Using Your Senses

One of my regular mini-workshops I like to present is the one about using our five senses—our common sense(s). It works for both children and adults, although it’s a bear to fit into a classroom period.

The concept I’m pushing is how important it is to use our sensory abilities in our writing. It’s another facet of showing rather than telling. It brings the reader into the head, into the whole body system, of the character. For instance, write a paragraph about a woman who is walking down her street to deliver a casserole to a sick neighbor. Don’t read it just yet.

Then, go outside and take a walk, as if you are the woman. She’s carrying a casserole; smell it. It’s not just a casserole; it’s chicken and rice and a small swirl of steam is wafting through the covering napkin, leaving a dab of moisture on her cheek. There is the aroma of baked chicken and celery and onions. Mmmm.

The bright sun makes her eyes s   quint and she can feel the burning heat of it on her cheeks as she searches the blue-blue of the sky for clouds. A pair of cardinals is in the treetops, singing their messages to each other. And when she arrives back home, she rewards herself with one of the rich, double chocolate brownies she had baked earlier, still warm from the oven. The chopped walnuts add a crunchy touch to the texture of the dessert and compliment the soft munch of the extra chocolate chips she had added to the batter at the last minute.

Using the senses in your writing goes beyond telling a story or writing a scene. It lets the reader experience the scene, walk in the shoes of the character, live the story with the character. And I can think of no better way to enliven your own senses—so that you can write about them more effectively—than to stroll around your yard or garden or just walk down the street. Touch. Smell. See. Listen. And if you find nothing edible on your walk, get your sense of taste when you come back in your house. (Chocolate works for me!)

Now re-read that paragraph you wrote. I’ll bet you have some changes you want to make!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Using Your Senses

  1. Steve

    I have to make a special effort to remember to include sensory details. It always makes the story better. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Yep, Steve. BUT, I have a correction: the chopped walnuts COMPLEMENT (not compliment) the extra chocolate chips…. Sorry about that.

  3. Great reminder. I forget about including smells too often. (now I want chicken casserole. Thanks a lot! 😉

  4. K.L. Gore

    Why is my mouth watering? Oh yeah, because Joan did such a good job with her description I could practically TASTE the food!

    I just finished a show vs. tell segment with my class last week, asking them to add sensory detail to a few paragraphs of their work (for their homework assignment). When they returned to class this week I noticed none of them used taste or smell in their descriptions. Striking, considering we use those senses so often throughout the day.

    I should have them read your post! 😉

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