Sunday, December 7, 2008

Add all six senses to the spice of a story.

Yes, all six. A dash here. A smidgen there. Mix well. Bake until the crux has turned a bubbly golden brown for a wholesome meal as your readers will lick lips and ask for seconds.

Okay. I’m talking about writing, not cooking. So you can stop gnawing on the keyboard now.

I talk about my writing whenever I am on the verge of starting a new project. I sit for a time while thinking of all the good tips I had learned in the last story. Then I remember all the new ideas I want to pursue this time.

Some of the things I need to immerse myself in (and talk about today) are the human senses - all six of them: sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing, and other (intuition . . . ESP . . . paranormal . . . the higher powers - whichever word you want to use to describe the sixth sense without Bruce Willis portraying a psychiatric ghost.)

It is incredible how these things can shape a story. They can grab the readers’ attentions and have the people fall headfirst into your writing as they send you a summons to appear in court to pay for damages. Yet oftentimes we forget to explore such realms, except for two: touch and sight.

We are doing a disservice to our stories when these are the only senses we concentrate on. And it doesn’t matter what genre you are writing in: literary, commercial, romance, YA, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, or short fiction (especially short fiction.) You need to make your story come alive for the reader. You need to capture all their senses until the readers feel as if they are in the room, leaning against the wall, drawing in lazy puffs of cigarette smoke, and wanting to join in or at least take pictures of the scene so they can sell it to the tabloids.

Do you want examples? Of course you do. Everybody loves free samples, er, I mean examples. These are just the ones I have written. You might have a few that can better express the senses.


A click sounded and the door swung wide. Mitch had seen a clumsy landscaper’s misplaced delivery in the bedroom. Yet that was in the Spring. This was Summer. Things had changed.

Bushes. Flowers. Thorns. Everywhere. Boards boxed in the floor around the bed and dresser to keep the soil away from the area near the door so it could swing open and close. The dirt lay piled up to two feet high in some places with long rods inserted in the mounds. Wire tied the woody limbs to the stakes to keep them upright. Branches reached outward to engulf the few pieces of furniture in the room. They surrounded the bed and over it, allowing a small space for someone to climb in. Leaves created a natural blanket for the sleeper.

I saw movement in the soil and in Clare’s bed. I could guess what it was but flicked on the light anyway to get a good look. My body leaned forward as I saw the earthworm tumble off the pillow and down into the soil on the floor. My fingers reached over and flicked off the light. I backed out of the room. The key made sure the lock caught.

Yeah. All right. A plant nursery grew in my grandmother’s bedroom. I could handle this despite Granny Clare having my mind tripping at the sight without the drugs.

Forgetting the missed cue, Trevor lost himself in the music. His voice thundered into the microphone with his mind completely locked into his special place. Now it was just Trevor and his guitar, as he stroked the strings and they responded to the caress by purring out their notes in satisfaction. His pants tightened below his waist while feeling the vibrating instrument rub against him in this musical game of give-and-take. Pleasure. Sheer pleasure.

I placed my cheek on the floor, devastated to the point of tears. Musty. The linoleum smelled musty with an old fruity aroma of many shoe prints. Overripe with what the previous occupants had brought inside. Excitement caused by the job promotion as they had never seen the yellow puddle in the grass from the feral cat. Happiness from winning the basketball rematch as the players’ sweat from the auditorium had filled shoe treads. Sadness created by the bad report card as they had stomped with frustration upon every unwary bug on the sidewalk.

Cold mint. George’s tongue ran over the surface holding a bitter tang and sweet snap of sugary euphoria that he enjoyed when chewing on Wrigley's Winterfresh gum and drinking Dr. Pepper. The heat from his mouth stripped away the first savory layer. Yet he lingered on the second. The flavor had changed. Deeper. Pungent. Dirty in the way of many hands covered in salty sweat and bitter perfume and deep-fried foods overcooked until charred.

He tried to tug his tongue away. Yet the chill air had frozen the saliva against the flagpole, fastening his tender tastebuds onto the metal. George knew he should have never accepted that sucker bet.

I pulled my eyes from Mitch’s entry. Feet lifted and walked me over toward the circular spot staining the gypsum board above. It must have been here that Grandpa referred to in his journal. Yet he had mentioned a plaster ceiling. Was it the original covered over by the second made of tiles?

