Thursday, April 21, 2016

Writing For the Senses

This morning, I woke to the scent of fresh coffee. Before he left to go surfing, Larry brought me a cup. I love the smell of coffee, even though the flavor doesn’t quite live up to it. The aroma started me thinking about writing for all the senses.
Most writers provide descriptions of places and locations. However, the challenge is to make them interesting and creative without interrupting the story. Readers need to feel as though they are present in a location. Simply describing a room by telling about the furniture isn’t sufficient. Instead, providing meaningful details and the character’s response to the space gives readers a deeper understanding of the character, and therefore enhances the story.

For instance, assume a character enters a lawyer’s office. The easy choice would be to describe the carpet, desk, bookshelves, etc. But what if the office were described more creatively from the character’s point of view?

The receptionist opened the heavy oak door and indicated John should enter. “Mr. Stevens will be right with you.” She turned and closed the door behind her.

The room smelled of furniture polish, old books, and old money. Heavy green drapes, hung on the large window straight ahead, looked as if they had been there since early in the previous century. The enormous dark wood desk appeared to be from the same era. James wondered why the inhabitant chose to position his back to the window with the lovely view.

He covered the distance to the guest chairs before the desk over deep beige carpet, which silenced his footfalls. He wondered if the attorney intended the intimidation the room evoked or if it was just a side benefit. He also wondered if the lawyer kept him waiting to increase his anxiety.

When writing a scene, all senses need to be considered. What do the characters see? What do they hear? Smell? Feel? Taste? Each of these provides a deeper sense of place to the scene.

One caveat, however: too much information can slow down and interrupt the story.

A friend, who is a terrific writer, becomes so enamored of her descriptions she tends to overwrite. Her words are poetic and beautiful. Unfortunately, she often writes several paragraphs of description, often describing the same thing several different ways. By the time readers finish reading these lengthy descriptions, they have lost track of the story.

The trick is to include enough sensory information to pull readers into the plot without going too far.

Is it easy? No. Is it worth the effort? Without doubt?

How do you approach writing for the senses? Are you aware of including all the senses when you write?


  1. Perfect. Too many forget to use what could be great descriptions of smell, sound, etc.

  2. I once edited a book where each new location catalogued only the items in the room--going from left to right. Truly awful!

  3. Lorna, I love this post and am going to share it.

    There's a renowned writer who describes characters and settings in exhaustive detail (he practically details the stitching on their underwear!). Losing track of the story because of too much description is especially problematic in audio books.

    1. Thank you. Some writers fall in love with their words and lose their story.