Monday, April 12, 2010

Use Your Senses - A Way to Show and Don't Tell

I think that too often, when I see stories that are falling flat, it stems from a writer failing to tap into all of the tools in their writer's tool box to tell that story. Sure there are great lines, sure the characters have interesting backstories, but in the end everything fall flat. Why? The writers simply are not using their senses.

We have to think that in real life, when we experience anything, all of our senses are in place. We don't just rely on one thing to describe something we experience. A great analogy for this would be the taste of food when we are sick. Why is it that everything looks awful and we lose our appetites? It's simply because one or more of our senses are defunct. Food looks awful, it smells awful, and there is not taste.

Now, apply that same idea to the writing you do. As a writer it is your responsibility to use all of those senses to suck the reader into a story.

Let's try something. I am assuming in most cases this will work for all of you. I want you to think of your grandmother's house at Christmas or Thanksgiving (or any major winter or fall holiday). You walk in the door and are immediately bombarded by a full sensory overload. You can hear her cooking in the kitchen. The temperature in the house is probably up because of the oven going all day. The smells are hitting you from all angles and most likely the house is fully illuminated ready for a house full of people. You might even add in the comfortable chair everyone fits to sit in. All of those senses are necessary to really paint a picture for a reader.

I link this to that show don't tell aspect because this is just one of those aspects that will add to creating that three-dimensional feel for your readers. Don't rely on simply telling us the Grandma's house was full of Christmas spirit. Drive it home for the reader with all of your senses.

A great practice for this would be to try to write a short paragraph using all of the senses but one - sight. Paint a picture for a reader and really tap into those senses. Once you have mastered that, you should find your writing really getting that added depth you are looking for.



  1. Great post, Scott. This is also ideal timing as I am beginning to revise my finished draft.



  2. This is an area that I tend to struggle with. In my rush to get plot details to unfold, I often forget to slow down and set the stage. As I make my next pass through my novel, I'm staging the scenes with more details.

    Greta post.

  3. Yes, your first draft can seem cold and plot heavy. But when you go back and season it with senses, it becomes real and alluring and therefore transportive. Taking the time to go back through the manuscript to do this is relatively easy and will pay off hugely.

    Yes, Scott, very timely and excellent illustration.

  4. A useful and informative post.

    I am on edit 2 of my wip, and am adding senses now. My beta reader mentioned I had not written many in, so I am concentrating on just that. Next edit, it will be dialogue improvement.