A picture is worth a thousand words.
We’re all familiar with that idiom. As writers, our goal is to use way fewer than a thousand words to paint that perfect picture. We want those pictures to come alive for our readers.
But here’s the thing, if you only paint a pretty picture, you risk leaving your readers on the outside looking in when what you really want is to lure them in.
How do you lure them in? By using all 5 senses.
I know, you’ve been holding tight to the “show, don’t tell” rule. And we’ve already established that writing is about drawing a visual picture. So yes, you’re still writing visual descriptions. But, make sure every word counts. Include only what strengthens the image and look for new ways to describe things.
- Instead of white sand, sand like iridescent crushed pearls.
- Curly hair can become corkscrew curls that a character has the sudden urge to tug and watch them bounce back.
Now put yourself in the scene. What can you show your reader that’s beyond the obvious?
- The slight discoloration on the couch that reminds your character about where her brother spilled a soda the last time she saw him, right before he was killed in the car accident.
- The seam in the wallpaper that’s a fraction off and is totally screwing with your character’s need for perfection.
- The way a crease is pulled out of shirt when the character tightens his shoulder blades before turning and walking away.
Think about the last movie or TV program you watched. It had a soundtrack, right? Characters were talking to each other, music during key scenes, the revving of a car engine, the ringing of a phone in the background. Obvious sounds.
When writing, you’re transforming those sounds into words. Your reader needs to hear what your characters are experiencing.
- The raspy pain of a character’s cough.
- The rev of a motor in the far distance.
- The jangle of keys deep in someone’s pocket.
Then there’s the unexpected. Those are the details that will make your reader catch her/his breath and will linger in their minds long after they’re done reading.
- The squeak-squelch of sneakers on a linoleum floor in the echoing quiet of a hospital wing.
- The sound of a house settling when the air-conditioner turns off.
- A character trapped in the slowest line at the grocery store and agitated at being late might notice the otherwise invisible sound of air bubbles snapping as the guy in line behind her chews his gum.
In real-life, you’re constantly tasting something so why aren’t your characters?
- The cold, sweetness from the orange soda when the guy kisses your main character.
- The melting heaven of a chocolate lava cake.
- The sharp tang as the character licks an escaping drop of espresso from the side of the mug.
Don’t stop with the obvious.
- A character who arrives at the beach will lick her lips and taste the salt from the ocean breeze.
- A character who’s been running on a hot day might taste the grit of dirt.
- Or maybe a character has just gone through a terrible breakup and is looking for a safe haven at her parent’s house. During the drive there she might taste the rice pudding her mom always made for her when she needed cheering up.
Okay fess up, do you touch a flower petal to see what it feels like? Or run your fingers along a brick wall? What about stroking the leather of a couch? If a friend has a new sweater, do you reach out to see if it’s soft?
Your characters will be doing the same. And the reader wants to feel through your characters.
- The prickle as an ant crawls up your character’s arm.
- The stab of pain when your character miss-judges the distance and stubs her toe into the side of the desk.
- The comforting warmth of a blanket.
There are times, though, when it’s not as much what the character is touching but the act of the touch itself.
- The way a character touches the tip of her finger to the heart-shaped pendant her husband gave her before he died.
- A character tracing the name of a loved one on a headstone.
- A character putting his hand on another’s upper arm in a “keep it under control” gesture.
Smell is an incredibly powerful sense. It’s probably the most nostalgic of the senses, which makes it the ideal tool for flashbacks.
- Who hasn’t taken a deep inhale of freshly mowed grass and immediately been transported to a lazy summer day?
- Or caught the whiff of a perfume and you’re suddenly remembering a best friend or family member who you haven’t seen in years?
- What about the smell of a favorite food to transport you back to holidays when the family still got together?
It’s also a fabulous way to suck your reader into a scene.
- Does the homeless guy smell like car exhaust from sitting on the median of the busy intersection all day? Does his body odor make your character’s nose curl?
- What about the house your character just walked into? Is that lavender air freshener she smells? Did her long dead grandmother have lavender air freshener in her house?
- Does the lip gloss a character uses obsessively smell like root beer? Maybe your main character hates root beer and can’t focus on what the other person is saying because she can only think about getting to the bathroom on time.
Take a few minutes as you’re sitting in your house or walking down the street or having dinner at a restaurant and really pay attention to what’s around you (without getting arrested, please).
Imagine writing using different senses. Instead of telling your reader that the character is uncomfortable sitting in the living room under the scrutiny of his date’s father, how could you write that using touch or smell?
Now go back to your manuscript and think about inviting your readers in, letting them enjoy the smells, sounds, tastes that your character experiences.
Do you use all the senses in your writing or do you have a go-to sense that you default to?