5 Senses Per Scene

Draw them in with unexpected sensory details.

Ah, October. The changing of the leaves, the crackling of a cozy fire, the smell of rain on pavement, a wool scarf around your neck and the taste of pumpkin-spice.

October is so vivid. Evocative. Rich. (Thanks, handy Thesaurus!) Since today is the 1st, I decided it was the perfect time to share a little technique I use to bring more vividness to my writing.

First, the reason why I use this technique…

Like all writers, I have strengths and weaknesses. When I crank out a first draft, they make themselves pretty evident. I love writing dialogue and I think I’m pretty good at it. (I wrote screenplays long before I ever wrote short stories and novels.) Because of this, my first drafts end up with huge chunks of nothing but dialogue. Not much action or sensory details. Not so great.

Maybe you’re already good at drawing your reader in through their senses, but I needed some help with that. So I developed the 5 senses per scene technique.

It’s pretty simple. In each scene I make sure each sense is covered: sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound. (By the way, when I say scene I’m talking at least 1,000 words. It can be a bit of an overkill to hit each and every sense in super short scenes.) It doesn’t need to be excessive. Too many little details gets boring really fast. But little sensory details dropped here and there are delicious. (And I do mean here and there. Don’t chunk them all together as I did in my opening line about October. That was just for emphasis.)

So is that it? Nope.

There’s a trick to packing the most punch with sensory details: do it in an unexpected way.

Yes, of course she sees the hunger in his eyes. How about she also sees a robin hunting for a worm. Or a loose dog at the end of the street. Or a scrap of a blouse hanging from a dead rosebush.

Sure, she could smell the hero’s cologne. But maybe she smells the faintest hint of chlorine in his hair instead. Or the mouthwatering (or nauseating) curry from her neighbors dinner.

You probably get the idea.

Of course you must maintain an editing eye with this technique. Ideally each sound, smell, taste etc. is something that adds to the story.

Since I adopted this practice I feel my writing is far more evocative, vivid, and real. We notice little details in real life. We should notice them in our writing too.

My author friend M.K. Darcy is exceptionally skilled in this area. He puts it wisely and well:

Don’t just use the five senses: use them in unexpected ways. One well-chosen sensory detail can make an entire scene, and it doesn’t have to be blatant. It can be very nuanced.
This is one of the reasons I’m constantly practicing mindfulness. Woven inside simple and everyday details are an entire world of context that, in writing, can be used both literally and symbolically.
But you have to pay attention.

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