The Five Senses and Fiction


In order for a story to stay interesting the novelist needs to engage the five senses when writing any scene. For a scene or character to come to life, we need sound, taste, touch, and smell as well as the visual. Our visual sense is our largest and most dominant sense, and a descriptive paragraph will set up the scene quickly, but without the other senses of sound, taste, touch and smell, it falls flat. Using the five senses together will engage the reader and make characters jump off the page. You know it’s good when you get lost in a story.

Interestingly, there is a physiological response to good writing too. We get excited. We can experience changes in our limbic system without moving a muscle, and we’re told that’s why creative visualization works because it is a way of engaging the mind in experiencing an emotional response. The mind when it is really engaged, cannot tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t. In a dream, you feel the same fear you may feel when chased in real life, maybe even more intensely. The body’s response is just as real in either instance, as rapid heart beat, galvanic skin response, elevation in blood pressure and dilation of pupils are experienced, admittedly it is relative, but this is part of the reason for the success of first person shooter games. Reading good fiction should engage the amygdala or the limbic system. The release of neurotransmitters associated with a fight or flight response, food, lovemaking, learning and maternal instinct are engaged with a good bit of fiction. So remember to add as many senses as makes sense to every scene.

Visual example:
She fell and her protective suit’s helmet snagged on a low hung branch of a dead tree and ripped.

Visual, touch, sound:
She fell – her protective suit snagging on a gnarled low hung branch of a dead tree. She heard the helmet rip as she pulled away from the rough branch.

Visual, touch, sound, smell, taste:
She fell, reaching for a dead tree. A rough branch snagged her protective suit’s helmet. As she pulled away she heard the fabric rip. The sulfurous air made her gag and cough.