Monday, July 22, 2013

Writing for the Senses

by Charlee Vale

Everything in our life is interpreted by our senses. Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. Sense of time. Sense of distance. I would even argue that our emotions are a kind of sense—interpreting to us our state of being. How else could we perceive them?

The magical and wonderful tool that is our brain integrates all of these senses so seamlessly that we barely even notice the differences between one and another sometimes. It's just a part of being.

I don't know about you, but when I'm going along in my daily life, I don't, generally, narrate to myself what I'm feeling with my sensesI say generally, because there are some times when we do do this. We'll say, "Man it's hot!" or "I smell popcorn,"—but for the most part we don't.

There have been many times I have found while reading books, (and definitely in my own work, I am equally guilty) that most of the time things are described fairly intellectually. The character notes what they see, how they feel, what they are thinking. It's like reading a transcript of someone's experience rather than experiencing it with them.

This post came about while I was chatting with a friend about writing an action scene. She expressed concern that she felt she was using words/phrases like 'suddenly' and 'without warning' too much to indicate the pace and flurry of the scene. I told her she needed to focus on writing for the senses, but she didn't know what I meant.

Here's what I mean, and to illustrate, we have a little quiz!

If someone unexpectedly shoots a gun near you do you:

A. Think "That was a gunshot."

B. Duck.

If you stub your toe in the middle of the night do you:

A. Think about the fact that you stubbed your toe, acknowledge how much it hurts, and then hobble off for ice.

B. Grab your foot while shouting obscenities because it feels like you just broke your toe. Geeze, what did I hit with my foot?

If a person you are not attracted to tries to kiss you do you:

A. Analyze their approach and how repellent they are until they're so close you can barely avoid the kiss.

B. Push them away/step away immediately.

If you answered B to every single question, congratulations, you are CORRECT! (And the other good news is you are not a robot. Good for you.)

So if in real life, all of us would react with option B, then why do so many of our characters react like option A?

I find this very prevalent in action scenes, characters analyzing and absorbing far more of the scene around them than is physically possible. To a degree that's fine, we are after all telling a story. But part of telling a story is to make sure your audience is there.

I don't have any easy solutions for this other than awareness.


  • When you read, look for both good and bad examples, and see how you can either emulate or avoid those passages.
  • When you write, be aware of how your character is moving through the world, and how their senses are reacting. Is your character hot? Then don't say they're hot—say they're sweating. Are they sleepy? Look for how sleepiness affects the body and implement that.
  • Trust your audience. The people who are reading your books are human. They have senses. Odds are they know the signs you're describing. Trust that you don't have to dictate cognitive thoughts for every sensation. Don't worry—we'll get it.


Remember Newton's Law—Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So let them react!

Charlee Vale is a Young Adult writer, photographer, and tea lover living in New York City. You can also find her at her website, and on Twitter, and quite possibly trying to revise a new and crazy story.

2 comments:

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post Charlee - using those senses can really help us show not tell! Loved your A & B options! :)

Kyle Jagger said...
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