Using Your Senses to Enhance Your Writing

Have you ever entered a home where the stall smell of fried fish gave you a greasy feeling? It does for me. Any time a room smells of stall grease it makes me want to wash my hands. The smell of garlic does the same. It comes from a lifetime of food preparation and scrubbing my hands to get the smell off. 

Stall cigarette makes me want to smell my hair to see if the odor lingers on me. Silly you may say. Then consider the sound of screeching chalk on a chalkboard or smoke detectors screaming. Do those sounds elicit a physical response from you? Try the sight of a bloody wound or maggots on garbage- want to hurl?

Our senses react to the world around us. As writers we need to use descriptive words that capture the senses to draw the reader in. In fiction describing an individual as greasy or a room smelling of lavender paints a mental picture for the reader.  You can see the dirty ill-kept man in your mind’s eye and smell the sweet lavender aroma. Even an article can be more effective if you describe the baby as mewing rather than having a weak cry.

Sound, hearing, taste and feel all enhance the show not tell rule so necessary for good writing. We all write from the visual sense.  We can describe the room as long with green walls and lacy curtains.  Add the stall smell of cigarettes and burnt bacon and the room becomes dirty. Hear sirens in the background and a couples muffled argument down the hall and the room is somewhere in a less than desirable neighborhood. 

Putting yourself in the scene and drawing from your own experiences can add rich descriptions. An auto accident comes to life when the reader experiences the tumbling and pain as your heroine slams into the door, the ceiling ending hanging upside down from the seatbelt. 

Even dialogue can describe sensations.

“Chet, where are we.”Janet teeth chattered as she picked her way across the icy terrain. Careful to walk on her left toes keeping the pain shooting down her leg at a minimum. Biting her lip determined to show her brother she was no baby.

“See the North Star, sis, if we just keep following it we’ll find our way home.” Chet tried to sound confident; walking faster hoping the extra exertion would warm him under his flimsy coat. Stopping ever so often to allow ten year old Janet to catch up with him.

“I’m so hungry I can smell momma’s apple pie.” Janet whined as she neared her brother once again.

“Your brain must be starting to freeze.”

“I don’t want my brain to freeze.” Tears formed in icy streaks on the girl’s face.

Chet stood stark still and Janet slowed beside him. “I smell it too. We can’t both be imagining the same thing.” They had to be near some shelter. The boy’s mind search for any familiar landmark. Going hiking alone had been foolish enough but allowing Janet to come so she wouldn’t tell their parents showed him how much growing up he needed to do.  Squinting he saw a light in the distance. Both children fixed their eyes on it. “Looks like a campfire.”

“Who’d have a campfire in the middle of winter?” Janet grabbed her brother’s gloveless hand.

“We’ll ask ‘em when we see ‘em” Chet tugged his sister to a faster pace. His lungs burning from the chilled air that rushed in as he half carried Janet toward the fire. Her weight causing sweat to dampen his clothes. Within minutes they were close enough to see a man leaning over the fire with a pie fork cooking campfire pies. The apple scent assailed their noses removing all fear of the stranger.

Are you anxious to get warm and have some of that pie too? Do you want to tell the children to be careful?   Have you ever been lost in the cold of winter? What more could you add to this little scene using your senses to make it more foreboding?  What these character experience and how well the reader comes along for the ride depends on whether you capture the scene with your senses.