Using the 5 senses in writing can deeply immerse readers in scenes and stories. It’s a skill that can elevate books to a higher level. But so often we writers find ourselves lured into the trap of relying on sight and sound. Describing how something looks or sounds isn’t always enough to bring a story to life.
Many people experience things through smells, touch, and taste. It’s our job as authors to use the five senses in writing to enrich our tales and prose with vivid imagery.
In fact, the oft-forgotten 5 senses are some of the most powerful forms of description, things that can enrich a story and give it life. As we’ll see below, using a sensory description has an incredible ability to connect with us on a psychological level.
In this guide, we’ll take a look at the five sensory organs, why we use senses in writing, look at 5 senses examples, and ways we can use each one to elevate our stories to the next level.
How to Use The 5 Senses In Your Writing
If you re-read some of your favourite books there’ll no doubt be passages where the writer employers a sight and smell or taste or touch to great descriptive effect. We’ll look at examples of the five senses in fiction below.
Often some of our most favourite books are those that employ to great effect the five senses. Books that transport us to new worlds and take us on epic adventures. And so often it’s the vivid descriptions that draw us in and help us walk amongst the characters.
Why Are The Five Senses Important In Writing?
Using your five senses in your writing is an incredibly powerful way to immerse your reader in the tale. The more they can understand what it’s like to be in your character’s shoes at that precise moment, be it fleeing a demon or marching to war, knowing how it feels and smells like, as well as the visual and audio descriptions, can elevate stories to a whole new level. It quite simply makes it more enjoyable for a reader.
From a writing perspective, incorporating each of the five senses in your writing at appropriate moments is something your readers will love.
From the perspective of the fantasy writer, using the 5 senses is a terrific way to reveal the worldbuilding aspects of a story. This is especially useful when you’re trying to convey unique imagery or something that’s altogether alien to the reader. It’s something I used a lot when writing Pariah’s Lament and readers loved it.
Discover More Examples Of The 5 Senses In Writing And More
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Select A Section
- What Are The Five Sensory Organs?
- Are There More Than 5 Senses?
- 5 Senses Examples
- 5 Senses Writing Checklist
- Examples Of A Descriptive Paragraph Using The Five Senses
- The Power Of Sensory Description
- Using The 5 Senses In Writing – Exercises
- Adjectives For The Five Senses
- When Should You Use A Sensory Description?
- Other Writing Guides and Writing Tools
- Join An Online Writing Group
- Using The 5 Senses In Writing – FAQs
Before we dive into looking at the 5 senses in a writing context, let’s look at what the five sensory organs are:
Combined, our five senses enable us to learn, experience and create memories. Pepsi Max, for example, always reminds me of my history lessons in college—I’d drink a can during every lesson. Think of songs too. They have an incredible ability to transport us back to moments in our past. Let’s explore things in more detail.
What Is Sensory Writing?
Sensory writing is the process of using the senses of sound, sight, touch, taste and smell in our writing to paint vivid images in a reader’s mind.
Perhaps the main one of the five senses, sight often receives information first and therefore forms our initial judgements.
When it comes to using sight in writing, our stories and characters are often guided by this prime form of description. We describe what our characters see.
However, it would be nigh impossible to describe every aspect of a scene, and even if you did achieve it, nigh impossible to read.
Some of the most acclaimed writers, Charles Dickens, in particular, approached it by picking the right details. The little things that tell us everything. Let’s look at an example of the sense of sight in writing from Great Expectations:
“There was a bookcase in the room; I saw, from the backs of the books, that they were about evidence, criminal law, criminal biography, trials, acts of parliament, and such things. The furniture was all very solid and good, like his watch-chain. It had an official look, however, and there was nothing merely ornamental to be seen. In a corner, was a little table of papers with a shaded lamp: so he seemed to bring the office home with him in that respect too, and to wheel it out of an evening and fall to work.”
This is Jagger’s office. Though he doesn’t feature, we’ve gleaned much about who he is from details like the types of books upon the shelves and the paper-filled table, suggesting he lives a busy, professional life.
Colour is another fantastic tool when it comes to sight. Dickens was known for using colours to portray emotions or themes, such as red for frustration or anger, black for death, white for purity or goodness. Using colour, particularly with themes and the premise, can add extra layers to a story.
Stand in the middle of your bedroom. Look all around you. Make notes of every little detail you see. Colours, shapes. Crumbs or dust on the floor. The more attentive you can be the better.
Pick out things that could relate to characterisation. The books on a shelf perhaps—what kind of books are they? Are there empty glasses beside your bed, dishes too? All of this helps to build interesting imagery, as well as contributing to other elements of the story, in this instance, characterization.
