? I the UP for the colors? Why didn't I know this? I hope you weren't too close to me and I missed you. I just missed Serena Miller this summer. She even stayed in my town and I never knew she was here until afterwards. But if I had to guess, I'd say the picture above was taken near Munising. If you're ever headed to the Keweenaw, let me know. :-)

    Oh yeah, nice post on sensory details, by the way. :-)

    1. Hi Naomi!

      We were on the southern part of the UP along Lake Huron. We wanted to do a day trip to Mackinac Island along with enjoying the beauty of fall in the UP. We don't travel north too terribly often! But I couldn't resist taking this research trip! :-) Sometime, I'd love to get together!

    2. Nowhere near me, then. Mackinac Island is the halfway point when I head to my parents' near Detroit. Glad you had fun, though. And if you ever head farther west, give me a shout. Don't get too many inspy writers up this way. (And Lake Superior is way cooler than Lake Huron, not that I'm biased or anything.) :-)

  3. This reminds me of an exercise we used to do once in a while in my college dance class - grab a notebook and pencil, find a place to sit, and just record everything happening around us, using as many of our five senses as we can. The first few times, most of the students relied heavily on sight and sound, but by the end, they'd learned to stretch their other senses, too. It's an exercise I think I'll take up again, as practice for thinking of all five senses in my fiction writing, too.

  4. I went to Arizona and New Mexico this summer, under the wings of two Native American sisters. They not only taught me alot about Navajo culture, but I learned the insanely important place that roasted pin(y)on nuts have to the Navajo. How to harvest them, how to roast them, that they only fall every few years, etc. I got to smell the inside of a hogan, to feel the dry air of the mountains and touch the sap in a ponderosa pine. To see how big the sky was and how the cloud patterns looked against the mountains.

    I was unplugged and on high alert for half that trip. It made a huge difference when I used all my senses to experience what is all around me.

    Oh, and the gym bag analogy? Spot on, Jody! If I turn around, there are 4 hockey bags in varying stages of microbial mutation. Gack. Ugh. I'm sure there's a cure for stupid in one of those bags.

  5. I think when we're writing that first draft, we are so busy getting the story down that we can easily overlook the little details in a scene, so what I've started to do in my re-writing and editing phase is sit with my eyes closed for a moment and "look" around the scene to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the things my characters can. I think it's easier to do it in the editing phase because I'm not so feverish to get the story written - it's already there, I'm just adding depth and detail at that point.

    Last weekend I visited a historic site in southeaster Minnesota - a house built in 1855 - so that I could see and touch "life" in that time period (my WIP is set in 1857) - it was harder to smell, taste and hear it, because that would require real 19th Century people eating, cooking, laughing, dancing, fighting, talking, etc., but I could get a better sense of those things when I saw where they cooked, where they ate, where they danced, the piano they played, the issues of the day, and so on.

  6. I'm reading this really excellent craft book right now by Lisa Cron called Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.

    In it, she calls attention to a lot of writing myths, and gives the reality. Then goes on to explain why.

    One that I just read, that relates a lot to this post, was this:

    Myth: Sensory Details Bring a Story to Life
    Reality: Unless They Convey Necessary Information, Sensory Details Clog a Story's Arteries

    She goes on to explain why. But I thought this was fascinating.

    She doesn't discourage writers from using sensory details, but she does encourage writers to make sure they add necessary information to the regards to mood, or character building or plot advancement (like Jody mentioned in one of her points above).

    Interesting, huh?

    1. Very interesting perspective, Katie. I'm not sure that I agree with her blanket statement, because like I mentioned in the post, some of it depends on your genre and voice. I think readers typically pick up a historical expecting to have more description in order to bring an unfamiliar era to life. They want to learn about an era as they read, and so that means we often have to include more descriptions,etc.

      But I DO agree that we should try to be strategic in how and when we use the sensory details. We don't just want to stick in a description of a room for no reason, or some other sensory detail just because. We really should think about why we're adding them.

      Sounds like a great book!

    2. Good point, Katie and Jody. Ideally, everything we include in our writing should have a purpose. Every word, phrase, and scene should move the story ahead. Sensory detail just becomes filler if there's no other reason for it being there. But if we're attempting to make an important scene real to the reader, those details can help.

  7. Louise, what a great exercise! I'll have to try it. I think it would be a great way to learn to incorporate the 5 seneses naturally, and not bog down the scene like Katie mentioned.

  8. Awesome, awesome insights, Jody. I've heard the advice to show your scene through the character's eyes, based on your character's mood. So someone that was in a good mood would notice the flowers blooming and the vibrant colors all around. Someone in a bad mood might see that same scene and think about how the flowers blooming meant allergy season. Ugh, and why all the bright colors? It could hurt a person's eyesight.

    That sort of thing and those sort of examples are so incredibly helpful to me!

  9. Not only great reminders for writing, but life in general. To live fully in the moment, experiencing it - not just passing through it on the way to someplace else. Thanks!

  10. Your girls are so pretty! How fun! One thing I love about your books is exactly this--you have a gift for showing the sensory details. I love your descriptions. :)

    Just yesterday, I emerged from our quiet library to the very noisy outdoors. The wind had kicked up and seemed to bother the trees. I'm stunned at how loud nature can be!

    1. Thank you, Jill! I appreciate your encouragement! I needed that today after having the Review Galley blues! :-)

  11. Awesomely tweetable/postable. I especially appreciate that you aren't prescribing a per page ratio and that you caution people that randomly plugging in details can result in a "write by numbers" voice.

  12. Great post, Jody!

    I personally struggle with fitting in touch and taste. I do pretty well with smell, hear, and see though. :)


    1. Gah. *hearing and *sight. I need more sugar...

  13. I LOVE this post. The UP is beautiful; I have relatives who live there but I can't take the mosquitoes ;)

    The thought of unplugging is SOOOO important. I was just writing a post about keeping a writer's notebook and realized that I don't spend as much time hanging out in coffee shops with just a paper notebook, the way I used to pre wireless internet.

  14. I live in, the now fall colored, Michigan. I'm sure I will think of this post as I bounce and vibrate on my tractor. I’ll be driving a hayride of children through the woods. The whole way they will yell for me to go faster. I will think of the post when the wind chaps my face and the leaves reflect the bright and full spectrum of colors back at me in the sunrise. That place where we turn the hayride around smells of buck-scent. Don’t take it personally, but I’ll likely remember your post there. But it's the smoky smell of last night’s bonfire that signals our arrival back on the farm. I can taste the cider and donuts. They are the best donuts around. Mmm. Your blog post was just what I needed to hear (read).

  15. I never do enough of this in the first draft, but thankfully I add more in subsequent drafts. And then after my betas and agent read through it, I do even more! I run lean on this, for sure.

  16. I liked your advice about having the senses do double-duty. Make them earn their place in your scene!

  17. My introduction to the five senses camed from a trusted writer friend who knuckle-rapped on my noggin, "get in 'er head, dammit." A wise lesson, but you're correct on how it can get carried away. In an early "liposuck" edit session, where I look for overused words, the number of times I'd referenced sensations in the "gut", you'd have thought I had stomach cancer. Good post, Jody. Thanks

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