My hand reached up but I was too short to bump a tile out of the metal track. Not even the bone helped as I stretched it upward to scratch the rough surface. I hated drop ceilings. I never saw a real use for them. My childhood home had one, and I could hear scratching noises as the mice played relay races on the tiles. Scritch-scratch toward one wall then the same sound toward the other, knowing my father had laid down traps as I waited with anticipated dread.

Scritch-scratch. Scritch-scratch. Scritch-SNAP. Silence.

Other: - I realize this one can depend entirely on the subject matter, perhaps a gut feeling of something happening or an extrasensory ability or a paranormal event. I could only come up with one thing that was fitting for this sense.


The senses. Explore them all. Place them in your writing. See what you can bake up. But don’t forget to send me a slice. This post has made me hungry.

*In case you missed my note on Friday (a day I don't normally write a story on), I had a guest post featured on WoW: Women-on-writing blog, a.k.a. "The Muffin." Stop by if you haven't read the story yet.*


  1. Great reminders in your post, Surl. Hope your writing flies today.

  2. Angie: Thanks. I had actually scheduled this post on Thursday, but I had to take a day from talking about writing.

    Sigh...I've been playing hookey from writing last week. I had to relax and let my mind rest for a bit from revising and polishing my MS and query letters. Yet today, I plan on turning on the radio, turning up the heater, and typing away... after fixing a cup of tea, shoveling the snow from the sidewalk, plowing the snow from the driveway, feeding the birds, and going out into the woods to cuss out the hunter who was blasting away at Bambie at midnight.

  3. Did anyone ever tell you how talented you are??
    Because you are. Crazy talented.
    And I love this post, as I am totally ruled by my senses. You will not find another person who is relying so heavily on all six senses as I do. This post was custom made for me.
    Thank you.:)))

  4. Excellent post! Engaging those senses really make the story come alive.

  5. Protege: Thanks. I never realized how prone I was before to not put the human senses in my writing. And these things are a part of everyday life.

    We don't want to just see something, like snow. We want to hear its hissing whispers against the window pane or smell the deep cold that chills our sinuses and causes our eyes to water with tears.

    Natalie: Thanks for the kind words. And it really does have an impact on our writing. I had to go back through several stories and put the senses in, especially taste and smell.

    It was incredible how the stories turned out, because the senses can also carry so much emotion for a character and set a certain mood without just saying, "My character is in a happy mood today."

  6. I'm nominating you for a blog award, so stop by my place tomorrow to see what it's all about. :)

  7. Angie: :O Blog award? For me? Tomorrow? I'm so excited!

  8. great post! i don't like movies like the youtube clip. lol. they stay in my mind! if a got a pre-garrentee of a happy ending for all concerned maybe i could handle it.

    *oh i misspelled it. its dal not dahl.*

  9. Chris: It does have a happy ending (of sorts.) But a lot of stuff happens before then that can cause a shiver in the spine.

    *And you didn't misspell "Dahl." They have both spellings in Wiki.*

  10. excellent reminders/samples michelle, and you're right, for the greatest impact all senses should be explored....

  11. Laughingwolf: Thanks! :)

    I realize there are times in the story where you need the nonstop action without the dilly-dallying. But you have to find that special balance to draw the reader in with some good descriptive scenes.

  12. As always, love the writing. You obviously work hard at it, you're proud of it, and to share that with us is a great gift. Thank you!

  13. I agree with your take on the senses (VERY well said!), Michelle... except for the "sixth sense." Perhaps I'm imagination-challenged, but I don't get the para-normal stuff. Nor have I ever experienced it.

  14. Suldog: You are welcome! If I didn't have people reading this sorry place, I would probably slack off on my writing.

    Buck: We are in the same boat when it comes to the paranormal, which is why I didn't have a writing sample for this one. And I didn't want to try to think up a quick one just to be completely off on describing this sense.

  15. WOW! Great examples of "showing" not just telling a story.

  16. Jeni: They are? *koff-koff* Yes, of course they are good examples! Showing - I am all into doing that. My stories are always about showing instead of telling... Okay, I'll drop the act. The "showing" instead of the "telling" factor will be a ongoing battle for me. I (too often) just want to "tell" it. It's something I need to work on along with the senses.

    Hmm? If a writer is suppose to show their story instead of to tell it, then why are they called "storyTELLERS?"


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