Creating a world your reader can truly be sucked into depends on your depiction of how your characters experience it. And this they do primarily through their senses. Here’s how to use them to bring life to your writing.
If your character has standard eyesight, you’ll probably use this all the time when describing what they experience. For most people it’s the most dominant sense. But we’re not just talking about what they see, we’re also talking about how they see it. It can make all the difference to the feeling your readers get from your work.
He saw a figure in the alleyway. As he watched it moved away so he could no longer see it.
He glimpsed a hunched figured lurking in the dark alleyway. Before he could make out what it was, it slipped back into the shadows.
Dialogue is usually, though not always, heard. So there’s definitely potential to make something from every conversation your characters have (or what they overhear). A shouting match signifies an argument, whispering may be necessary when trying not to wake the children. Music is another type of sound and one that can trigger all sorts of different emotions. It may inspire tears from childhood, or laughter remembering a wild night out. Your character may not register the sounds, just like you might not, but your reader needs to hear them.
That morning, Jake took a walk in the woods. He went as far as the lake and stood, thinking.
Jake took a walk through the rustling woods, the dawn chorus echoing around him. Creatures skittered through the undergrowth. He went as far as the lake, and stood thinking as the water dragged the gravel back and forth on the shore.
Sounds can make us imagine all sorts – good and bad. Top tip – listen to some radio drama to see just how effective it can be!
If we can’t see, we’ll usually resort to making sense of what’s around us by touch. Our skin is lined with nerve-endings, with our fingertips especially sensitive. Touch is a ‘close’ sense as we feel through every part of our body. Closing your eyes and focusing on what you can feel will help.
She goes outside. It’s cold, so she tightens her jacket around her and pulls up the hood.
Outside, the chill air prickles her skin, standing the hairs on end. She tightens her jacket, rubbing her cheeks against the soft, fur edged hood.
Coz baby it’s cold outside.
Our brain stops smelling certain scents after a while so it’s easy to overlook this sense. But smells can be tremendously powerful – they can even help people with dementia remember long-forgotten memories. And scents are often universal in the reactions they evoke. Coffee, freshly baked bread, and frying onions bring on pleasant feelings of tasty food. Rotting rubbish, dirty toilets, and unwashed armpits make us all gag.
Tan didn’t know where she was. It was some kind of large warehouse piled with rubbish.
Tan didn’t know where she was – then the smell hit her. Sour, sharp and shit-like. An old waste depot.
This is more than just food and drink, although those things are important. Describing how food tastes is a great way to ground your characters in reality and get your readers tastebuds tingling. But there are other ways to incorporate taste, like the saltiness of the sea air.
I could still taste the taco. Tired, but in need of something to stop the dreams, I took two tablets with a glass of whisky.
I could still taste sour cheese and beans. Tired, but in need of something to stop the dreams, I bolted back two sharp tasting tablets with a fire-smoked whisky.
And like that, we’re in Raymond Chandler territory.
So that’s a whistle-stop tour through the senses and how to use them in your writing. Before I finish though, I want to put in a caveat – don’t do this all the time. Sometimes, you just need to keep the action moving without pausing for description.
What do you think of this advice? Anything you’d add? Let me know in the comments!