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The Little Things Novice Writers Miss: The Use of All Five Senses

We've spent the few months exploring the ways novice writers mark themselves as amateurs, discussing how to develop the world beyond your story, build animals into your world, develop your side characters' motivations, and catch filter words in your writing. Now, it's time to discover how to incorporate all four senses into your work and how those senses relate to everything else we've discussed.

The importance of all five senses

Unlike some of our other topics, you've probably heard this one before. "Remember all five senses" is some of the most common writing advice because it's some of the best ones around. Using your characters' senses is a great way to ground your reader in the character's mind and the story's setting.

The problem is that when people discuss how to do this, the advice often falls short. It tells you how to work with each individual sense without explaining how to use them together.

This leads to new writers doing one of two things: forgetting to use multiple senses altogether or shoving every sense into every scene in clumsy ways. Both approaches can harm your story and expose you as an amateur.

So, how do you incorporate all five senses properly?

The use of your characters' senses should feel natural. To accomplish this, remember a few rules as you write:

1. People notice different things - A character used to living on major streets in a modern city probably won't notice the sound of regular traffic much, but someone from a small town might be overwhelmed by it. People's eyes are also attracted to different things, especially colors.

2. All the senses can be either pleasant or unpleasant - Our senses are how we understand the world. In pleasant times, they can be great sources of pleasure and joy. In less fortunate times, they can cause us enormous amounts of pain.

3. Extreme sensation in one area will often dull other senses - A stench so strong it makes you nauseated will make it difficult to pay attention to what you're seeing or hearing. A gruesome sight will often distract your mind from everything else happening around you. If you hurt yourself, you'll become painfully aware of the injury, and sensations in the rest of your body will fade into the background. Your characters' senses should work the same way.

4. What you sense tells a story - You can learn a lot about a person from their posture and speech patterns. The smells in a house or even a city can tell you a lot about the people who live there. Go beyond the superficial things your character senses to focus on what their senses teach them.

5. All senses are connected to memory - People often talk about memory in the context of smell. This makes sense because there's extensive research on the connection between smell and memory, but all your senses are connected to memory. Seeing, tasting, or touching something familiar can trigger a memory at any point.

Final advice

To include all five senses in a natural way, focus on how those senses combine to create a full experience, not just how individual senses respond to stimuli. Always remember that your goal is to immerse your readers in the story you're creating, not simply to tell them what happened.

Little Things Writers Miss is a series exploring common elements of world-building, character development, and story elements that novice writers often neglect. Every month on the 15th and 30th (or the closest weekdays), we will explore two of the little things writers miss, helping writers identify and eliminate issues in their own work.

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Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and the Write Plan content writer. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.


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