Hack Your Readers' Brains by Describing the Five Senses

Hack Your Readers’ Brains by Describing the Five Senses

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s the Snoopy-at-his-typewriter iconic opening line of melodramatic English literature. But read the whole paragraph from Sir Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford and then let me ask you a question.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

As over-the top as that is, can you see it? Can you feel the rain drenching your wool coat, and cold rivulets of water running down your back?

Snoopy at the Typewriter It Was a Dark and Stormy Night Charles Schulz

Writing is a Battle for Your Reader’s Senses

It’s not cool to say anything positive about that stormy night, since this paragraph has been eviscerated countless times . In 1830, though, this novel was the bee’s knees. And it puts me in mind of some advice a bestselling author gave me once:

Attack the senses and you will drag your readers by the hair into your story. Draw blood; fill their nostrils with smoke.

Uh… okay… I’d never looked at my writing quite that way.

The author  explained, and with less violent language, that describing the five senses is a surefire way to engage your readers and pull them into the story. Make. It. Real.

And then she asked me: would I remember her advice?

I can honestly say I’ll never forget that draw blood bit.

Learn How to Describe the Five Senses Like a Master

How, exactly, do we rush headlong into the battle to capture a reader’s precious attention via the senses?

  • Read. Read—the masters, and your fellow authors.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

Masque of the Red Death Edgar Allan Poe Vincent Price

Example: How to Describe Sound

Edgar Allen Poe was a genius at assailing the senses. No wonder the man wrote horror. He could twist your guts with the mere turn of a phrase. I think he was particularly adept at sound. For example, in Masque of the Red Death, he uses the chime of a somber, arguably brooding, grandfather clock to permeate, and dampen, Prince Prospero’s party.

Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was so clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause momentarily…

And, of course, this hellish bell tolls as the ghostly Red Death makes his appearance. It is positively eerie and wonderfully masterful. You hear the clock without hearing it. Poe’s writing here is rhythmic. He uses vivid verbs and adjectives conducive to creating the creepy mood. His words resonate with impact and sound. The sentence length is long, giving us plenty of time to ponder this mysterious clock.

Tell Tale Heart Edgar Allan PoeOr what of his most famous tale in which the sense of sound is the key to the story, unlocking the door to a living, breathing, growing madness? Of course the beat of the victim’s heart is over-arching, but rhythm is everything.

It begins benignly enough:

Now, I say, there came to my ears, a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.

But, by the end of the story, the monster is unleashed by the simple, rhythmic heartbeat.

I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides … but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed— I raved— I swore! … It grew louder— louder— louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!— no, no!

Passionate, violent, staccato sentences and fragments fire at the reader like a Gatling gun. The stories are opposites in style and mood, but no less terrifying, and quite evocative. Amazing, isn’t it, the power of mere words?

Example: How to Describe Touch

Some senses, in my opinion, are easier than others to use to full impact. Touch presents the best opportunity to capture your readers, but it’s the biggest challenge. If you can’t draw blood, metaphorically speaking, they’ll shut down the Kindle.

Dark Witch Nora robertsIn Norah Robert’s Dark Witch, our heroine gets her first look at Ireland, and it is like a slap in the face:

The cold carved bone deep, fueled by the lash of the wind, iced by the drowning rain gushing from a bruised, bloated sky….

This passage takes no prisoners. In describing the cold, Roberts wields verbs and adjectives like a sharp sword. Not a wasted word. You see it. You feel it. You want a warm mug of coffee and a coat.

Wounds Alton GanskyConversely, anyone who has ever experienced Deep South Humidity can appreciate this powerful passage from Alton Gansky’s novel Wounds:

A bead of sweat trickled down the preacher’s spine, trekking south toward a perspiration-soaked waistband … the growing rivulet widened and flowed faster with each minute. A similar outpouring ran from beneath his arms and down his sides, gluing his dress shirt to damp skin.

No flashy words there. No breath-stealing verbs. Justprecise descriptions that immerse you in the sticky air.

How to Put the Senses to Work in Your Own Descriptions

Read a book with a pen in your hand (or use your finger, as on the Kindle), and highlight those passages that strike a sense. Did you touch it? Taste it? See it? Did you bleed? Could you smell the smoke?

Then try to answer the question: How did the author make it feel real?

Did he use short sentences, long sentences, or a mix? Strong verbs, vivid adjectives, or word choices that set the mood? It’s a form of reverse engineering, and you’ll be amazed at what you pick up.

Sure, maybe one day your work will be mocked and ridiculed and Snoopy will be typing your first line, but, hey, as long as it’s remembered, is that really such a bad thing?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your biggest challenge in describing the five senses? Tell me in the comments!

Hack Your Readers' Brains by Describing the Five Senses

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About Heather Blanton | @heatherfblanton

Heather Blanton grew up in the mountains of Western North Carolina on a steady diet of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and John Wayne westerns. She loves exploring out West, especially ghost towns and museums. She has walked parts of the Oregon Trail, ridden horses through the Rockies, climbed to the top of Independence Rock, and even held an outlaw's note in her hand. Currently, she lives in Raleigh, NC, on a small farm with three boys (12, 15, and 55) and a zoo.

