Writing Setting with All Five Senses
You’re in a bustling cafe in downtown Philadelphia. You can hear the cappuccino machine steaming milk - whirring bursts of sound that you know will result in the most perfect froth. You smell the scent of coffee and freshly baked breads and pastries. You see the long line; a mother pushing a stroller, a tall man in a well-cut suit, maybe a hipster with oversized glasses, and oversized headphones. It’s warmer in here than it is outside, where it’s sunny, but blustery, and just the right amount of cold for mid-February. And when the barista hands you your order, you taste the bitter sweetness of your mocha-frap, and you wish that you could stay in this cafe forever, which in an instant has become a vibrant, living, breathing world.
Then you hear the subway conductor announce that your train is delayed and you’re transported out of the world of your book. You’re back on the subway platform where you’ve been standing, reading and waiting for your train to come this whole time. But then you roll your eyes, and turn the page, and dive back into the story.
Writing with all five senses isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it’s the best kept secret of writers who manage it create the kinds of rich worlds that completely absorb their readers. If you want to write with all five senses, especially when it comes to setting, there’s really only one rule: Pay attention. The tiniest, most interesting details are usually the things that will make your writing come to life.
Each sense offers unique opportunities to reveal more and more about your setting. Keep this in mind as you write.
Sight is probably the most utilized sense when it comes to descriptive writing. But lots of writers tend to overly rely on their eyes when setting a scene, or creating a world. My advice? Pick a handful of the most unique visual details about your setting and bring them into the scene one at a time. Instead of simply describing the sky as dark, linger on what makes it appear that way. Are the stars exceptionally bright? Is it a shade or blue or purple, or is it closer to black? Sight is the most straight-forward way to describe setting, so your descriptions should be anything but cliche.
What we hear around us shapes how we interact with the world. In storytelling, sound (and even silence) is equally as important as sight. To build a realistic setting, your story must be enveloped by a soundscape as well as a landscape, and in individual scenes, sound can be used to denote emotion and physical action. For example, in a thriller, there are often lots of silences. In stories with lots of action, there is also often lots of explosive noise. These descriptive choices can make or break the setting and mood of a novel. Choose wisely.
Scent is one of the the most overlooked senses. Writers rely most heavily on scent descriptions when things smell either really good or really bad. But I think this allows for so many missed opportunities. A scent of a long hallway at a hospital, for instance, might smell sterile. The scent of an old couch in someone’s basement might bring to mind the main character’s first kiss. And of course, the scent of grass, or fresh water, or a specific flower can appeal to a reader’s nostalgia, while also transporting them to the world within your book.
Touch isn’t as simple as it may seem. It isn’t just used to convey about romance or how characters touch one another. When it comes to setting, touch is perhaps the most important sense to use in your writing. Appealing to a reader’s sense of touch has the ability to root a reader in space and time. Does the scene take place indoors or outside? Do the characters feel warm or cold? Is the sweater they’re wearing itchy, or are they so nervous that their thighs are sticking to the chair where they’re sitting next to their crush? All these descriptors can be used to help something as small as a bedroom or something as large as a galaxy feel real to your readers.
Taste, like touch, is too often relegated to romance. But taste can reinforce setting so simply. On a beach, you can often taste the sea spray. In a fire, you taste smoke. Use the flavor of the air or a drink or even a character’s own dry lips to help the reader put themselves in a story as deeply as possible. And if there happens to be kissing, you should use taste to describe that, too.
Which sense do you use most often in your writing? Have you ever tried writing about only one sense at a time and seeing how your scene changes?