Have you ever poured your heart and soul into writing a scene, spent hours polishing it to perfection, and then sent it off to a group of readers who immediately skim that section?
Yeah, me too.
It’s easy to play it off and blame it on the “writer brain” which always seems to get attached to the most random moments in the story. But if the scene was supposed to play an important role in the plot, then more is at stake than just your favorite scene’s reputation.
Scenes, if done right, will be what the reader will remember the most. Who could ever forget the moment when Frodo succumbs to the ring amidst the fires of Mount Doom? That’s the kind of scene you want to create, one that lives on in the mind of your reader long after they set down your story.
But how do you write scenes readers will remember?
Amidst the many things that make up a good scene, there is one tip that will really anchor your description into reality and the mind of your reader.
It’s time to start using the senses.
Shouldn’t I have something more insightful to share with you, something entirely new and earth-shattering that will make your writing instantly great with little effort?
The funny thing is that many writers talk about using the senses, but rarely do they utilize them in a scene. Or if they do, it’s often in a cursory and forced manner… to fill in a checklist rather than to truly bring depth and meaning to the scene.
The truth is that using sensory details will do that for you. If your reader can see and hear and even taste the scene, then the story will come alive.
If what you want is a quick great-writing tip, then this post isn’t for you. Good writing is good work, always has been and always will be. Implementing this tip will be extremely difficult at times. But it is truly what separates great writing from the mediocre.
Let me give you an example from one of my favorite recent reads Once Upon a Wardrobe:
“Today when I arrive at the house, where I’d lived all my life until I departed for Oxford, the chimney smoke curls upward from a cap at the far-right end of the cottage. I walk carefully along the stone pathway that is covered with snow and glinting with swords of sunlight. I hesitate before placing my hand on the knob of our blue-painted front door.
No matter how I feel, I must appear cheerful for George.
I open the door, and a rush of heat flows towards me with a fireplace scent so reminiscent of my early childhood that my knees almost buckle.
But I can’t fold.
I must be strong.”
This is only a few sentences out of the second chapter, but I’m willing to bet that the author already has you invested. I sure was… I read this book in one sitting, literally. I could not put it down.
How did the author do it? How has she created such a memorable moment and scene that intrigues us so much to find out more?
You could argue for many different things that make these lines so good, but I want to zero in on the vividity of the senses. Read back through the excerpt slowly.
Can you see the scene? Taste it? Feel it?
I sure can. And this isn’t an isolated example.
The author has put intentionality into using the sensory details in all her scenes, so that they follow each other like a string of pearls, creating a wholly cohesive and beautiful story that has become one of my all-time favorites. If we start truly utilizing the senses as the tools they are for writing scenes, we will make our entire stories powerful, impactful, and most of all, truly memorable.
The Senses Defined
As we start truly using the sense in our scenes, it can be difficult for the beginning writer to know what sense to use in which situation. How can you connect the senses to the scene in a way that is truly impactful?
I think that each sense has different ways that it can be connected to the scene. Let’s start with the obvious.
Now, depending on the POV (Point-Of-View) that you are writing your story in, you can use sight in different ways. Sight is a great way to develop your character if you are writing in the first-person. What do they notice about scenes and why?
It’s important that you don’t merely describe what the character sees in a common way, but breathe fresh life into the scene by using vivid metaphors that cause the image to come alive in the reader’s mind.
Notice one of the sentences from our excerpt:
“I walk carefully along the stone pathway that is covered with snow and glinting with swords of sunlight.”
The author could just have easily said that the snow was glittering or glistening. But instead, she chose to use a metaphor that exactly and uniquely describes what happens when the sun hits the snow in a very memorable way. This is what you want to aim for when considering sight.
NOTE: If you are working from the first person, you want to keep in mind your character’s perspective and what kind of comparisons they might make to describe what they see. If you are working with a third-person POV, the same rules apply to you. However, instead of looking at a scene through the lens of a character, you are going to look at it through the lens of the story as a whole.
What details are important to the overall story? What visual elements help drive home the theme you are trying to convey? How do certain things help the atmosphere of your story?
If this seems hard and involved, that’s because it is. It’s a lot harder than just throwing random descriptions on a page. But, with practice, it will come more easily as you continue to develop sight for insightful scenes.
This sense may just be my favorite one out of them all to use. I don’t know if it’s because scents are meaningful to me in real life or because I usually write characters with traumatic backstories.
And the sense of smell is great for bringing up a traumatic backstory. I know of no other sense that can convey such a feeling of home. Notice again how this shows up in our excerpt:
“I open the door, and a rush of heat flows towards me with a fireplace scent so reminiscent of my early childhood that my knees almost buckle.”