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Sound is incredibly important when it comes to using the 5 senses in our writing. Dialogue dominates many stories, but so often little attention is paid to how characters sound when they talk. It’s strange when you think about how unique people sound, and a person’s voice makes such a difference to how we form views of them.
Something I learned not so long ago is that ducks don’t quack. They tend to grunt or even cackle. It’s easy to assume how things sound, but sometimes what we assume is wrong.
It’s always worth taking the time to research. In doing so you may find new and original ways to describe the sound. Using metaphors and similes, particularly if the sound is unusual, is a great way to bring clarity to descriptions.
Another often overlooked thing is silence. Silence is an excellent tool to set the tone or build an atmosphere or tension. A noiseless forest. A still, foggy street. Eerie.
Either using yourself or ideally, your character, place yourself in a location in which things are happening around you—a park, for instance. Close your eyes and listen.
Make a note of every little sound you hear, from tweeting birds to jackhammers digging up roads. If you can, make a note of how different sounds make you feel. Do fireworks startle you, for instance? Then think about why they could startle you or your character.
Of all the five senses, touch is, in my view, one of the most powerful yet underrated ones. If you can convey touch in an effective way, you’ll reap the rewards.
The scope of this sense depends on the nature of the scene, but imagine, for example, walking barefoot through a forest. The softness of moss between your toes, the cool slime of mud, the pokes and scratches of sticks and stones. Such details can draw readers deeper into the story.
We’ll look at some sensory writing exercises below, but as a brief writing prompt now, close your eyes and pick something up. Describe how that object feels. What features does it have? The texture? Sturdiness? Width? Weight?
These little details can make all the difference when it comes to incorporating the 5 senses in your writing.
Taste is the more neglected one out of the five sensory organs when it comes to writing. Just like all of the senses, using taste can enrich your story immensely.
How many times have you said the phrase, “It tastes like …”. So many of our memories are tied to tastes. Like I said before, Pepsi Max always reminds me of history classes in college. Which tastes trigger memories for you?
If this happens to us, it happens to your characters too. It’s a great thing to include within your characterization process.
Like smell, taste can serve as a trigger for memories. For example, a husband who shared a love for apple turnovers baked by his deceased wife is reminded of her whenever he eats one.
Taste can also trigger emotions. There’ve been times when I’ve eaten food that tasted so good I bounced with glee in my chair.
A fun one. Head down to your kitchen and finding something to eat that has a bit of texture. Close your eyes, take a bite. Focus closely as you chew, as the food rolls around your mouth, over your tongue and down your throat. How does it taste? How does it make you feel?
We, at last, arrive at smell, though its place is no reflection on its importance when it comes to using the 5 senses in our writing.
The power of smells cannot be underestimated. We smell things all of the time and those scents help to shape our impressions. What can you whiff right now?
A smell helps us to form a judgement on things, such as whether something’s okay to eat. And crucially, smells can trigger vivid memories and emotions, vital tools to any writer.
Here’s an example of using the sense of smell in writing from James Joyce’s Ulysses of how smells (and tastes) can enrich prose. It truly is one of the great examples of the 5 senses in writing.
“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
Similar to the task above which involves a trip out to a busy place, like a park, sit down and have a good sniff. Another good place to try is a coffee shop. Lots of smells of roasting coffee and baking cakes in there.
Importantly, think about where those smells lead you in your mind. Do they trigger memories? Do associated words pop into your mind? From your character’s perspective, this is what their experience would be like too.
Now, something you may be wondering about is whether or not there are more than the 5 classic senses. It is, in fact, believed that there is more than touch, taste, sound, sight, smell. These golden 5 were defined by Aristotle because he could relate them to sensory organs. They are sometimes known as the “five senses folk model”.
But it depends on the manner in which you define a sense.
Newer approaches look at the number of sensory organs we have. And many academics now counter the sixth sense as the vestibular system. This relates to the inner ear and the impact it has on our balance and vision.
But other academics have gone further than this. Some tweak the definition to include sensory receptors. Now the skin, for instance, has at least four sensory receptors, relating to pain, temperature, touch and body awareness (otherwise known as proprioception).
So when someone asks how many senses do we have, it’s all a matter of definition.
It’s always useful to reinforce something freshly learned with some examples. In this section, I’ve provided some sensory details examples from some bestselling books.
