Making Fiction Come Alive! Using the Senses for Maximum Impact

Five Senses

Image by Rob Nunn/Flickr CC

Today’s post once again is by my Writer-in-Residence Alex Limberg. After 10 posts, I’m slowly running out of witty introductions for him. But hey, if you haven’t checked out his free ebook yet, definitely go ahead and do it now. It will equip you with ‘44 test questions’ to examine your story and make it all-around tight and intriguing. This time, Alex shows us how to describe senses, so your reader feels like he is in the middle of your story. Go, Alex!


Do you know 5D-cinemas?

I mean these movie theatres that make your chair bump harshly, whip your ankles, and when somebody on the screen sneezes, it sprinkles your face… Yeah, they are basically legal torture chambers people pay entry for.

Why are they such a fun experience for many?

It’s because these theatres feel more real than your ordinary cinema. And that’s because they talk to more of our senses, not just 2D-seeing and hearing.

Anything that talks to our senses feels a lot more real to us. It is through senses that we experience our entire world. We crave sensory experiences. That’s why it’s so much fun when the snot of that disgusting jailor troll hits us.

Senses are even deeply engrained in our language: We believe it when we see it. We hear it through the grapevine. Something smells fishy to us. We feel for somebody. We might show bad taste.

Ultimately, evoking sensory experiences with your descriptions is one of the most powerful talents you can have as a writer.

If you can do it well, your audience will eagerly suspend any disbelieve and completely succumb to the illusion you have prepared. You will draw your readers deeply into your story and make them feel like they are right beside your characters. They will ultimately truly care about what is going on.

Because it’s not easy to craft your story as a well-rounded illusion, you can find a free download with 44 test questions here; use it to check your story quickly and easily for anything that might be off or missing.

The good news is, describing senses isn’t even that hard to do. Let’s take a look at all five senses, one by one, and see how you can best take advantage of them:

1. Seeing

That’s the most obvious one. Can you imagine even the greenest newbie not describing to the reader what he is seeing?

In fact, many writers put too much weight on this sense, at the expense of the others. Don’t overdo the visual description! You don’t have to teach your reader every single detail, it’s much better to leave something up to her imagination.

When you do describe visuals, think of the different qualities of look you could use to make your description vivid. Color is a good example. By using color, you can paint vibrant images in your reader’s mind. What do you think about this description:

“He couldn’t help but notice her extraordinarily sexy make-up.”

Bad. That’s telling, not showing.

“Her bright red lipstick immediately popped out to him.”

Much better. We have now put a colorful image in the mind’s eye of the reader. The image has a color with very specific connotations.

We have also used the word “bright,” which is yet another quality to make your visual descriptions more interesting: Shadows are eerie. Spotlights mean heightened pressure. Dimmed, soft lights can be romantic.

You can add a lot of mood to a scene or to a detail by describing light.

2. Hearing

Hearing is used fairly often as well. You will mostly describe a sound when the situation draws special attention to it: A door creaks, your protagonist turns her head.

But don’t forget that a sound can also be used for a strong effect! You can employ it to get on your reader’s nerves, to alarm or to relax him. Think of the soothing babble of a little brook. How comforting, isn’t it? Cut to the shrieking sound of nails scratching over a chalkboard. You might even be close to goosebumps now.

Your reader will hate you when you employ an effect like this. And he should, strong reactions are excellent! In the end, he will love you for putting him through all of that tingling torture.

On top of this, you can use sounds very well for a serious shock effect. How often in your life have you been frightened by a sudden sound? Certainly a lot more often than by any other sense alarming you. Those little acoustic shock effects are deeply engrained in your reader’s unconscious as well.

Imagine the sudden uproar of a roaring chainsaw. And if the guy who is carrying it wears a hockey mask too, there is no doubt anymore what comes next…

Chainsaw Image

3. Smelling

Now we are getting into territory that’s neglected way too often. Many writers like to forget smell, because when they are busily visualizing their scenes, it just doesn’t come to them naturally.

But smell can have a huge impact on your reader. To be more precise, the memory of the smell you are describing will have a huge impact on her. Smell is the sense that is most directly connected to the memory part of our brains (through the so-called “olfactory bulb;” great word, isn’t it?).

When you think about it, smell is kind of an animalistic sense – think of dogs eagerly sniffing each other’s behinds. When you describe the smell of shit, you can be sure to get stronger reactions than when you describe the look or the sound of it…

Because it’s such an emotional sense, smell can be very sensuous too. A stimulating perfume in a love scene will catapult your reader right into the middle of the action. They say that lovers can “smell each other.”

4. Tasting

In your stories, you don’t get the opportunity to demonstrate how something tastes very often. You couldn’t let your protagonist quickly lick the mask of the guy with the chainsaw, just to report that it tastes… salty? Now that would be moody, but it wouldn’t make any sense…

However, on the rare occasions your character puts something in his mouth or licks something, be sure to describe the taste. Certainly your character (and your reader) will pay attention, because taste is a sense that’s bound to get a very strong reaction.

