Using the Five Senses in Fiction, Part One: Sight & Sound

Five Senses Part One
Good writing is like enjoying a hot cup of chocolate on a snowy morning. It activates all your senses: sight, smell, touch, taste buds, and even sound. I was going to say it’s like sex, but this is a daytime gig, and my mommy reads this, so . . . hot chocolate anyone? 😛

As a writer, your job is to paint a vivid picture in the mind of your reader. Or as I like to think of it: download your vision into their brain. But since you lack a flash drive for that, you’ll have to rely on the five senses. And that’s all you need. I know this not because I’m a good writer, but because I’m a reader.

Our senses are pretty much the most powerful tool accessible to a writer. Each one is amazing in its own way, but combined they immerse the reader into the story. By using the five senses, you can invoke the experience of your characters in their “physical world,” and weave deep layers into the story, giving it a magical quality.

“The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where the human perception begins.”— Flannery O’Connor

All five senses are powerful individually, but they each have their limits. So combining them is the most effective way to create scenes that are alive. But please don’t overload your reader with ALL the senses—we’re not looking for their heads to explode. Well, unless they gave you a 1-star review in the past. Then, by all means, do what you must.

And speaking of heads exploding, I didn’t want to overload your senses (hee hee). So here are the first two I’d like to talk about today: sight and sound.

SIGHT

Since your aim is to show the reader and not tell, visual description is the most used of all senses. And of course you can show with each sense, but sometimes we just get lost in describing what we see—because it’s so vivid in our minds—that we forget to share that full experience with the reader.

We live in a visual-driven world, so think of your book as a movie screen for your readers. Instead of boring your reader with scene after scene filled with flat description, offer them a layered setting for them to explore.

• Make sure your visuals enhance mood and themes.
• Use Pinterest to find inspiration, and to practice description.
• Describe with emotion to achieve a natural flow for the story.
• Drive the emotions through the eyes of the POV, so we connect with their feelings on the most personal level.
• Use verbs and nouns to help describe in addition to adjectives.
• Use colors to add layers of meaning, variation, depth, and feelings to your scenes.
• Colors can symbolize mood amongst other things and are perfect for incorporating forshadowing. Check out the chart below for reference.

WADColorMeaningChart


SOUND

Our readers mainly “hear” what’s going on in the story through dialogue. But this is just one aspect of the hearing sense in your writing; what your character hears is also significant. Some sounds can tell the reader where the character is without saying it out loud.

Describing the noises you find on a busy morning at Dunkin Donuts: the people talking, the barista taking orders, the cash drawer opening and closing, or even the sound of the milk foaming—all can tell the reader where the character is without ever saying it out loud. (Combine that with sight, such as describing the stain on the pink and orange “Ds” of the logo on the friendly girl’s shirt, and it gets a little richer. Let’s not even get into the aroma of coffee and donuts filling up the air. No, really. Let’s not. It makes me hungry. )

As the author, it’s up to you to incorporate sounds in your scenes and placing your reader in the middle of it all.

• In dialogue, your reader should be able to tell which character is talking through their unique tone of voice.
• Sound adds extra depth and meaning to a scene. Use it to make your setting feel real to the reader with background noises. It can be as distant as a train passing a couple blocks away. As simple as water boiling on an uneven stovetop and the pot clinking away. Or even the frail sound of someone breathing.
• Use it to heighten the emotion. Sounds can make your character tense or happy. Imagine her being awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of squeaking floors, knowing she lives alone. I can already hear the fast pounding of her heart in her chest. Or imagine the anxiety of a new mother when her baby cries, versus when the baby is laughing.
• Use onomatopoeia sparingly! These are words that imitate a sound, such as boom, hiss, grunt, gasp, or clinking as I used two paragraphs above.
• Noise is everywhere. Just imagine you’re watching your scene in a movie. What do you hear?

You don’t have to use all five at the same time, nor do you have to fill every single scene with them. Just sprinkle the senses around in different combinations, and your reader will experience the same emotional perceptions as your character. Let them see it, smell it, hear it, taste it, and feel it. Yea, baby. Work it! Ahem.

Although, for the last three you’ll have to come back next week Monday! And if you have anything to add to sight and sound, please share in the comments! 😉

13 comments

  1. One of my favorite things to do when working with sound is to make the absence of it (in a suspense scene) palpable. If a character is in the woods and notices that crickets are no longer chirruping, owls no longer hooting, and frogs no longer croaking, that silence speaks to impending danger. And the character’s reaction to that silence brings it home.

    Great post. Looking forward to the next one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m still working on this one myself lol It’s easy to forget people can’t see all the details in our minds, and when we remember we get worried we’ll info dump the heck outta them. Balance is a tough one, but we can do this. We’re storytellers gosh darn it! 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is great! I love being able to picture something in my head as I’m reading so I can create the world even more thoroughly as the story unfold. Only once have I read a book where I got to the end and realized I had NO idea what the main character looked like. And that picture of a strawberry is making me hungry, by the way. I can almost smell it simply by looking at how red and fresh it looks (but you can tell us about the smells next time, I’m sure).

    The sounds are just as essential to setting a scene that I wonder how some people forget to use them. You can paint a picture just as easily by describing the sounds as you can by writing the what the character is seeing.

    Thorough list! I’m looking forward to part two.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I have a feeling you’ll find part two very much to your liking. The fact you already read it has nothing to do it with my prediction. 😛

      On the actual issue at hand, I’ve read books and only found out what the MC looks like halfway through. How disappointing it becomes after we’ve already pictured the person a certain way! Not cool. However, if the storytelling is great, I might . . . MIGHT forgive the author for changing “my MC” halfway through the book. Otherwise, I might email them and tell them they described their character wrong . . . LOL

      And yes, that strawberry is making my mouth water, too!

      Like

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