“The tearing of flesh, as though a butcher were yanking meat from a flank. The bubbling of liquids and the soft rasping of the cutting tools.” Tooth & Nail, Ian Rankin
“Stars spun across his vision and his head felt as if it were about to burst… With difficulty, Hanno undid the chinstrap and eased off his helmet. Cool air ruffled his sweat-soaked hair.” Hannibal: Fields of Blood Ben Kane
“A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things. All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not.” A Game of Thrones, George RR Martin
“It was dark and dim all day. From the sunless dawn until evening the heavy shadow had deepened, and all hearts in the City were oppressed. Far above a great cloud streamed slowly westward from the Black Land, devouring light, borne upon a wind of war; but below the air was still and breathless, as if all the Value of Anduin waited for the onset of a ruinous storm.” The Return Of The King, JRR Tolkien.
This last one for me is a great example of a descriptive paragraph using the five senses.
If you’d like to find more sensory description examples, I recommend doing this simple exercise:
Pick up any book that you see, one ideally that you don’t mind marking with a pen or highlighter. Next, scan the pages, looking for descriptive scenes. Whenever you see a sentence that refers to any of the five senses, highlight it in some way.
The benefit of doing this is that you get 5 senses examples from a variety of different writers, each with their own clever way of making their exposition more immersive.
Something I’ve done to improve my use of the 5 senses in my writing is to include them within the planning process. It’s good to save it until the end when you’ve plotted out your story or chapter, however.
What I do is read over the plan and try and place myself in the scenes. Working my way through each sense, I list everything that pops into my head.
- It’ll be unlikely that you need to spend too much time on sight, but taking the time to consider things in detail can provoke new and unique ideas. What little details can be included? Remember the power of specificity.
- Next, onto sounds. Like sights, it’s unlikely you’ll need to spend too much time on this but it’s always helpful to consider the likes of character’s voices and any usual sounds that could be featured.
- Smells. When it comes to smells a good starting point is to list everything that comes to mind, even mere whiffs, which can be the most telling of all. Smells can provoke memories and emotions too, like the smell of perfume could remind a character of their dead lover, and that leaves you open to describe emotions.
- What can your character touch or feel? How does the hilt of the sword feel in your character’s fingers? How does the touch of a vivacious woman feel to your lonely character? What information can be gleaned from the manner of a handshake?
- Lastly, what tastes, if any, can you include? Is your character eating? Can they taste blood after being punched in the cheek? Do they enter a room where the smell is so foetid they can taste it?
Descriptive Writing Using The Senses
One way to achieve effective descriptive writing is to include sensory details. This creates a clear picture in the reader’s mind. We can do this by appealing to the reader’s senses of hearing, sight, smell, touch and taste, as well as feelings.
Nothing is better for reinforcing knowledge than by looking at examples. Creative writing exercises can really help too, and we’ll look at some of those in the section below.
I wanted to provide you with a few sensory details examples here that bring together the different senses. Examine how they elevate the scene by drawing you deeper. Each little detail paints a more vivid picture, such that you can almost feel yourself there, experiencing it yourself. This is a real skill when it comes to creative writing, but it’s definitely one you can learn and master.
The mud of the road sucked at her tattered leather boots, a quagmire after incessant rains. Autumn circled like a hawk. The wind grabbed at her woollen green cloak and homespun dress. The hand-me-downs from her cousins never fitted, always too wide at the waist and short of length. She pulled her cloak tight about her, bundling it around her hands to keep away the biting chill.
The ringing gave way to those crashes and bangs, each one coming with the beat of his heart. His eyes flickered open. Slate-grey clouds hung above. Dust hovered in the air, rocks and debris showered down upon him. He raised his throbbing head and looked around. Men and women, hands over their ears, cowered down behind the crenellations of the wall, fear etched upon their faces, consuming their eyes, paralyzing their bodies. A few defiant individuals continued to loose arrows. For many, it was the last they shot. The Karraban thunder smashed the parapets to bits, obliterated siege engines, battered the cliff behind them and knocked from it great chunks of rock that tumbled down to crush those below. The ringing in Jem’s ears eased enough for him to hear the screams. They became the backdrop to the rumbling of the Karraban thunder. Only one thought entered Jem’s mind: flee.
The bells rang loud and panicked across Yurrisa. Hidden in the shadows of the abandoned warehouse, Edvar and the others lay in wait. He peered through a crack in a boarded window at the cobbled street. Echoing along it came a shout. Another. Steps rushed toward him, and into view burst a group of soldiers, breaths billowing mist in the cold morning air.
Laughter rippled from the table behind Edvar. The three men were tanners, the least difficult of all working men to identify: stained clothes and hands and stinking of a peculiar cocktail of rotten flesh and mint. They rubbed themselves with the latter to mask the stench of the former. Nobody could bear their presence long enough to tell them it didn’t work.