Comments

  1. What a great post! Very inspiring.

    Using senses is something I struggle with in my own writing (especially sounds, for some reason). I’ll definitely use the tips in this post and study the works of other authors. Just need to stock up on more highlighters first 🙂

  2. I have a hard time describing things in my story. I do more tell than show. I’m in the midst of editing my novel, do this is helpful. Thank you.

    • Sometimes I just sit back and “fall into” a scene. I literally close my eyes and put myself in my character’s head. Seriously, this is different from just writing a scene. It’s like method acting, so to speak. So, write what speaks to you! The things that jump out will be astonishing and add spectacular depth to your writing!

      • I love this idea!

      • Joe Long says:

        This is how I’ve best managed to avoid data dumps. My first choice in showing is to have the characters say to each other the things I want to tell, but especially when there’s a lack of dialogue, I attempt to describe the narrator’s thoughts and senses, seeing the world through his eyes instead of reciting things as history.

  3. These are awesome suggestions! Description is definitely something I struggle with.

  4. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Heather!

    • Thank you for the awesome opportunity. I know this “technique” sure changed the way I write. It also makes writing a scene a bit easier. Gets the wheels turning! Thank you again!

  5. Don’t forget the the reason for the description. t was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. The sniper in the bell tower waiting for his shot at the prince hunkered low. I must stay warm.

  6. Awesome post, Heather!

  7. This is one of the biggest weaknesses in my writing. I’ll be bookmarking this article for future reference!!

    • Sandy, take 5 minutes, get a marker and pull out a book. A really good one. Open randomly to any page and start marking. You won’t be sorry! I promise. And your writing will improve!

  8. It’s taken awhile to learn the art of using the five senses correctly, and sometimes I still struggle. Kind of like putting your shoes and socks on in the dark.

    Mostly, I have a hard time describing feeling, without sounding trite

  9. Fantastic post — thanks so much!! 🙂 And I’ll be trying that exercise….

  10. I finally got Shutter Island on audiobook from the library and was deeply and favorably impressed with the metaphors and similes. On memorable simile was a description of lights coming on with a sound “like bones breaking underwater.”

    I have no idea what bones sound like breaking underwater, but I know what those lights sounded like coming on. How is that possible?

  11. Thanks for the advice Heather. Do you have any top authors you recommend for this?

  12. Really, the only thing wrong with ‘It was a dark and stormy night … etc.” is ‘for it is in London that our scene takes place.’ That part just totally pulls you out of the moment. I don’t care if it’s in London yet, you can convey that to me later. Right now, just describe the dark and stormy night, please 🙂

    I LOVE The Tell Tale Heart. So creepy. I read it ages ago, but it left a very definite impression on me.

  13. Oh, boy, do I! K.M. Weiland, for one! LOL. I’ll give you a variety of some of my other favorites. Louis L’Amour, Francine Rivers, Dickens, Tennyson (yes, the poet!), Emily Bronte, Stephen King. Owen Wister (though he is wordy).

  14. Poe really was great with sound, wasn’t he? I never thought much about it. He even heard a raven speak. (I’m trying to stay away from lyrical work right now because I don’t want my own writing to end up being too pretty.)
    HP Lovecraft had a problem with his stories, he kept encountering things that he couldn’t describe.
    I’m going to get a copy of Dark Witch.
    Thank you for your insight on sensory delights.

    • On second thought, I don’t think I’ll get the Dark Witch book. The Three Sisters series looks like a better choice for me.

      • Probably wouldn’t go wrong either way. If I had one complaint about Nora Roberts, she tends to resolve sexual tension sooner rather than later. That is totally my personal opinion. Otherwise, I adore her writing.

  15. Thank you! I already have 2 of those as regulars (king and katie of course!)

  16. I’m a visual guy so I focus on eyesight. Mostly I omit everthing else but sight and sound.

    “And the Red Death held indomitable dominion over all.” Best closing line of a short story I ever read.

  17. And it has alliteration. Indomitable dominion. Yeah…

  18. Connie White says:

    Excellent advice and very well written. You are right on in all that you say. I am constantly closing my eyes and picturing everything in my scene, and I imagine myself as each character. I don’t know how to write any other way. It’s especially important for a scriptwriter!

  19. Connie White says:

    This is a great article, Heather. I tried to post a comment, but it didn’t show up. I might now have more than one show up. I think everything you said is important. When I write, the first thing I usually do is to close my eyes and picture every detail in my mind. I also imagine myself as each of my characters. This is especially important to scriptwriters.

  20. Thanks, Connie! We can’t ever short change the senses!

  21. Great post, Heather. But your books aways allow me to be there in the midst. Also love Poe ad his masterful way with words. Keep on writing, my friend!

  22. Thank you, Marjorie. I’m not ashamed to tell people I dissect books and study, study, study, to keep improving my writing!

  23. I love describing by using smell. It’s very hard and I’m still learning, but I think it is very powerful: I close my eyes and I “smell” the scene. Fantastic!

  24. You want a writer who goes a little over the top with description, but you’ll never forget it. Owen Wister, The Virginian. Thanks for reading!

  25. Thank you for your advice!

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