Thursday, July 19, 2012

Appeal to the Senses—and Emotions

By Jodie Renner, @JodieRennerEd

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome Jodie Renner to the blog today, to chat with us about good sense. Or rather, using the senses to bring a scene to life.

Jodie is a freelance fiction editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries and other crime fiction, as well as YA, historical fiction and mainstream. Please visit Jodie’s website at

Take it away Jodie...

Often, in my editing of fiction, I see dialogue on the page, but with no indication of where the characters are, what they’re doing, what they’re seeing or sensing, and how they’re feeling. In order for your story and characters to come to life, your reader needs to be able see what the viewpoint character is seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and smell, taste or feel along with him.

And we need to see/feel their reactions and thoughts, too. Readers won't empathize with or bond with a character if they don’t even know how she’s feeling and reacting. As Jack M. Bickham says, “Dialogue without any sense impressions, thoughts or feelings of the viewpoint character gets totally abstract; it stops making sense; the reader gets lost.”

So if you’ve written a page or more of almost all dialogue, or a page of exposition/description, here’s a list of what your reader needs to know, sense and feel to get involved and absorbed in your novel.

To bring your scene and characters to life, the reader needs to:
  • See what’s happening–but only what your viewpoint character can see–physical impressions of the scene. And best to just include relevant information–we don’t usually need a detailed description of everything in a room, for example. 
  • Hear sounds around–anything your POV character can hear. 
  • Smell anything that might be pertinent (bread baking, bacon frying, a dead body decomposing). 
  • Taste (in general, or occasionally) some of the things the character is consuming, or know their reaction to what they’re eating or drinking. 
  • Touch–feel any possible tactile sensations of the viewpoint character. 
  • Know any thoughts the protagonist or POV character might be having.
  • Feel any emotions of the viewpoint character, to help assess and respond to what’s going on in the scene.
  • Be aware of the scene goal and intentions of the viewpoint character, so we know his reactions to what’s going on, and why he’s acting as he is, or saying what he’s saying.
(Adapted from a list by Jack M. Bickham)

In conclusion, to write compelling fiction, don’t have your readers stumbling around in the dark, wearing ear plugs. Provide them with varied sense impressions of your viewpoint characters, and show them what the characters are thinking and feeling, too–their reactions to what’s going on around them. Then your readers will empathize with and care about your protagonist, and be truly engaged in his plight, worrying about him and cheering him on.

Resource: The 38 Most Common Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, January 2012


  1. Thanks for inviting me to guest post on your fabulous blog today, Janice!

    For any of your readers who are aspiring or even seasoned suspense-thriller writers, my 40-page e-booklet, Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue - Writing a Killer Thriller, is up on Amazon-Kindle for only $0.99.

  2. Thanks, Jodie! I love that this is in list form - makes it really easy to use when editing.

    I also stopped by your website. You have such a wonderful list of services at all different levels. I'll definitely be pointing it out to my writing group.

  3. Thanks so much, gypsyharper! I'm glad you find my list helpful. Thanks for spreading the word about my editing services.

  4. What is your take on inner thoughts in italics in first person POV? I've heard some editors/agents don't like too many italics.

    Great advice on sensory details. Thanks!

  5. Thanks, Glacier. On expressing inner thoughts in italics, be sure they're direct thoughts in present tense, and just use italics for the shorter, more emphasized ones, like What an idiot! or You wish. or Give me a break. or whatever. These are more thought-reactions. For my blog post on "Expressing Thought-Reactions in Fiction" to to this link:

  6. What excellent advice! Thanks so much. As my lovely agent says, "Add more fleas!"

  7. Thanks for the list. I constantly need to remind myself to add these elements when I write.

  8. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Julie and Jo! I'm glad you find these tips helpful.