Using the Five Senses

Descriptive writing provides words that allow a picture to develop in the reader’s mind. With a focus on the fives senses, a writer can use a few, well-placed details and let the reader fill in the rest. The five most recognized senses are sight (ophthalmoception), hearing (audioception), taste (gustaoception), smell (olfacoception), and touch (tactioception).

Smell. The sense of smell is often considered the most nostalgic sense.

A remembered scent can take the reader back to a specific time or place.

The scent of lilacs (or a description of lilacs) places me in the side yard of my childhood home watching my mother collect an armful of lilacs to fill a pitcher set on our dining room table.5-senses-web

Sound. The sense of sound is often considered the most important sense.

The foundation of communication, sound allows us to relate to others and to nature.

As we set a scene, we know there is always some sound. Sitting in the library, I hear the obvious sounds (voices, a child crying, the telephone ringing, the click of computer keys) but I also hear the sounds below the obvious (change clanking in the copy machine, the soft shuffle of feet along the carpet, the low hum of a mechanical system and the rustle of a newspaper page being turned).

One suggestion to add sound to your work is the use of an onomatopoeia—a word whose sound suggests the sense. Buzz. Hiss. Clatter. Words related to water might include: splash, spray, sprinkle, squirt, drip, and drizzle.

Running Water, an onomatopoeic poem by poet Lee Emmett, illustrates this technique:

Running Water


water plops into pond

splish-splash downhill

warbling magpies in tree

trilling, melodic thrill


whoosh, passing breeze

flags flutter and flap

frog croaks, bird whistles

babbling bubbles from tap

Sight. This is the easiest sense to incorporate into your writing.

Use it to “show” your reader.

What does your character see? What doesn’t your character see? Why?

Sight can flash back or foreshadow.

Taste. Think of eating and drinking, or kissing.

Convey the use of mouth and tongue

A reader can taste the warm blueberry muffin that the character is thinking about for breakfast tomorrow morning as he drives to Maine.

Touch. It can be gentle or harmful, and your reader should “feel” the touch.

Touch can be used to just describe “itchy skin.” Actual touch can be a vital moment in a scene. Consider:

“Hands that hug me. I feel the pressure of his arms as they encircle me and his palms are pressed against my back as he draws me in. He hugs me a bit longer and a bit tighter than in the years past as he knows time is limited.”— Steady Hands by Donna Woods Orazio

Blogger Orly Konig-Lopez (writersinthestorm blog, May 14, 2014) notes that your readers need to hear what your characters are experiencing. She suggests both the expected sounds (the twang of an accent or the jangle of keys) but also the unexpected “the sound of a house settling when the air conditioning is shut off” or the “otherwise invisible sound of air bubbles snapping as the guy in line behind you chews his gum.”

Here are a few suggestions to increase your awareness of the five senses in your work:

  • Pay attention to the world around you.
  • Sitting still, in a coffee shop, at the mall, at your child’s soccer game, or at work, try to connect with all five senses around you.
  • Working from a draft of your current project, take one colored pen/marker and add sound details. Choose another color and add details of smell. Continue with different colors and add in sight, touch, and taste. You will not incorporate all the added words, but a few well-placed ones will improve your work.
  • Create a list of favorite or unusual “sense” words or phrases.

You are setting the scene. What extra details can you insert so that your reader will fully experience this moment in your story? Rather than using broad descriptive words (ugly, great, beautiful, loud), provide your reader with a detailed image that allows them to know and feel what your character is experiencing. Chose your sense words carefully. Your writing shouldn’t be contrived, rather very specific, intimate, and relevant to the story. Surprise your reader.

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Photo by Beth Poe. Used by permission.


Published in: on October 24, 2016 at 12:18 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for this great advice. Even for a non-fiction writer it’s useful to remember. Especially now I need to use the five senses as I create scenes involving characters from my husband’s family and tell their stories.

  2. How apropos that this blog is published a day before my writing group session! Love the idea of the colored pencils … it certainly will fit in with what I see in my writing! I’ll try it! Thanks for the great work … I especially liked the hugging piece … I could ‘feel’ the palms on my back.

  3. So concise and full of important things to remember. Thank you Donna for this. I’ve printed it out so I can refer to your fine suggestions.

  4. This makes so much “sense” to me. I’ve been trying to be more mindful with my writing, so using the senses will definitely enhance my writing as well as my consideration of characters or topics I write about. I’ll add your post to my toolbox.

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