Monday, December 7, 2009


Every writer exposes their readers to the setting(s) of their stories. It could be a charming English village or a busy city. It could be a farm or a mountain cabin high in the Alps. Stories can take place anywhere and it's our job to make the reader's experience as rich a one as possible.

I believe all five senses should be invoked when possible. The house may be sparkly clean, but can you smell the scent of wood-polish? Does the eye-watering aroma of bleach greet everyone as they come through the door? Has someone been baking; and if they have, was the baking successful? The smell of fresh bread or cooking wafting in the air is wonderful, but consider the comedic possibilities of baking gone wrong. Any character is going to be in a foul mood if they've just burnt something; not to mention their embarrassment at having someone show up at their door to witness their failure.

Every writer will tell the reader what a setting looks like, but have each character notice different things. A person with back trouble will be horrified at the prospect of a room filled with cushy furniture. A tall person is going to duck through doorways and have trouble sitting in a regular sized chair. An art critic (or someone who claims to be) will immediately notice the art (if any) on the walls and the social lion will see nothing but the decor.

Is it quiet or is there the unsettling skitter of mice in the walls? Is there the staccato of rain against a tin roof? Is there music playing and if there is, what kind? Musical taste can be a wonderful indication of character and a tool for revealing hidden depths. Have a teenager mesmerized by opera or a white-haired matron bouncing to hip-hop. Your characters just became real.

The sense of touch should also be utilized. Is that cushion really as soft as it looks, or is the material scratchy? Sitting on a bale of hay is not the same as sitting on a feather bed. Remember the smoothness of the banister or the roughness of a kitten's tongue as he gives your characters a friendly lick.

Last but not least, let the reader experience the wonder of Aunt Hilda's famous lemonade; maybe it's famous for another reason than what one would expect! Maybe your character lives for his morning cup of coffee or is always crunching peanuts. What would happen if someone is forced to eat something they don't like or something unfamiliar? Opportunities abound.

Try to use every sense. The more real we make our characters' world the more real we make our characters.


  1. As always, your posts hit home. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Elspeth - You are absolutely right. The more the reader can really experience the story - through all five senses - the more real the story becomes. Your post reminds me of the work of Howard Gardner, whose theory is that we all have different kinds of intelligences (e.g. linguistic, visual, mathematical, kinesthetic, etc..). We think and know in different ways. If that's true, then it makes a lot of sense to believe that we should write for different intellgences. That includes appealing to all of our senses.

  3. Nice reminder to try something I frequently *don't* do! Thanks, Elspeth.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. This is so true, and seems almost a way to engage a reader "physically" by evoking the use of those senses, in words.

  5. abouttothunder; Glad you liked it.

    Margot; You make a very good point; we should always try to remember readers understand with different intelligences. Thanks, Margot.

    Elizabeth; You're welcome! Although I can't imagine there's anything you don't do well.

    Joanne; I believe the more we can engage a reader the better. Glad you liked it.

  6. Ah Elspeth, I sat down on my not-quite comfortable desk chair and looked at your post. My face is still tingly from walking the dog in the brisk weather we are having. The dog sighed and curled up on his hair-festooned pillow and I realized with a panic that I only had five minutes to change into a cleaner sweater and head out the door for my ONE client today. I hope I don't smell of the dust and clutter I've been sweeping out of step-dot's room! I'll give myself a spritz of 3rd Chakra spray -whatever the bejeezus that is.
    The five senses are my friend in my writing and in my therapy practice. Good post!

  7. Another great post! I've been trying to use the sense of smell more, since it is the least used one.

  8. I seldom think of all these. I'm okay at two--perhaps--but three of more scattered about. I kinda doubt it. And you know what that means...nope for sure.

    Best Regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  9. Jan; LOL!!! I wish you didn't live on the other side of the country; I think we could have some fun.

    Carolyn; It's odd smell is the one we forget when smell is one of the great memory retrievers.

    Karen; I hope it helps you on your new trip into fiction.

    Galen; I'm sure that's not true. Humble Galen.

  10. Elspeth, What great information! I need to store this away for reference to use when I am writing on my new (exciting) fiction "stuff".

  11. Sometimes my beta readers say they smell something when they read my ms. Pretty sure that's not a good thing!

  12. Great reminder, Elspeth. I do enjoy reading about sensory impressions - it's fun to include them as well. :)

  13. JW; Glad you found it useful!

    Alan; Maybe they smell bacon...

    Jemi; It is fun to include the senses, after all, everyone uses them every day.

  14. Good. Sensory images always make the writing more vivid.

  15. Well said -- This is one of the things I'll be looking for as I do revisions. I know there are places in my story that need this extra detail.

  16. Another brilliant post from you, Elspeth. Yes, most of the books I read and re-read are those that evoke all five senses.


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