The Other Five Senses

As part of my continuing series on Writing, this article is about writing for your senses. Here’s a refresher for those who missed the original article.

6. Write for all five senses

Some writers make the mistake of only writing for the visual sense.  In order to increase the depth of your writing you need to engage the other senses too, so when you are writing about a particularly romantic sunset, you will need to explain how it smells and tastes, as well as how it looks.  If you are writing about a sunset and you don’t know how a sunset tastes, you have already broken rule 1.

It seems obvious, therefore, that to increase the sense of immersion you engage the readers other senses through their imagination. However, I am not talking about those five senses in this article – I’m talking about the other five senses that are equally important in making your writing come to life:

A Sense of Place

In fantasy, the sense of place is often overlooked as the writer engages in creating their world. They create gleaming towers and forbidding castles, forgetting that people have to live somewhere and grow things to eat. Creating an imaginary place is harder, in some ways, than setting your story in a real place.  You have to imagine not just how it is, but how it came to be like that. Terry Pratchett does a fantastic job of this with Ankh-Morpork and, however unlikely a place it seems, you know the twin cities evolved from real places with real histories.

Readers carry around with them a huge knowledge of the world, and as a writer you can use that knowledge to evoke a sense of place in the mind of the reader and bring a place to life. To do this, you need to develop the eye of a photographer, and start looking at the world around you with a new and inquisitive eye. Develop a curiosity about strange names, oddly curved streets, eccentric landmarks and historic buildings.

Each place has its own story, and that story can feed your story.

A Sense of Purpose

As Kurt Vonnegut said in his Eight Rules of Writing (and his rules are much better than mine):

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
~ Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

In your story, each and every character should have a sense of purpose. Otherwise, why are they there? If they don’t have a purpose then they are cluttering up your story and diluting your action and should be cut. Be merciless – tell your characters, “Either come up with a reason to be here or get the hell out!”

However, not every character reveals their purpose immediately. In your first draft, be tolerant, let characters hang out and discover their purpose by interacting with others. Let them develop, mature and come into focus. Only if you get into editing and you still don’t know why a character exists should you excise them from the story.

A Sense of Humour

Kurt Vonnegut also said: ~

Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

It is easy to get lost in the dreadful happenings with which you are torturing your characters. If you are writing well and things are flowing then you will be caught up on the action and driven to the end.

At these times you may need to remind yourself that life has a sense of humour, and that by echoing that humour and letting it resonate through your darkest times, you lift the entire story and give it depth and flavour that undiluted dread never has.

Remember to make them smile while you’re persecuting them.

A Sense of Proportion

If you are writing stories, and especially if you are writing fantasy or science fiction, it is important to give your characters something to fight for, and what better to fight for than their existence? In fact, why stop at their existence? Why not have them fight for the existence of time and space itself? Either they succeed in their quest or the universe ends.

This is where you need a sense of proportion, for it seems that size does matter after all, but not in the way you perhaps thought. Let’s consider – if the universe ended we would all be dead. Would we care then? Annihilation is not the threat it seems to be. The death of everything just isn’t personal enough.

Small things matter. A robin who carries a worm back to the nest to feed its chick, only to be caught and killed by a cat as it tries to land, matters more to us than a planet crashing into a star in fiery doom. We can empathise with a bird, or even with the worm, but not with a planet.

You are the most important person in the world to you (parenthood notwithstanding). Your loved ones are next. Your close friends after that. No-one can truly care about people they don’t know and have never met. So if your story does not allow you to meet and know the people involved, the reader will not care.

It is what happens to those people that matters, not what happens to the universe.

A Sense of Wonder

As a fantasy writer you would expect me to say that a sense of wonder is important, but I think this transcends genre.

Even in a fantasy novel, a sense of wonder does not necessarily come from magic. It can come from the cry of a new-born baby, or a person suddenly realising an inner truth. It can arise from revelations in the plot or from the discovery that a character you thought you knew can do something truly unexpected and still be true to themselves.

However it arises, a sense of wonder brings light into someone else’s existence, gives them the strength to overcome their own difficulties and can, at its best, change someone’s life.

More than that, it is a gift given to strangers, without expectation of reward, which restores our faith in human nature.


  1. #1 by Gill Shutt on January 30, 2011 - 6:30 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with the sense of proportion, when I was reviewing short stories for a magazine the number of people who wrote like a cartoon story were numerous… he was saving the world… never mind who he was, take it as given he was an all action superhero type. These went straight into the virtual bin.
    I would rather have a well told story where you know the character and he does very little (although that very little has to be interesting of course) than the above which is just rubbish.
    As a writer however I find it hard to get over the character without going into too much detail and always end up rewriting bits which are over descriptive and finding other ways of saying what I want to convey.

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