Monday, September 11, 2006

Utilize All Your Senses

This weekend I was reminded of how important it is to use the senses in your writing. Sometimes writers tend to focus on the sense of sight. We describe things, their color, their shape, size, texture. Less often, we establish the sense of taste – usually when the character is eating or drinking. Sometimes the sense of smell comes in. That can be a pleasant smell or a bad smell. Probably one of the least often established senses is that of touch. Someone might run a hand across something and feel the texture or they might feel heat or cold. Of course, if your character gets into a fight, he/she probably has more “feelings” than they would just walking down a street.

But the sense I was reminded of this weekend was that of hearing. Sounds probably come into play more in writing than, say, taste, but not nearly as often as sight. What brought sound to mind? My husband and I were in the kitchen working on dinner, when quite suddenly the windows shook and there was a huge roar. We both immediately recognized the sound as a plane, very low, very loud. My first thought was that a commercial plane was going down. We’re not near the airport, but we do have planes flying over head – very high overhead.

We raced out onto the back deck and saw six fighter jets flying over in formation, four in front, two behind. My husband knew what kind they were, but said he hadn’t heard jets that loud since his days in the service. We have no idea why there were flying or why they were so low. We guessed perhaps they took part in the opening of the big University of Texas vs. Ohio State University game here in Austin. But we weren’t at the game and it hadn’t started yet, so we weren’t sure.

The jets weren’t just loud; they were thunderous and startling. And, afterwards, I began to think about how we don’t utilize the sense of hearing nearly enough in writing. Sometimes we have to make a conscious effort to go back through our manuscript and add in some of the senses other than sight. As you’re imagining a scene in your mind, pay attention to more than what is “visible.”


  1. Hel - I had the same experience with the jets on Saturday, and you and I live quite far apart. I'm guessing it had to do with the football game, too, but who knows?

    What has always intrigued me about sound is that it is so linked with our other senses - sound triggers visual images (at least in our imagination) and physical sensations like being jarred or shoved or feeling some version of a blasting adrenalin rush, which is what you and I both probably felt when we heard the unexpected roar. Makes me wonder - sometimes we write about smells, too, but usually only superficially. Scientists say smell is the only sense that is literally "hard-wired" into our brains and our memories. Maybe we writers need to explore the sense of smell a bit more deeply too?

  2. Really good point, Jo. I see a lot of possibilities with this idea and a lot of ways it could be used in different genres.

    It makes me want to go back and look at things I've already written and see where the sense of smell could have done more to build the character, move the plot forward or even create suspense.

    Smell certainly does trigger memories for me. And it can change moods and emotions.

    I need to print out the five senses in big lettering and tack it to my wall near my desk.


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