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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Smells Like A Novel~ Writing With The Five Senses

Several months ago, I read an interview with an author I can’t remember (great intro, right?...keep a'reading, the point is coming up).

BUT, I remember what she had to say about writing descriptions, which is something I’ve struggled with over the years, either overdoing it with too many adjectives/flowery language or writing too sparsely to place the reader into the scene—i.e., “It was Tuesday. It was hot.”

I happen to love food and cooking, so I enjoy reading scenes that reside around a dinner table or café. I find myself slightly disappointed when a specific food is mentioned, but not described. I want to hear the crunch of the lettuce and red onion slices in a salad, feel the creamy mashed potatoes pressed against the roof of my mouth, smell the delicious aroma of garlic, marinara, and basil melding with mozzarella and parmesan, and see the perfect symmetry of a well-laid raspberry tart.

I’m gonna stop with the food angle because it’s making me hungry (and don’t worry—I would never serve mashed potatoes with lasagna). The point is (YAY—here it is!), you can do the five senses thing in ANY scenario in your novel and leave your reader with a more satiable read.

Was your main character caught in a random summer thunderstorm? If so, describe the smell of fresh water on hot concrete. And what does it taste like when a drop hits his face and drips on his lips and tongue?

Are a bunch of kids sitting in the school classroom during your scene? Maybe it smells like adolescent B.O. and the teacher’s reeking cologne-of-the-week.

What does it sound like when your character is at a girlfriend’s house, waiting for her parents to confront him about staying out late with their daughter? Perhaps there’s a low hum from the ceiling fan and the sound of Jeopardy is in the background. Is the couch stained and stiff in spots from old spills?

These things all help to set your reader firmly into the your story; they get the reader involved (“Hey—that’s totally what rain smells like!” or “Oh my God, that reminds me of the school locker room that smelled like dirty shinguards and stale pee!”). There's such a thing as overdoing it, so use a little restraint and make sure you don't go on for pages about the food on the table instead of the conversation or the suspicious dude at the next table who wants to kill your protagonist (Mary Kole did a great post HERE on the topic of focus and description issues).

So without further ado, I give you… The Traditional Five Senses (a classification attributed to Aristotle)-






Take a look at these, check your manuscripts for scenes that can take a little plumping, and have at it. Even if the taste of rubber in your eraser-chewing protagonist’s mouth doesn’t make the final cut, thinking about this stuff helps put you, the author, in the scene as well. Which is exactly where you should be...unless you’re in the kitchen making lasagna and mashed potatoes.

*There's a list of related links on the top right of this blog*

**By the way, my lovely blogging friend Beth (Of Muses and Meringues) has fantastic posts about her global travels, the people and places she’s seen, and FOOD.

The woman is an incredible baker and loves it so much that she gave up baking for Lent~ an enormous sacrifice in her case. Her post on Sunday was regarding food in literature (click HERE) and that's why I reposted one of my older musings that touched on same topic (or at least mentioned food descriptions). My post today was originally written last autumn.**


  1. Jess, thank you so much for the link! Your blog is one of my favorites, so I was really flattered that you mentioned mine. I just love reading descriptions of food, and your post had a lot of great ideas about how to do it well. (And you're right -- I can't believe how much I'm missing baking!)

  2. Great post, Jess. All the senses associated with food make it easy...and it's a good reminder to do it elsewhere in your story.

  3. FAntastic post and I'm just like you. I love hearing the description - the more realistic it is, the more I can lose myself in the writing and the storyline. Like you, I want to be sitting at the dinner table with them!

  4. Funny you mention scent, since I don't have too much description in my stories since they're for kids, but I do mention smells a lot since I think they really help you imagine what a place is like.

  5. I'm pretty good at adding sound and smell, but I always struggle with touch. It's so easy to forget about.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree. It's those senses that connect you and suck the reader into the scene. BTW, I'd totally eat mashed potatoes with lasagna. I'd eat mashed potatoes with anything, though. I'm just a potato girl.

  7. mmm... Food!
    I'm trying to find a good balance of descriptions as well, but when I'm on first drafts I just can't help myself. :)

  8. I struggle with descriptions, so thanks for the reminder about the senses.

    My husband and I choose travel destinations by the food we expect to try there. This usually leads to awesome vacations!


  9. Description is probably the one story element that always gives me trouble. It's all sounds and sights. I keep forgetting smell. It's a work in progress... :) And I'm happy to visit Beth's blog - I'm all about baked good AND travel. Thanks for the link!

  10. Aristotle was responsible for coming up with classifiying the senses? Didn't know that :-) But I do know you're right--we writers need to include descriptions of the five senses in our writing. Problem is, too often I go around with head down, blinders on, etc. Instead, I need to tune in more and wake up my own senses in order to describe them. Thanks for the reminder :-)

    I also know you made me hungry with all this talk of food...

  11. I try to incorporate the 5 senses, especially when it comes to food. It's a balance between description vs. adding too much background.

  12. i'm always trying to remember all the senses!!! i usually have to just close my eyes and transport there for awhile to get it right!

  13. Fabulous post and a great reminder to keep all the senses sprinkled throughout our work.

  14. It's funny, I've just written a film script which is all about smell... i agree, using all the senses is important.

  15. Great post, Jess. Sometimes I've seen writers go too far with using the senses. THey'll put all five into one scene, and it's neural overload!
    I usually stick to two, max three at a time. I liked your examples though. They made me very hungry. :)

  16. Great post. Balancing what's relevant is important when it comes to descriptions, but you can find voice there too and that is always great.

  17. This is a great reminder! When I first started out my characters basically existed in a sceneryless vacuum, so I actually went through my entire manuscript and added a sensory detail on every page, trying to describe more than just what the characters saw. Now I do it automatically most of the time, but I do still check for such details during revisions.

  18. I loved the examples you used! I was totally in that argument as soon as you mentioned the fan and Jeopardy in teh background and the stained sofa... amazing how specific details make things come alive.

  19. Loved this post! I linked to it on my blog here: http://bit.ly/l9GIGy