Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Putting In Your Five Senses Worth

By Sandra Havriluk, @SandraHavriluk

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Description cab be both a lot of fun, and a pain to write. It's a necessary evil in any good story, so it's important we do our best to bring our settings and world to life for our readers. Please help me welcome Sandra Havriluk to the lecture hall today to share an exercise to make "sense" of our descriptions.

A native Georgian, Sandra earned her English degree from the University of Georgia and her MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University. She worked as a trainer, technical writer, and project manager for AT&T before having children. When they started school, she went back to school to earn her teaching certification. She has taught every age level from pre-school to college. Now a full-time author, Sandra also teaches Creative Writing to children and adults at the Community Arts Center. She’s an avid walker, using that time to work out story arcs and to remind herself of the importance of carpe diem. Sandra lives in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, with her husband John and sweet rescue dog Jackpot, who hit the jackpot when she adopted him. Look for Sandra’s children stories published in Highlights Magazine. Her debut romance novel Treacherous Hearts (YA historical fiction) will be released by High Hill Press in 2017.

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Take it away Sandra...

One of the best pieces of advice for revision I’ve gleaned from attending creative writing classes and workshops has been to ensure each scene appeals to at least three of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Adding sensory appeal pulls the reader into the immediacy of the scene. Through sensory impressions, characterization can be deepened, motives attributed, setting better fleshed out, and plot advanced.

Let’s compare these two passages, the original one and the revised one in which sensory impression has been added.

Sitting in the driver’s seat of the rental Hyundai, Evie oriented herself to its options, a little overwhelmed. How long had it been since she’d driven? Living in Manhattan, the subway, bus, cab or her own two feet got her where she was going. She cranked the engine. After figuring out the essentials, she pulled out and started her drive home.

In the above passage, we know that Evie is nervous about driving and that she is heading home. It is a straight-forward scene and moves the story forward.

Evie settled in the driver’s seat of the new model Hyundai. The shiny red color of the rental didn’t match her dark mood.She breathed in the new-car smell to steady her nerves.How long had it been since she’d driven? Living in Manhattan, the subway, bus, cab or her own two feet got her where she was going.When she cranked the engine, the dashboard leapt to life. She focused her attention on the most important readouts. Fuel? Good. The red arrow registered full for the long drive. AC? She figured out the thermostat buttons, and cool air began to blow. Audio? That almost tripped her up. She found an FM country station. Kenny Chesney was singing,“Somebody Take Me Home.”Exactly, she thought. Take me home. She pulled out of the rental lot. A tear trickled down her cheek, grazing her lips and leaving a trace of saltiness.

In the revised passage, the basic purpose of the original version is intact. Evie is nervous about driving and she is heading home. However, by adding in sensory impression, we learn so much more. We learn Evie’s emotional state (the red color of the car doesn’t match her dark mood). We learn her drive will be long (the red arrow of the fuel tank registered full). The day is warm (cool air began to blow from the AC). She loves country music, and the particular song playing resonates with her, layering in her emotional state and destination (“Somebody Take Me Home,” tear trickling). The chart below summarizes the added sensory impression.

Sight details:
color of the car; the dashboard details

Sound details: music

Smell details: smell of the interior of car

Taste: the tear

Touch: cool air from AC

This exercise illustrates adding detail using all five senses. When revising scenes, not all five senses may be needed. However, as the example shows, putting in your five sense worth adds detail to transform a humdrum scene into one that pulls extra duty.


  1. Poul Anderson, the great science fiction/fantasy writer, once said that each scene should have at least three senses used. That's great advice and a good rule of thumb.

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  3. Very nice. Great examples. Thanks for the post.