Writing with the Senses

By: Mary Anna Rodabaugh in Book Writing
on January 29th, 2019

A few months ago, I was writing a profile on one of Round Table Companies’ talented staff writers, Geoff Campbell. Throughout the process, I was encouraged to take risks and find a way to connect Geoff’s life story with my own writing passions. I spent a few moments, pondering a way to be descriptive as possible, before finally writing this:

As a child, I loved telling stories. I sprinkled the details of the interactions around me like confetti, quickly creating a colorful masterpiece in my immediate surroundings. My amateur heart didn’t know what love was growing deep within me.

I could see the confetti in my mind’s eye. I felt my words were colorful with a hint of poetic flare. As I reread them, I was pleased and excited for others to read them as well. I was sure these few lines were descriptive and edgy. But they weren’t. When I submitted my draft for review, RTC Founder Corey Blake told me, “While this is colorful telling, you’re still telling and not showing. You’re a slick writer. Be careful there. A slick writer is like a chef who knows how to serve a beautiful-looking meal but whose patrons leave with stomachs growling.”

I was stung. I felt my cheeks grow hot as I read Corey’s words. My heart quickened ever so slightly. I held my breath and continued to read his editorial comments.

“My imagination isn’t being activated,” he said. “Because I don’t have enough to go on. Instead of telling me about the details, consider showing me one or two that I can relate to the idea of confetti.”

I was a deceitful chef. I had done a terrific job putting together a Cake Boss-worthy cake of words, but my words lacked flavor, my story lacked the sensory details that would make it wholesome, hearty, and memorable. He was right.

My story was a beautiful spread on the surface. It looked amazing. However, once Corey “tasted” my piece, it left him unsatisfied and unfulfilled. That is exactly what telling a story, instead of showing the story, can do. It leaves the reader hungry and deceived.

As readers dive into a book, they are transported somewhere else. Our mind relays images we create from the words on the pages. Reading takes us places, sometimes where we’ve been before and other times places we never thought imaginable. (I personally have never been to Hogwarts, but I felt like I was there throughout the Harry Potter series).

Now as I coach writers, I try to instill this lesson early on: write with the senses. Show me, don’t tell me. I want you to take me there. Put me in the room with you. Take me on that car ride. I want to sit on the bed and eat the half-empty box of chocolates with you as I shove a Kleenex up my left nostril and try not to choke on my tears. You get the picture.

When working with a new client who is having trouble showing because he or she has developed a reliance on telling, I offer this exercise: pick one childhood memory that you have. Really pause and reflect on that memory. Now, write about five or six sentences about it. Let’s do it again. This time, include details such as what you saw, smelled, heard, touched, or tasted. Write the paragraph with those sensory details. Take a look at your two paragraphs. Which one feels better?

Our senses are ingredients for the perfect cake. Sight is the eggs. Touch is the flour. Each sense melds with the other, coming together to create a decadent self-rising treat. Your senses allow you to add texture to a multi-sensory story so that it is beautiful, delicious, and immensely gratifying. Let’s take a look at these ingredients and find ways to incorporate them in your own literary recipes:

See: Sight is a beautiful thing. It may be the easiest sense to describe to readers, but it can also be the most deceiving. Why? Because writers can fall prey to telling readers what they have seen rather than showing. Let’s say you went to Washington, DC, and saw the Washington Monument for the first time. You could say: The monument was tall and white. Or: The white monument towered over us. It had a pointed top that appeared to sway if you looked at it closely. When describing what is being seen, consider the following: color, shape, size, structure, and, if applicable, movement.

Hear: Have you ever paused, closed your eyes, and tried to identify every sound you hear in a given moment? The loudest ones―the hum of the television or the chatter of children in the next room—are obvious. Sometimes, though, there are noises we don’t really notice, such as the clicking sound the fridge makes when the compressor comes on or the whir of the air conditioning through the floor vent. What about the sound of your own breath? When painting the scene, do not dismiss the value sound will have on your readers. Take note of the less obvious sounds. They will add a surprising layer to your story.

Smell: How many times have you read a story about a musty attic or the scent of freshly baked bread wafting from the kitchen? Smell is a sense that tends to be reserved for extremes. Smells are either really good or really bad. As you write, you may be so focused on the big details and events in your life that it is hard to recall something as specific as a smell. If that is the case, look for clues in your scene. Were you outside? Did it smell like grass, rain, or even smog? Did you enter someone’s home for the first time? Every home has a smell. As you remember the events you wish to share with readers, close your eyes, sit with your scene, and try to see if you recall any smells.

Taste: In the hands of a master chef/writer, taste can be a highly effective sensory detail. You have the power to make your readers’ mouths water or squinch up in disgust. Taste is relatable. Read the following: the sour punch of the lemon, a hint of salt in the sauce, the tingling burn from a sliver of jalapeno, or a refreshing burst of wintergreen gum. Did your mouth water? Did your tongue twitch? Was there at least one example that you could instantly relate to? Taste is one of the most powerful senses. It can really bring readers right into the moment in ways sight, sound, and touch cannot. Taste has a universal component to it. Nearly all of us can perceive salty, sweet, bitter, and sour flavors (though degrees may vary from person to person). Our memory can quickly recall the flavor being described and transport us to a moment when we experienced that flavor.

Touch: The use of touch is effective when you use figurative language for textures of surfaces. These reference points help the reader imagine what something might feel like. Remember, the reader will draw upon their own experiences to relate to what you’re describing. You could say, I ran my fingers along her soft skin. Or you could say, I ran my fingers along her skin. It had a soft delicateness to it, much like a rose petal shortly after bloom. Touch is a sense that begs for description. If you use it correctly, it can be the icing on the cake.

When combined, the senses make your story vibrant, realistic, relatable, and, in a way, transformational. The senses help the reader transform where they physically are to where they’re going as they journey along with you.

A slick writer and deceitful chef no more.