How The 5 Senses Make Stories Seem Real

How The 5 Senses Make Stories Seem Real


A photograph is an image. So I use my eyes – my sense of sight. If it is a landscape with a snow-capped mountain and a lake and pine trees, I remember when I was near a snow-capped mountain. I remember the reflection on the water. I remember feeling the cold wind. The smell of the pine trees. I remember who was with me.

My senses make sense of my surroundings. Profound, right? When I write using my characters’ senses, my reader should be able to interpret the surroundings I describe.

Here are five examples from my own little library:

  1. Smell:The inn was filled with olive harvesters, vineyard workers, carters, farmers and their families. The sweat of their labours mixed with the smells of smoke from the fireplace, wet wool drying and dung on their boots.’ (The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland)
  2. Sight:…the clouds broke apart and sunlight brushed with a light sienna the stone arches and crenellations of Porta Romana, the southern entrance to the city of Florence. Ochre buildings with red tiled roofs and shutters the colour of cinnamon or basil lined the road.’ (The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland)
  3. Sound: ‘In the past, fall began with a collective rattle in the tree tops; then, in an endless profusion, the leaves snapped off and came floating down, circling and flapping in updrafts like the world shedding itself.’ (The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides)
  4. Touch:  ‘I stood mesmerized by the heat and luscious scent until the rain interfered, running its icy fingers down my back, forcing me back to life.’ (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
  5. Taste: ‘I took a sip. The tiny bubbles melted in my mouth and journeyed northward into my brain. Sweet. Crisp. Delicious.’ (The Fault in our Stars by John Green)

These examples are just the tip of the literary iceberg, but notice how they transport you into the scene. You almost shudder from the icy fingers of the rain. You can’t help but look for that collective rattle in the trees. Florence appears before your eyes even if you have never been there. You smell the wet wool and the dung boots. The press of humanity. Senses engage emotions. Senses make fiction seem real.

Writing Tip: Try writing about a different sense each day. Monday for sight. Tuesday for taste and so on. Try to describe something you saw or tasted that day in a unique way.

Practice makes perfect sense of the senses. Or, find a beautiful image. Write a scene about that image. Remember to convey what the character saw, felt, tasted, heard and smelled. HINT: Try not to use the words see, smell, hear, touch and taste unless you have to.

Please feel free to leave an author’s name below if you think they are good at writing with the senses. I would love to read some more.

P.S. If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

Mia Botha by Mia Botha

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This article has 6 comments

  1. Mer

    James Lee Burke gets my vote! He is a master at evoking the feel and smell of the air, the angle of light, the sounds of each scene, the taste of the regional delights his characters cook or eat or smell.

  2. Sarah Campbell

    I love your examples, Mia.

  3. Lisa

    This post is so spot on. Once I started writing about all of the senses, my writing took on new life. LoL

  4. vky

    thanks!!

  5. Jóhanna

    So wonderful. Thank you for opening my eyes

  6. Anne-Marijn Küthe

    * Great advice!
    * I think the writer Ken Kesey is great at describing the senses.

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