As you can see, each example uses each of the 5 senses to great effect. If you’re curious where these examples came from, I pinched them from Pariah’s Lament.
Please share your own example of a descriptive paragraph using your five senses in the comments below!
We’ve covered a lot about using sensory descriptions and how they can elevate your writing to the next level. However, there are a lot of scientific studies that back up the theory.
For instance, in a study published back in 2011 by The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, it was found that we process certain words faster than others if there is a sensory experience attached to them.
Such studies aren’t new. In fact, Miller and Johnson-Laird (1976) examined how fundamental “word-percept associations” are to our language. This was expanded upon n a 2003 study by Rakova who emphasised a very important point—that the purpose of language is to express how we feel, what we see, hear, smell and taste.
Another study on sensory linguistics (which looks at how language relates to the senses), published by the University of Birmingham, examined humanity’s dependence on perceptions and how we interact with the world through feeling, seeing, tasting, hearing and smelling.
What we can see here is a growing understanding of the power and influence of a piece of sensory description. By examining these studies, writers can find a whole new appreciation for using the 5 senses in writing.
Here are a few useful exercises to get into the swing of using the senses. The more you practice, the more it’ll become ingrained in the way you write.
- One place, one sense. As the title suggests, think of a place and describe everything you can using just one sense. Challenge yourself. Pick a sense you feel you struggle with. Or do one sense, then a different one.
- Walk and write. Take a notepad and write five headings: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. The next time you go out, even if it’s just to the shop on the corner, write down everything you experience. The touch of the rain or breeze, how the pavement feels underfoot, snippets of passing conversation you hear, the whistle of birds, how that warm and crispy sausage roll tastes. *Warning* You may look odd stopping all the time.
- Close your eyes and pick something up. This one was mentioned above, but it’s a powerful tool. Jot down everything you can think of.
- Pick your favourite food and eat! This one’s a bit more fun. Take chocolate for example. Savour each bite and write down everything, from taste to texture, the sounds of it breaking in your mouth, and importantly, how it makes you feel.
You can never have enough adjectives to help you describe the five senses. Below, you can find a pretty simple list, but it serves as a great starting point. From there you can add some of your own adjectives for the five senses.
For many writers, the toughest part is knowing when to use a sensory description. As you may have heard, using too many adjectives and adverbs can slow down the flow of the writing. So that leaves writers conscious about when to invest words in describing scenes.
However, there are certain points in a story that warrant a sensory description. For example:
- When describing a character – using sensory descriptions when describing characters can elevate the impression they give. For instance, saying someone looked homeless is quite bland in comparison to describing how they smell, or how the coarseness of their hands.
- Describing scenes – this is the most important moment to introduce some sensory description. For instance, if you’re trying to describe a battle scene in a fantasy book, in order to draw readers deeper into that scene, you’re going to have to show them not just how the battlefield looks, but the cries of pain and terror. The smells of the fearful, the dying, the dead. The sensation of hacking another person down with a sword or axe. There are so many details you can include, and all of them take your story to the next level.
- When linking in memories – the five senses often provoke memories. A smell, for instance, can transport us back years to a particular moment when we first experienced that smell.
These are definitely the key points in a story to introduce some sensory details in your writing, but be aware that it’s not just limited to these instances.
Thank you so much for checking out this guide on using the 5 senses in writing. I genuinely hope it’s been of use to you. Below, I’ve included some more guides on writing and writing tools you may find useful.
- List of Fantasy Publishers
- List of Fantasy Magazines and Journals
- What Is Passive Voice?
- How to use an orc names generator tool
- Learn more from my fantasy writing podcast
- How To Unlock The Five Senses In Your Writing
- Descriptive Writing And The 5 Senses
- The Five Senses – Sight
- Examples Of Sensory Details
People ask questions about using the 5 senses in writing, and if you’ve had one I sincerely hope this guide has answered them. Or perhaps it hasn’t. Well, there’s a place you could find those answers.
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In this final section, I’ve included answers to some commonly asked questions about writing with the senses.
Incorporating the senses into your writing is simple. First, focus on what your characters can see in the scene. Then, one by one, think about what they can hear, smell, feel and taste. Assort your various descriptions and pick out your most powerful few.
The five senses are often used to draw a reader deeper into the scene, to feel closer to the characters. Writers do this by adding extra details focusing on the likes of touch and smell.
The best way is to pick up your favourite book and highlight any sentences or paragraphs that utilise the 5 senses. You’ll then have a bank of sensory details examples to call upon whenever you need them.
A sensory description is one that includes sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Using sensory details allows your readers to immerse themselves in the story and experience what the characters feel.
If you have any questions or need more examples of the 5 senses in writing, please contact me.