Skip to content

Showing vs. Telling—Do You Smell What I Taste?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

As a reminder, here are the three areas Sol Stein lists as vulnerable to telling rather than showing:

  1. Telling what happened before the story began
  2. Telling what a character looks like
  3. Telling what a character senses (the 5 senses) and feels (emotions)

Yesterday, we looked at the signposts for telling in two of the five senses:

  • Character SAW/WATCHED (She saw him running down the street.)
  • Character HEARD (He heard a knock at the door.)

Today, we’re going to look at the other three senses: smell, taste, touch:

  • Something SMELLED adjective. / Character SMELLED something. (Something smelled like it was burning.)
  • Something TASTED adjective. / Character TASTED something. (The sweet taste of the apple filled her mouth a moment before she realized it was poisoned.)
  • Character TOUCHED something. / Something TOUCHED character. / Character FELT something. (He looked down when he felt something brush against his leg and saw a cat.

As with showing character emotions, make the object of the senses DO something . . . or at least make it as picturesque and descriptive as possible. This is where your thesaurus (or will come in very handy to help you paint the picture of what is being experienced by your POV character.

SMELL is such a funny word in that it can be used for the action of taking in and recognizing an aroma as well as describing something as giving off an aroma. If you write It smelled, are you saying that “it” did the action of breathing in through the nose and recognizing a scent or are you saying that “it” is giving off a pungency that is unpleasant? TASTE is the same way. TOUCH can mean to actually come into physical contact with something or to be affected emotionally by something. Therefore, we should be as specific as possible.

Unlike seeing and hearing, there is more of an awareness that comes with these final three senses. When we smell something, we are aware we are smelling it or else it would not gain our attention. Same as when we taste and touch things.

      I recognized him even with my eyes closed by the scent of his cologne. or

      She didn’t like the way the fish tasted, so she pushed the plate away. or

      But Jesus said, “Someone did touch Me, for I was aware that power had gone out of Me” (Luke 8:46).

One of the best ways to overcome “telling” about smells, tastes, and textures/touches in your writing is to become a connoisseur of smells, tastes, and textures/touches. Read perfume descriptions (Light Blue is a feminine, fruity-floral fragrance, composed of granny smith apple, Sicilian cedar, bluebells, jasmine, white rose, bamboo, cedarwood, amber and musk. The lead fragrance is crisp but finishes with the fullness of amber and musk.—Dolce & Gabanna’s “Light Blue” from for scents or wine descriptions and reviews (Central Coast is a wine that has vibrant fruit aromas of black cherry and plum. This Petite Sirah is full bodied, yet it has a very mellow structure. With a hint of oak and vanilla on the palate, the finish on this wine is quite lasting and memorable.—Concannon 2004 Limited Release Petite Sirah from or other gourmet foods for tastes. Remember that the sense of taste is tied to the sense of smell.

Try this exercise. Close your eyes (well, after you finish reading this paragraph!). Imagine you are walking into your favorite restaurant. What does it smell like? Start breaking apart the smell into layers (yes, like an onion, Shrek). What are the component parts of the aroma—garlic, basil, tomato? Corn, cilantro, peppers? Feta cheese, oregano, lamb?

The heavenly aroma of garlic, basil, and oregano mixed with the unmistakable yeasty scent of fresh bread and wafted on the cool air that blew in her face when she opened the door. Anne’s salivary glands kicked into overdrive and her stomach growled. She really needed to stop skipping lunch. (Kaye Dacus, Stand-In Groom)

What kind of restaurant did she enter?

When it comes to touch, focus on textures (grainy, coarse, woven, pile, nap, shag, knobby, pitted, pocked, indented, rough, irregular, smooth, dainty, delicate, gossamer, downy, fuzzy, peach fuzz, satiny, gritty, fluffy, velvety, gauzy, etc.) and actions/reactions:

  • He leaned forward and kissed her, his lips warm, soft, and electric.
  • William ran his hand along Alexandra’s satiny wood and sinuous curves; a tingling shivered up his arm to his heart.
  • His breath tickled her ear as he whispered the heart-touching lyrics of the song . . .
  • Susan ran her finger along the embellished epaulette and tapped the metallic crown-and-anchor insignia on it that marked Collin’s years of service.

If you have kids, this is an area where you can incorporate them into your writing. Pull together five or six differently textured items and put them into paper bags. Have your child reach one hand into the bag and try to describe what the item feels like. Or for more messy items, have the child(ren) sit at the table and pass liquidy or squishy stuff in bowls around under the table (so they can’t see it) and have them describe it and try to figure out what it is. Another way to do this is to take one child out of the room, have him/her do this blind touch-test then go back into the room with the other children and see if he can describe what he felt well enough that they can all guess what it was (you can actually do this with adults, too). Listen carefully to the words they use to describe what they felt.

To do this on your own, go to your kitchen “junk” drawer (we all have one). Close your eyes, open it, and see if you can identify every item in it just by touch. Concentrate on the textures, shapes, sizes, surfaces, and so on. Or go to a fabric store and walk around touching the fabrics, the notions, the embellishments. (What does the fabric store smell like, by the way?)

Your turn again! Show your character experiencing one of the following using ALL FIVE SENSES (and dialogue does count as “hearing”):

  • Cooking a favorite meal.
  • A hike in the forest in springtime.
  • A concert seated beside someone wearing too much cologne/perfume.
  1. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Wednesday, January 31, 2007 9:06 am

    Christabel gasped, fighting back sobs as she sank to the musty, damp earth under the trees. Leaf litter and twigs hung in her hair and stuck to her wet feet and legs as she crouched in exhaustion. She leaned against a tree, wrapping her arms around the solid bulk and wedging herself against the slope of the riverbank. Dank, muddy water gurgled only yards away, light splintering on its surface, casting odd shadows on the undersides of the overhanging trees. Up the slope, gunfire and shouting continued. How far to the ferry crossing?


  2. Kaye Dacus permalink
    Wednesday, January 31, 2007 3:26 pm

    Erica this is great! Sight, sound, and touch are great details and I get a good feel for the character through this passage.

    Just a few questions (because these are the two areas I have the hardest time with in my writing):

    Can she smell the smoke from the gunfire from this distance? Taste the saltiness of her tears?



  1. Showing vs. Telling Refresher «
  2. Make POV Work for You: Show Don’t Tell (Part 2) «
  3. Writing Series Spotlight: Showing vs. Telling and POV «
  4. A rose by any other name » Jordan McCollum
  5. Debunking Writing Myths: “Showing Is Always Better than Telling” «
  6. Flannery’s Favorites–Day 2 «
  7. Writer-Talk Tuesday: The Five Senses «
  8. Writer Talk Wednesday: Showing vs. Telling | #amwriting |

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: