Engaging the Senses in Your Writing


Using sensory depictions in your fiction or nonfiction writing can pull your reader right into the scene. This works especially well for creating or describing your setting and for evoking your character’s emotions.

Employing the Senses in Setting

Sometimes your setting is so important to the story that it functions almost as a character (such as the marsh in Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens or the mission site on Mars in The Martian by Andy Weir). Help your reader experience it fully.

To describe it visually, you can’t get away with saying “the grass was green and the sky was blue.” Instead, focus on what is unique about the setting. If it’s a real place, it helps to go there or to read a description written by someone who knows the area. If it’s the beach, what’s special about it? At Kuhio Beach Park in Waikiki, there’s an area within a wall set aside for swimmers, safely separating them from the surfers and paddleboarders. The sand is immaculate, groomed for the tourists early every morning. Some beaches have pink sand or black sand or white sand. Some are shell-covered. Some are garbage-strewn. Some are populated by dive-bombing seagulls.

Psychologists say that smell is the sense most connected to memory. I know that when I smell fresh-mown grass, I’m transported to the humid summers of my youth, when I’d roam the neighborhood all day. When describing your setting, be sure to include something that will evoke the sense of smell. At the beach, surely it’s the saltwater spray, and possibly the seaweed. Maybe the fragrance of sunscreen wafting over from the next beach blanket. Or the aroma of hot dogs on the grill at the snack bar. Or the stench of the bloated corpse washed up at the water’s edge.

Sound also helps to define the setting. During Fourth of July weekend when the beach is crowded, you’d likely hear children shouting, squealing, and laughing; music blaring; the high-pitched blast of the lifeguard’s whistle. Early on a March morning, you’d probably have the beach to yourself, and be aware of the roaring of the waves rolling into the shore, the whoosh of the wind, the calls of the seabirds, the crunching of your feet in the sand.

Include details that you can taste in your setting. Your character might have brought an insulated jug of iced tea along to the beach. Or while swimming, he may have swallowed a mouthful of salty seawater.

The sensations your character feels on her skin can also help define your setting. The heat of the sunrays, or the ice cold drops of a sun shower. The sting of sand blown into your character’s eyes. The driving power of the waves as she bodysurfs.

Use all your senses to make your setting vivid.

Conveying Emotions through the Senses

To help our readers experience our characters’ emotions, we must go beyond the cerebral. Tiffany Yates Martin says we need to get into our “lizard brain,” the amygdala, to portray states like terror. One way to put emotion into words is to describe how the character is processing stimuli with his senses.

One of my favorite tools for writing emotions is the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. (If you’d like to see if this book could be helpful to you, check out the entries on this webpage marked with open padlocks.) Many of the suggestions they give for expressing the emotions are sensory (though other suggestions involve actions).

Let’s go back to the beach early on a March morning. The beach is empty, and we’ve already described it. Now your character discovers the aforementioned bloated corpse. She smells the stench of the body, and that, combined with the sight of its condition (bleached skin, protruding tongue, bites torn out of the flesh, fishing line tangled around the legs) makes her feel like she’s going to vomit (light-headed, metallic taste in mouth, the sensation of bile rising from her stomach, the sound of her own breathing drowning out the cawing of the gulls). Pulling her phone out of her pocket, she dials 911, but when the dispatcher asks what her emergency is, she bursts into tears.

Now it’s your turn. Did my brief description in the paragraph above give you enough sensory material that you felt you were personally witnessing the scene and sharing the character’s emotions? What would you add that would make it more vivid? Share your suggestions in the comments below.

About Andrea R Huelsenbeck

Andrea R Huelsenbeck is a wife, a mother of five and a former elementary general music teacher. A freelance writer in the 1990s, her nonfiction articles and book reviews appeared in Raising Arizona Kids, Christian Library Journal, and other publications. She is currently working on a young adult mystical fantasy novel and a mystery.

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