Scents and Sensibility

Happy Friday everyone! Casey here with more writing tips to share.

One piece of advice that new writers (and even non-newbies) hear frequently is – “Use the five senses.” This is a corollary to “show, don’t tell.”  If you want to show, not tell, then one of the ways to do that is to use the five senses.

We all know what the five senses are: taste, touch, hearing, smell, and sight. But how does one seamlessly incorporate the senses into writing?

1. Be in the moment. One of my favorite techniques is to think in first person, even if the book is in third person. If your character walks into a room, ask yourself – what does he or she see? What do they hear? What do they smell? Now, you do not have to incorporate all three of these senses in the scene. Only if they are relevant (more on that later.)

Cherry Cordial, The Undead Space Initiative, taking a good look at Ian McDevitt.

Not wanting to look at his tempting neck again, I stared at his hands instead. Big mistake. Long tapered fingers, smooth palms, and a crescent shaped scar between his thumb and forefinger. I like a man with big strong hands.

2. Use the sense or senses, that fit the scene. Writing a love scene? Then that is a place where you might want to concentrate more on touch, taste, smell. But don’t forget sounds and sight can be sensual too. This is the place for silken skin, a lover’s sigh or the coppery glint of firelight in the heroine’s hair. You get the picture!

From Misfortune Cookie:

“Gabriel, this is so good. I haven’t had anything like this since my grandmother’s.” The flaky crust melted in my mouth. Tart apples, perfectly tender and coated with cinnamon and spices exploded with flavor. And the ice cream, so thick and creamy, had to be homemade.

3. Use the senses well and with restraint. It’s easy to go a little crazy and over describe! Overuse of the five senses can cause your reader to put the book down. Also, use them logically. If it’s an action scene, then your heroine or hero is unlikely to stop and take the time to wax poetic about a particular sight or smell. But maybe, they’ve been injured and they can taste the metallic tang of blood in their mouth. Or there is a sound that gets your heroine’s attention.

From The Undead Space Initiative:

Meaty thwacks rang out in the alley as I passed by.

Do not look.

A soft oomph, followed by a clipped English accent, “Try that again, bastards.”

4. Make or find lists of five senses words. And steer clear of the over-used ones if you can. I see this a lot in paranormals- all the alpha males smell like “dark spices.” This is also true in love scenes where it’s easy to overdo the “colorful words” and start using euphemisms instead aka purple prose!

From Mystic Ink:

Heat pressed against his side, comforting him. When he wrapped his arm
around the warmth, a feminine sigh escaped.

5. Look for places where you’re telling and not showing. If you have –  he smelled cookies, then replace it with how the cookies smelled.

From Mystic Ink:

A sultry summer breeze drifted by, carrying the sickening sweet scent of decay mixed with salt water from the nearby Mystic River. She wrinkled her nose. The heat wasn’t doing the corpse any favors either. The wind reversed. Cinnamon and warm dough from the bakery next door wiped away the stench.

You can always add the five senses in after you complete the first draft. If you find it’s hanging you up while writing, skip them and come back to it in editing.

Practice exercise: Observe the photo below and apply the fives senses. (Yes. These are my cupcakes of doom. Those of you who have tasted them have a leg up! Hopefully you liked them!).

Remember this is practice, no input from The Doubt Monster allowed.

Happy writing everyone! What are your tips for using the five senses? And if you have questions, ask away!

Speaking of senses, over at my blog, I share a recipe – Galloping Goulash!

17 thoughts on “Scents and Sensibility”

  1. Fabulous post, Casey! Spot on and so helpful. Great examples from your work. Here’s my exercise submission:

    My mouth watered as I spotted Casey’s cupcakes of doom, the memory of gooey melting chocolate taking over every thought. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t eaten breakfast. The rich, dark cake and swirls of light, fluffy frosting called to my grumbling stomach. Maybe I could eat just one. A cup of English breakfast tea to wash down that sweet, spongy cake, and I’d be in heaven. Wasn’t there a rule somewhere that calories didn’t count before 9 a.m.?

  2. LOL, sigh, Casey, you have outdone yourself with this one. Your show don’t tell is excellent. And Paula you trouble maker, I am salivating over those cupcakes of doom. Did I need that showing description? I hear my heart pounding . . . b/c I am on my low carb and low fat program. This blog is interfering with my five senses. Calories don’t ever count if you don’t swallow, sort of. Thanks anyway.

  3. Jamie grasped her throat just after she bit into the cupcake,the world spinning around her. She couldn’t taste the chocolately goodness because her swelling tongue had gone numb. She couldn’t inhale the rich scent because her breath was coming in quick shallow pants. Had somebody poisoned her? Her eyes darted back to the cupcake in question. It looked like a regular cupcake but with the word DOOM in the title she couldn’t be sure. With her last breaths she lifted the cupcake and studied it. Damn. What lie inside was just as bad as arsenic to her.
    Peanut butter. The only thing she couldn’t eat.

    I’m not that allergic but writer’s perogative and all that jazz.

  4. I found it helps to experience it myself, then figure out how to put it into my writing. When I travel, I always take the time to get out of the car and just experience – smell, taste, feel, heat, humidity, sounds – take it all in, write it in a travel journal. Then when I need that kind of a setting, I can go back to that moment. I know what the Arizona sun feels like in summer. I know what a scrub forest in Colorado smells like. I know what snow tastes like as it falls. Part of being a writer is learning how to live.

    And calories, alas, ALWAYS count. That’s why I look the way I do. I love food…

    1. The cupcakes are work, but they are awesome and worth the time! And you don’t have to fill them with peanut butter either. I’ve also made them with creamy white filling (the same kind in my whoopie pies).

  5. Great writing advice, Casey! The photo of those cupcakes almost, almost makes up for the shocking lack of True Blood hunk pix around here these days … Well, the cupcakes are much more attainable!

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