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Stronger Writing: Use Your (Characters’) Senses!

Cartoon image of a woman with red hair, surrounded by images of a human hand, blue eye, mouth, nose, and ear to illustrate the five sensesIf you’ve been writing fiction for more than, oh, about twenty minutes, you’ve no doubt been advised to use at least three of the five senses to bring your prose to life. Most narrative describes what the characters see and hear, but adding smell, taste, or sensation can enrich the sense of place and elevate the reading experience.

Not all sensory information is created equal, of course. The best sensory information comes straight from the character’s experience to the reader’s experience. It comes from within the character’s point of view. Weak sensory information comes from a step outside the character’s point of view.

How Do I Know if my Sensory Information is Strong or Weak?

Look at your choice of verbs. Verbs that refer to the sense they’re related to — see, look, watch, listen, hear, sound, feel, feel like, touch, sense, smell, taste — are filtering verbs. They filter the experience through the character’s perception.

Strong sensory information is showing. Weak sensory information is telling. Filtering verbs tell the reader that the character experiences something, rather than showing the reader what the character experiences.

Look at the difference verb choice makes in these pairs of sentences:

  • (Filtered) I saw the cop spill his coffee as he saw me go past at twenty over the limit.
  • (Not filtered) The cop spilled his coffee as I shot past at twenty over the limit.
  • (Filtered) Imogen could hear Bunty sigh.
  • (Not filtered) Bunty sighed.
  • (Filtered) Bunty was feeling terribly lonesome, now that Edgar was gone.
  • (Not filtered) Bunty ached with missing Edgar.
  • (Filtered) Roger could smell smoke.
  • (Not filtered) Black smoke drifted east, filling Roger’s nose with the skunklike stench of burning rubber.

Verb choice changes everything. We go from telling that the characters experience X to showing what they experience.

I’ll Kill the Filters With Fire! How Do I Find Them?

There are certain telltale filtering constructions, like [subject] [sensed] (“Bob saw”), [subject] was [sense]ing (“Jillian was listening”), [subject] could [sense] (“Vladimir could feel”) and the like.

Here’s something that really helped me, and might help you. Do a search on the present, past, and “-ing” formations of the sensory words listed above and any others you can think of. Highlight each of the five senses in a different colour. You will you soon see which senses provide most of your narrative information, how often you use the filtering verbs, and which constructions you lean on most. Then you can review each occurrence for appropriateness.

The first time I did this highlighting exercise, there were “seeing” and “hearing” highlights throughout, dotted here and there with another sense, mostly “smelling”. And I don’t think there was a single sensory description that wasn’t filtered. In fact, many of my first drafts are still rife with that stuff. But they die a death in the revision stage.

Is it Ever Okay to Use Filtering Verbs?

Yes! In fact, it’s the best choice when the act of sensing is critical to the meaning of the sentence.

… such as for emotional impact:

  • Jane watched in surprise as Paul — her Paul — draped his arm around a strange woman and offered her his ice cream cone. (Paul’s canoodling is important, but Jane’s witnessing of it gives context and emotional impact.)

… or to illustrate a difference of knowledge or perception among characters in the same scene:

  • Everyone else had turned to watch the smoke billowing out of the movie theatre, but Rick noticed the masked man bursting out of the bank and running east toward Oak Street.

… or when sensory perception has been blocked, and becomes unblocked (or vice versa).

The sun finally came up and the hikers saw what they had missed in the darkness yesterday: the sign pointing to the path back to the parking lot, not twenty feet away.

… especially when the sensory input directly affects what happens next. 

Imogen heard Bunty sigh in the parlour. With a resigned sigh of her own, Imogen went into the parlour to comfort her sister.

In her surprise at seeing her husband canoodling with a strange woman, Jane forgot to watch where she was going. She tripped over a curb, flailed, and crashed gracelessly to the grass, tearing her stockings and muddying the elbows of her pink tweed jacket.

Rick noticed the bank robber emerge from the building, yelled “call 9-1-1!” to his friend, and set off in pursuit of the bandit.

Now able to see how close they had been to safety, the hikers resumed the argument and blame-casting of the previous evening.

Roger smelled smoke, so went outside to investigate.

Minimizing or eliminating sensory filters keeps the narrative point of view consistent, and that makes for better reader experience. And that, my friends, is stronger writing.

Did you strongly agree or strongly disagree with anything in this post? Did I miss anything obvious? If you tried the highlighting exercise, what did it show you?

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. My blog is science based. I’m guessing yours in English based. I have just written a blog about the scientific side of human senses I think you would enjoy it. Might be a bit difficult to incorporate into fictional stories but is quite interesting. Follow me, I hope you enjoy it!

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