Use All 5 Senses to Bring Your Setting to Life

Use All 5 Senses to Bring Your Setting to Life

Use All 5 Senses to Bring Your Setting to LifeUnlike movies, which are inherently visual and auditory, your written fiction depends solely on your power of description to evoke reaction of the senses from your readers and bring your setting to life.

This is tricky business, since you want to bring the scene to life, but you don’t want to bore readers with lengthy explanations.

So what’s the solution?

What you want to do is use highly evocative phrases to pique all five senses.

Here’s How Even the Smallest Sensory Description Will Bring Your Setting to Life

In the opening chapter of Sunrise Song, Catherine Palmer does a marvelous job of raising her Kenyan setting into the three-dimensional realm thanks to her deft use of a single sensory detail. She writes:

[A] rich smell of heat and soil and fragrant grasses hung thick in the air.

In reading this, I was instantly transported from merely visualizing the African bush to actually participating in it.

What’s the Most Important Sense to Use in Descriptions?

Too often, writers focus on sight and sound to the exclusion of taste, touch, and smell. But because of the limitations of the medium, you can’t afford to waste even one of these senses.

Experts claim smell is the sense connected most integrally to memory. As a result, it holds significant power in bringing your setting to life.

As you’re writing and rewriting, pay attention to all the senses. Look beyond just simple descriptions of how things look, and start thinking about how you can use small telling details to evoke all five senses.

Of course, there’s no need to bombard the reader with five descriptions of every scene. But try to balance your use of the senses over the course of your entire story. If you can do that, you’ll be able to pull your reader out of his chair and bring your setting to life!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you think is the most powerful of the five senses to use to bring your setting to life? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. there’s a similar post today on Oasis for YA about using the five senses in makeout scenes (LOL!) but also v. good. Thanks for the insights; this is good stuff~

  2. You always have such awesome vlogs! I definitely leave smell out, when it comes to describing my scenes… time to add it back in, especially as memories are so important to my MC! Glad I watched this today!

  3. Thanks for the reminder! It’s so easy to devolve into visual explanations at the expense of the senses that really suck the reader into the scene.

  4. @LTM: Senses just come in so handy all over the place, don’t they? 😉

    @Elegant: I think the reason we often neglect smell is that it can seem difficult to evoke. But we need just one detail to make it pop.

    @Jonathan: Thinking outside the box, in regard to senses, can really bring your writing to life.

  5. I tend to forget smell and touch most often. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Taste and smell are probably my most neglected senses.

  7. Just remember: a laundry list of senses doesn’t help. All it does is tell the reader, “Oh, yeah. I’m supposed to incorporate the senses. Here we go.”

    Remember to stay in your character’s head, too. Make sure the character actually WOULD notice those sorts of things. No waxing poetic about the glorious sunset if he’s not the type to use that kind of vocabulary.

  8. Description is all about finding the telling detail. Paragraph after paragraph of description doesn’t have near the power of just one precise detail.

  9. I’m actually going back right now and adding smell to a scene… see? We do learn–LOL! No, THANKS!

  10. Love your Vlogs! Always so helpful. For me, the sense of smell is so important. Today I passed a chestnut in bloom and the smell immediately transported me to an event in my childhood. Thanks for the reminder.

  11. I think the reason the mention of the smell of warm dirt was so evocative to me in the example sentence was the connection to fond childhood memories of playing in the dirt. (I was a very dirty child. 😉

  12. Stopped by to vote! Good luck on the writing books!

  13. Thanks so much, Kathryn!

  14. I love that you’ve touched on this today.
    My husband and I took our youth to the Holy Land Experience in Ocala, FL. While I was there, I forced myself to used all five senses, and wrote about them.
    I enjoyed working past the usual ‘bright sun, green leaves’ routine, and went even deeper in the descriptions after I’d written down the basics of them.
    This was a fun exercise and I look forward to doing it ALL the time.
    I’m still trying to train my mind to notice these things 😀
    Thanks for the post!
    I enjoyed it.

  15. Great post! I’ve noticed the sense of smell is forgotten sometimes, at least in some stuff I’ve read. I agree, it really completes the scene. A particular scene in SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater, uses the sense of smell deliciously. it really opened it up for me. I have to admit description is not my forte, but I’m getting better!

    Great topic! Another awesome Vlog ;o)

  16. @Kelly: Sounds like a super exercise. Good for your memory and your imagination both!

    @Erica: You’re the second person to mention Shiver this week. I’m going to have to take a look at it now!

  17. I have a wolf nose, so of course my main characters often relate to their surroundings through their sense of smell. Evoking a visceral reaction in your reader, either a relaxing of the body and an ahhhh by usuing beautiful sensory imagery, or an ugh and a tightening of the body when describing a bad smell can really make a difference when grabbing the reader. Choosing which to use is just a matter of whether you want to grab them by the throat, or …laughing…by their imagination.

    Great vlog today.
    PS:I voted in the poll. Good luck with the project!

  18. I temporarily warped my sense of smell after a bad cold years ago. I was glad to get it back and put to work researching!

  19. luv this… I am learning to bring my 5 senses to every aspect of my writing. Thanks for the affirmation!

  20. It’s a fun exercise. Definitely opens the writing horizons!

  21. Yes! I remembered to add smells and touch. Let’s hope it works for the reader. Great video, thanks 🙂

  22. Good for you!

  23. This is a really powerful skill. One I am having a hard time to master. 🙂

  24. I think when we relate too much on just the normal senses much is lost. We want the adrenaline rush, the endorphen high, the sharpening of the senses during danger, the sense of propioception, the hightened colors of polorized light. These incorporate internal feelings, not sight, hearing, smell, taste,or touch, but the pounding heart, the dizziness, the nervous energy tingle, the inner warmth of contentment when sated. or the disoriented feeling of losing balance or feeling. I would vote for the internal senses as the best teller of the situation. The picture must include the emotional response desired in some way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. We’re not wanting “ordinary” senses for the most part, but extraordinary ones.

      • These senses are not extraordinary, in fact are quite universal. They are only not often related or even unrecognized in writing. Most people tend to relate rather to the emotional state they convey and disregard the physical traits that outline them. However, thank you for confirming my general hypothesis.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Extraordinary in the sense that they’re occurring in extraordinary moments for the characters.

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