Smells are often connected to memories in our minds, and as writers, we can tap into this as much as possible to bring up our character’s backstories and memories in a natural way. Here, the author of Once Upon a Wardrobe didn’t draw into it as much as she could have, but even the brief mention helps to add more depth to the scene.
This sense can be the most difficult one to incorporate; probably because your characters won’t be eating something in every scene. And that’s ok. You don’t have to draw into some weird expressions of “tasting the air” to try to fit every sense into your scene (more on that later).
But there are some good ways to use the sense of taste to incorporate past memories and contrast when you can use food naturally in a scene. Eating certain foods in a scene can be a way to bring up memories as well, and it helps develop characters.
Do your characters like spicy food or mild food? Sweets or savories? What kinds of food are familiar and what are different? Taste can be used in many different ways alongside worldbuilding and character development to bring more and more depth to your story.
This sense is the one that we interact with on a regular basis, but the one that perhaps we notice the least in writing. However, adding a sense of touch to a scene can make it even more concrete in a reader’s mind.
For example, if I were to tell you that “Ellie was writing on her computer keyboard”, you get a certain impression. However, if I tell you that “Ellie’s fingers stamped on the sleek black keyboard,” you get not only a much more vivid image of the scene but also a more memorable one.
(Sorry fingers, but this blog post has to get done on time.)
Go back and take another look at my excerpt from the sense piece. Notice how I also use the sense of touch/feeling to express the contrast in climate between the countries. Describing how cold or warm something is also a great way to implement the sense of touch while giving scenes a very three-dimensional quality.
If you can do this well, you are one step ahead of many writers currently jostling in the field.
Out of all the senses, this is the one that I am most personally in tune with (no pun intended). As an audible learner, audiobooks, music, and even people talking have a special charm and power for me. But how on earth does that translate to the actual written word?
Using the sense of hearing can help to anchor a scene. What I mean by this is that instead of describing distances, you can use hearing to show us where people are. If someone can hear something faintly, they are obviously far away etc.
Making sure you are describing tone as well as just words is another great way to elevate the dialogue in a scene! Let’s look at another excerpt from Once Upon a Wardrobe:
“Mum flings open the front door and pokes her head out. ‘I see only your footprints in the snow,’ she says, and I hear relief in her words.”
The author isn’t just telling us what Mum said, but what the words sounded like (full of relief). This allows the reader to better understand the line of dialogue, bringing a depth to it that it would lack if it were simply “I see only your footprints in the snow”…
The sense of hearing can also be used for character development. Does your character read a lot into people’s tones or are they tone-deaf (with all the communication problems that comes with)? Does your character love music or hate it? Are they touched by sounds or in tune with their surroundings?
NOTE: These uses are helpful to consider unless you are intentionally writing with a character who is hard of hearing. Then hearing obviously becomes an important sense for its very absence.
All the senses can be used in different and similar ways to anchor your scenes, characters, and stories as a whole. But how should you use the senses together in a scene?
Let me give you my number one tip.
How to Write Scenes Readers Will Remember Using the Senses: The Rule that Changed Everything
Well, now you know what each of the senses can be used for in scenes, it’s time to share with you my super-secret, incredibly well-known rule that has become my favorite tip for writing scenes.
This is the 3 of 5 Rule.
It’s just what it sounds like. In every scene, you should have at least three out of the five senses for maximum effectiveness. This was a game changer for me when I started applying it to my fiction.
Instead of trying to mash together all the senses into my scenes, I was able to pick and choose which ones I found the most effective according to what I needed in the scene. Note that this rule is not hard and fast. In some scenes, I may include more or fewer senses depending on the length of the scene and what I am trying to accomplish.
The senses serve the scene; the scene does not serve the senses.
Look back at our excerpt at the beginning of this post. See how many sensory references you can find. I bet you’ll never guess how many there are…
You Know How to Use the Senses in a Scene… Now What?
Now that you’ve learned what each sense can be used for in writing, how you can implement the senses practically, and my favorite rule of thumb for using the senses. I want to challenge you to take a look at your current story, scene by scene. Look at how you’ve already been incorporating the senses. Do you need to include more? Take some out?
Put on your editor hat and get to work.
And for those of you who are just starting, even with the thrill of drafting, don’t wait to incorporate the senses. Allow the sensory details to make your scenes feel alive as you work your way through; you’ll be saving yourself a lot of trouble for later!
Need help remembering how to use the senses in scenes? Download our free printable How to Use the Senses Guide by clicking below!