Friday, July 12, 2013

How to Include the Five Senses Without Falling into the Telling Trap

By Marcy Kennedy, @MarcyKennedy

JH: Join me in welcoming blogger and author Marcy Kennedy to the blog today, to talk about one of my favorite writing topics--show don't tell. She's got some great tips on how to avoid this oh-so-common prose killer.

Marcy is a speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance editor and teaches classes on craft and social media through WANA International. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth at

Take it away Marcy...

As writers, it often feels like we’re asked to balance plates on our heads. And I’m not talking about balancing platform building and writing time, or balancing writing time and real life. I’m talking about finding balance within elements of craft in our writing.

For example, one thing we need to do to make our fiction come alive is use the five senses. When we first start trying to do that, it’s easy to accidentally violate the show, don’t tell principle through words like saw, smelled, tasted, felt, and heard. Yet if we simply do a search for those words and cut them out, we can end up losing important elements of our voice as well.

So what I wanted to talk about today was how we can find the balance. When we do a search for those words in our second (or third or fourth) draft, how can we know when to revise and when to leave them in?

Let’s start with a simple example.

Telling: Pat heard a gunshot in the distance.

Showing: A gunshot echoed over the treetops.
In the telling version, we’ve taken a step back, making ourselves more distant from the story. I am telling you what happened, but I’m not letting you experience it. In the showing version, we’re standing beside Pat (or we’re inside his head) and so we experience the sound of the gunshot along with him.

In other words, you don’t need to tell us he heard a gunshot. Unless Pat is deaf (which could make for an exciting story), we know he heard the gunshot.You need to let us hear the gunshot along with him.

I’ll show you another one that uses sight and smell.
Telling: Emily saw orange and lemon trees on the horizon line, and the air smelled like spoiled fruit.
Not bad, right. You get an idea of where Emily is, and you know it smells bad.
Showing: Orange and lemon trees, limbs sagging with fruit, spread out across the length of the horizon. Wafts of fermented citrus made her nose tingle even though she was still a quarter mile away.
By taking away saw and smelled, it forces us think about vivid details that can bring a scene to life.

This is actually really tricky for writers to master because these terms don’t always indicate telling. There are two times in particular when it’s okay to use the words saw, smelled, heard, felt, or tasted.

In Similes

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two unlike things that resemble each other in some way, often using the words like or as.

I’ll give you two examples from published novels this time.
It smells like meat, like hamburger defrosting on the counter (from Kathleen Stockett’s The Help, describing a miscarried baby).

My knees felt like sponges, wet and squishy—it was impossible to keep standing (from Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid’s Chair).
What I want you to notice is that you need the words smelled and felt in the above examples or you can’t write the simile (at least not without replacing them with a boring state-of-being like were or was).

In the examples above from The Help and The Mermaid’s Chair, the authors could have written those sentences without the simile, and thus kept strictly to showing, but they would have lost their power.

Look at the Sue Monk Kidd example again, but this time I’ve stripped it of the simile to make it strictly show.
The strength left my knees, and I collapsed into the chair.
There are a lot of other ways that sentence could have been written, but without the simile, none of the strictly showing versions would have the same power as the way Sue Monk Kidd wrote it.

In More Distant POV

If you’re writing in omniscient POV or in a very distant third person POV, then you can include these words because those narrative styles allow it. I’m not saying you should. I’m saying you can. Technically omniscient POV is all telling because the narrator isn’t a single character. The narrator is someone all-knowing who stands slightly outside of the story.

If you’re writing in omniscient POV, make sure you don’t use those “five senses” words as a crutch. To do omniscient well, you need an even more vibrant voice and an even better eye for key details than when you write in some other POV because the narrative voice is part of the draw.

On Saturday, July 20, I’m teaching a 90-minute webinar called “Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction” that will help you clearly understand the difference between showing and telling,provide you with guidelines for when to show AND when to tell, and give you practical editing tools for spotting and fixing telling in your writing.Even if you can’t attend the live event, the webinar will be recorded and sent to all registrants.The webinar normally costs $45, but you can get 15% off by entering the discount code MarcyShowTell. Click here to register.

P.S. I’ve put together something special for everyone reading this post today. I’m offering a free PDF called “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Hiring a Freelance Editor.” Click here to sign up for your copy.


  1. Hi Marcy,

    Helpful post...and very timely for me. What time zone are we talking for your webinar?

  2. Great post, Marcy! Thanks for revealing such clever ways to dance around the show/tell problem! The "smell" example is pure genius. You have helped me a lot today!

  3. Thanks, Kelly! Glad I could help :)

  4. Great post, Marcy!

  5. Thank you for these tips. They're really good and easy to understand. Also, very helpful.

  6. Thank you for this wonderful post Marcy! And thanks for the booklet about hiring a freelancer editor, it's something I need to look into.

  7. What time is the webinair?

    1. This is an older article, so the webinar was held back in 2013.