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Stir Up Your Setting – Part 2: Using All Five Senses

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

In the Showing vs. Telling series, I wrote at length about how to show what our characters see, hear, smell, taste, and touch to deepen POV. These are also important aspects of showing the setting as the characters interact with it through their five senses.

In Setting, Jack Bickham writes:

Psychologists have repeatedly shown that sight is the dominant sense for most normal people. Therefore, it stands to reason that your sense descriptions most often will be dominated by how things appear. Hearing impressions usually rank second, but one can easily imagine circumstances in which tactile impressions might rank higher in story importance.

Obviously, our characters are going to “see” the setting. But the worst way for them to do this is to walk into a room and immediately mentally inventory everything about the room:

She entered the front parlor. The parquet floors gleamed in the midday light. Blue chintz fabric covered the settee, arm chairs, and chaise lounge which sat in a conversation circle near the exquisite, enormous, Egyptian-marble fireplace. The ceiling soared twenty feet above, painted a deep salmon accented by the white coving that ran along the junction of the wall and ceiling. The windows at the far end extended nearly floor to ceiling . . .

We’ve completely stopped the forward movement of the story to describe the room—to TELL what it looks like—just like when we describe our characters by having them look at themselves in a mirror. Instead, have the characters interact with the setting:

She entered the front parlor. Lady MacDougall sat enthroned like Queen Victoria on a blue chintz-covered settee and motioned Elizabeth to take the matching arm chair opposite. The salmon-painted walls made the dutchess’s white hair glow pink. Elizabeth flinched when a log shifted in the blazing fire in the enormous fireplace surrounded by the marble the previous Lord MacDougall had brought back from Egypt himself. Elizabeth looked past the dutchess at the promise of freedom beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows on the distant end of the room. . . .

Both paragraphs describe the same room. But which one gives more of a sense of setting—more of a feeling that you’re there in the room with the character? (And notice, I also incorporated a second sense in this example: her hearing the log shifting in the fireplace to draw her attention to it.)

Just as character descriptions should be gradually peppered throughout the introductory scene, the description of the scene shouldn’t all come at once . . . unless there is something vastly important about the look of the setting—such as a pauper entering a palace for the first time, but even then, be sure to tie emotion and the five senses to the experience of the setting.

Here’s an example of showing a setting through the sense of smell and touch:

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)

Try this exercise. Close your eyes (after you finish reading this, of course!). What do you hear? What do you smell? Breathe through your mouth a few times. What does the air taste like (or what does the gum you have in your mouth taste like? or the coffee you’re drinking?)? Open your eyes and write down these descriptions of your current setting. Then, stand up and close your eyes again. Carefully walk around the room and feel things. What does the upholstery on your desk chair feel like? Is it a hard wooden chair, a firm ergonomic chair, or a cushy papasan chair? Don’t think about what it looks like—describe what it feels like.

In most of the novels you’ve read, do you find the author has tended to use sight and sound descriptions of the setting almost to the exclusion of all the other senses? Would the story have been stronger if the author had used more of the senses? On the other hand, have you ever read a story/novel in which the author went overboard in using the “subordinate” three senses (touch, smell, taste) and it distracted from the story?

Using only sight and sound senses to develop your setting is like watching the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars movies in “fullscreen” mode versus in “widescreen” mode. TBS was running the LOTR movies this weekend. I’ve had the extended editions of these films since their release, therefore, I’m used to watching them in the widescreen version. Just watching a few minutes of it on TBS in fullscreen mode, I felt like I was missing important pieces of the movie, simply because I was losing 50% of the setting—and that was just visual. If, as Emeril Lagasse would say, we had “smell-o-vision” and could smell the setting as well as seeing and hearing it when we watch movies, how much deeper into the world of the film would we be? Therefore, if you include smell, taste, and touch sensations in your story, you’re drawing your reader deeper into your world.

How have you incorporated hearing, taste, touch, and smell into your writing? Please share an example!

  1. Tuesday, May 8, 2007 3:51 pm

    Right now I’m reading Midnight Sea by Colleen Coble, and she does a great job using the subordinate senses because the main character is blind. Besides being an exciting read, I actually forget that I can see until I stop reading. As for my own book–still working on developing the senses.


  2. Tuesday, May 8, 2007 10:19 pm

    Smell is the hardest for me. And I never can tell, when I go back to add it later, if it sticks out to the reader that I’ve put it in there, or if it is only me who can tell what I added.


  3. Wednesday, May 9, 2007 1:40 pm

    I tend to write sight, sound, and feel. I often forget taste and smell.

    I’m thinking of all the books I’ve read where the author stops to describe the room, the car, or whatever. Too many to name.


  4. Wednesday, May 18, 2011 10:36 am

    I am totally all over this post. Sensory description is so, soooo important. Many writers forget about the lesser known senses, but smell is a powerful way to create a connection to the reader as it triggers memory, and sounds help give our setting context. Taste can be difficult to weave in, but well worth the effort as readers crave writing that goes beyond the ‘usual’ for description.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse


    • Wednesday, May 18, 2011 4:56 pm

      Taste is one of those really touchy senses—I’ve gotten dinged on a couple of reviews recently from reviewers who thought I was focusing too much on the characters’ enjoyment of the taste of the food rather than the romance in a couple of scenes!


  5. Wednesday, May 18, 2011 4:39 pm

    Great post and reminder that writers need to look at the whole picture. Will go into my revisions with this point in mind – thanks!


    • Wednesday, May 18, 2011 4:58 pm

      Sight and sound are readily accessible when we’re creating—getting that first draft down on paper. It’s when we have time to actually sit and craft our scenes, to close our eyes and try to put ourselves into the setting, that we can start accessing the other senses. So the revision process is a great time to work on incorporating the rest of the senses.


  6. Wednesday, May 18, 2011 4:54 pm

    This was a great post, thanks! When I go back into my WIP, I’m going to see how I can incorporate other senses. I know smell and taste will be lacking and I’ll definitely find ways to change that. I agree they can be incredibly powerful senses and should not be forgotten.


    • Wednesday, May 18, 2011 5:00 pm

      Smell can trigger memory like none of the other senses can, so that’s a good way to incorporate it—a character smells something that triggers a memory important to the story. But, as is the point of this post, using the peripheral senses also helps set the stage by showing the reader something instead of just telling them.



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