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The Art of Sensing to Entice Readers

15 June, 2015

Still Life, by Sydney artist Kevin Best.

How can you keep readers involved in your story? One way is to incorporate rich sensory detail—the five senses we normally think of, plus a few others less often mentioned in the how-to books on writing.

We’re familiar with the five senses. Best’s painting above includes examples: the mirror (sight), bowl of spice (smell), violin (sound), glass of wine (taste), and the nautilus shell (touch).

Including these senses bring your writing alive, helping readers distinctly imagine your scenes and stay with your story.

It’s easy, though, to get into a rut where we rely on our dominant sense. I’m strongly oriented to the visual. If asked to write a scene where someone’s cooking prawns (shrimp), I would probably focus on sight, their bright orange shells hiding the white and pink striped meat. But if pushed to include the other four senses, I would describe the prawns’  briny smell, plus their cool and slippery feel, chewy texture, delicate salty taste, and the crackling sound when their thin shells are broken.

Exercise: Focus on hearing


Try this exercise, using the sense of  hearing. Find a spot where something is happening. Examples:

  • A cafe where people are eating and being served.
  • A commuter train, with passengers talking and the train starting and stopping.
  • A busy shopping mall, wing of museum, children’s playground, or kitchen during food preparation.

Now ignore four of your main senses and concentrate on sound. It may help to close your eyes.

Pay attention to the number of sounds you hear, their intensity or level, and categorise each sound in terms of being pleasant or annoying. How many can you identify? Which are most familiar? Which are unusual? Do some sounds change in volume, duration, or movement—moving away or toward you?  After listening for five minutes, open your eyes. How does adding the visual sense now affect your listening? If you wish, jot down the sounds that seem most important, and play at including them into a scene or poem.

Try doing the same exercise–perhaps using the same location–but concentrate on another sense: sight, taste, smell, touch.

Incorporate other senses

Although we normally think of five senses, there are others. Try incorporating some of these senses in your writing.

  • Temperature. Heat or cold. Temperature may be external—the shock on the skin after leaping into a cold pool. Or internal, such as the sensation in the mouth and throat after downing a scalding drink.
  • Pain. Sensed pain may also be experienced as external (e.g. sunburn) or internal (aching joints, sore muscles). Individuals differ in terms of their sensitivity to pain, generally or to particular stimuli. When the dentist cleans my teeth, I’m happy to pay extra for the nitrous oxide that keeps me in a state of bliss. Some people don’t feel tooth pain and even spurn injections as unnecessary.
  • Body sense. Culture pays a big part in the way people interpret other’s messages re physicality. A posture that seems like a come-on in one culture may be off-putting or insulting in another. Direct eye contact is fine in some cultures, but viewed as taboo or aggressive in others. The cultural interpretation may change due to gender conventions.Cultural norms may determine how comfortable you feel in terms of your physical closeness to others and your ease in being alone. I was made aware of my culture’s boundaries for proximity when I boarded a very crowded bus in Indonesia. What seemed oppressive to me, an invasion of personal space, was simply normal life for the locals.
  • Body image and age. Your adolescent character may be facing puberty, with body changes such as voice, body hair, hormonal spikes, etc. Your elderly characters may be going through the same changes, in reverse.
  • Time. The sensory dimension of time includes what we consider to be our usual temporal rhythm, plus our sense of how slowly or quickly time seems to pass. Again, culture plays a major role. It establishes our sense of what’s appropriate—how long we can keep someone waiting before it becomes rude,  how long we should stay at a boring party before leaving, and how long we can delay in responding to message or invite before we feel the need to apologise. In one culture, it may be OK to ring someone late at night or knock on their door in the early morning. In other cultures, such actions could seem bizarre or aggressive.Movies and TV series often make good use of such differences, creating drama or humor based on different characters’ sensory conventions.
(The sound exercise is developed from Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction.)
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