After all, taking something into your mouth or touching it with your tongue is a very intimate act; it’s a personal thing that goes deep into the private sphere. Think of your character taking a beating and biting the hard and dusty curb or tasting a lovingly prepared dish of pulpy monkey brain. Tastes like that are hard to swallow.

You can also describe an emotion as so dense, your character can “taste” it in his mouth. Intense fear is sometimes described as a “taste of copper.” It’s like the feeling is so strong it finally becomes physical. And what does success “taste like,” can you tell me?


Image by Melissa Gutierrez/Flickr CC

5. Feeling

Finally, we have feeling. It’s a very sensual sense as well.

Like with tasting, be sure to describe it whenever you get a chance. When your character touches something, tell your audience what it feels like and draw them in. How pleasant does the soft fur of a kitten feel? And how uncomfortable is the stingy hail of a thunderstorm? You have all the power of making your readers live, love and suffer with your figures.

You can use touch especially well to describe the nature of objects or people: The silky smooth feeling of a light summer dress, grandpa’s grey and raspy beard. Just make sure you have a reason to describe how it feels; somebody touching it should be the trigger that allows you to explain.

So there you have it, the complete five senses. The sixth sense is then best suited to a Bruce Willis flick.

Now go ahead and describe away. A skillful description of sense will make your reader dive into your story head over heels… and it will feel so tickling she will never want to surface from your story again.


Photo, Alex Limberg

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Check your story for intriguing description, plot, characters, dialogue and any other imaginable quality with his free e-book “44 Key Questions to test your story”. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

I see, Alex.

It’s Kristen again, and I’m back to ask you: In your descriptions, do you take advantage of the big opportunities senses offer? Which sense do you tend to forget? Do you maybe employ one sense too much? Do you remember a book that totally drew you in with its sensory descriptions? If we could smell with our ears, would our nose only serve to hold our glasses? Have you ever seen a naked person that made you wish you were blind?

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  1. Reblogged this on Amy Reece and commented:
    So much good stuff here!

  2. Love it Alex. I’ve been teaching the see, hear, feel, taste and smell technique in my acting classes for almost 20 years and now in my writing and narration workshops. They all know my mantra: “If you don’t see, hear, feel, taste and smell what’s going on in the scene…neither will the audience/reader. I have a little physical demonstration I use in class sometimes. I tell everyone to close their eyes, and then I ask them to visualize biting into a really fresh, juicy…lemon, still with their eyes closed. It’s a hoot to watch their facial expressions and ask if anyone had a massive production of saliva…It’s always a consensus of ‘Yes!’ I often film/tape it and let them watch themselves.

      • Alex on May 14, 2016 at 9:19 am
      • Reply

      That’s super interesting, Ken. I love how you bring it back to the physical reaction by talking about the saliva; can’t deny salivation. I’m sure I grimaced a bit while reading your comment.

      1. Thanks, Alex. My goal is always the complete suspension of disbelief. As in theatre or film, the body doesn’t know it’s acting. It will respond physiologically to whatever physical or emotional stimuli is in the text…depending on how well the writer can suck the reader into the story using the senses.
        I sometimes use scenes from my novels in my acting classes, and tape them, of course just to see that they actually work like they did in my mind. I had two of my ladies do a murder/suicide scene (rather than let the outlaws get them to their camp). It was only 1:49 seconds long and they had the entire class crying…including me and I wrote the damn thing…Complete suspension of disbelief.

  3. Thanks for the tips!

    I once tried to describe the smell of dew forming at night on flowers as “navy.” It worked in my head, but my editor didn’t like it.

    In my current WIP (set in 1933-34), one of the main characters will eventually sip castor oil instead of the root beer she expects. I have the sinking feeling that I might have to see if I can get a hold of some castor oil to taste it for myself… o_0

    1. Just envision drinking motor oil and you got it.

      1. Lol!

  4. Not sure which I like the best sometimes, the great information or the pix.

  5. Thanks, Alex, just made a couple changes to a manuscript I’m working on based on your suggestions!

  6. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  7. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Here are some great tips on using the senses when writing fiction.

  8. Reblogged this on My Passion's Pen and commented:
    “Evoking sensory experiences with your descriptions is one of the most powerful talents you can have as a writer.” Fantastic!

  9. Excellent reminder. I actually keep a slip of paper next to my computer with sight, sound, taste, touch and smell written on it to remind me to try to incorporate at least two of these in each scene.

  10. Reblogged this on Houda becoming author and commented:
    very interesting

  11. thanks so much for this article.

  12. One of my writer friends asked how to show rather than tell sounds. I hope I answered her question alright and I know she checked out this post. Thanks for reminding us that sensory description is the best way to suck our readers out of their world and into ours *bwahahahaha*

  13. This was a great article! Thank you!

  14. Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    Alex Limberg discusses using the senses in writing.

    • ptrikha15 on May 16, 2016 at 2:44 am
    • Reply

    Reblogged this on ptrkmindspeaks and commented:
    Using senses for great writing impact!

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