Using The Five Senses: Sight

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you on this Valentine’s Day. My post today is the first of a new series on using the five senses in writing.

As authors, it’s easy to overlook one or another (at least for me). But incorporating each of these elements—sight, feel, sound, taste, touch—makes a stronger story and helps to get into deep point of view. Today, I’ll begin with sight.

Sight is probably the easiest and most frequently used in writing. Done correctly, it can not only give the reader a vivid description of the setting, but it can also be used for foreshadowing. Consider the following from the book Music of The Deep by Elizabeth Hall:

From here, she had just enough height to look down on the main street of town, two blocks long, filled with various businesses of the tourist trade, or at least filled when the economy was good. She looked down there now, admiring the say the Christmas lights manage to soften the threatening storm.

Lights filled every window, some lit only with white, others boasting every color of the rainbow. They managed to bring a feeling of warmth to the bleak, short days of winter. Like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting, they made life in this town look pretty and perfect and charming. With lights like those, it was almost possible to believe that nothing bad could ever happen here.

Almost possible…

In a little over two-hundred words, the writer is able to convey several things:

  • The character in this scene (whom we’ve already learned is named Emmie) lives in a small town
  • The place caters to tourists, but there are economic problems
  • A storm is approaching
  • The story takes place during the winter, close to Christmas
  • The buildings aren’t modern (as evidenced by the reference to a Norman Rockwell painting).
  • Something bad (maybe even sinister) is going to happen.

Isn’t this much better than telling the reader Emmie lived in a small town and that she had a feeling something evil was on the horizon? While we often hear about a sixth sense, the writer showed us Emmie had a premonition.

By using vivid descriptions, you can transport your readers to places they’ve never been to before. When I was a child, one of my favorite books was The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. Through her vivid descriptions of the Canadian Wilderness, I felt as if I was making the journey right along with the three animals.

Be careful use bland sentences. Use descriptive words—verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and even nouns. Don’t overdo the use of adverbs—whenever possible, use a strong verb instead. And it goes without saying to show not tell.

“Don’t tell me the moon was shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekov

Don’t just say, “The City of Dallas had grown a lot during the past sixty years.” Sentences like that will bore your readers. Instead, write something like this:

Pegasus. The skyscraper behind it is only one of a few that surround the iconic landmark.

Marie looked out the car window toward downtown, for once thankful to be stuck in traffic. She was lucky enough to see Pegasus. The flying red horse had been a part of the Dallas landscape since 1934.

As a child growing up in the sixties, her visits to the city were always highlighted by her first glimpse of the icon perched on top of what had been the Magnolia Hotel. At one time, it was the tallest building in the city.

“Times change,” Marie said aloud. “Not always for the better.”

These days countless other skyscrapers, many stories higher, surrounded the historic building. One was lucky if they were able to catch a fleeting glimpse from the freeway. Even Reunion Tower was taller.

The above would resonate with anyone who grew up in and around Dallas half a century ago. For readers who are unfamiliar with the area, it paints a picture of how the city has changed over the years. We also get a hint of how Marie’s attitude toward change.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first installment of this new series. In my next post, I’ll talk about one of the most unused, yet powerful senses—smell.

51 thoughts on “Using The Five Senses: Sight

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  2. Pingback: Using The Five Senses: Touch | Story Empire

  3. Pingback: Using The Five Senses: Sound | Story Empire

  4. Pingback: Using The Five Senses: Taste | Story Empire

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  6. Pingback: Using The Five Senses: Smell | Story Empire

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  8. Great post. It’s interesting that Mae thinks about the setting and the senses before she writes a scene. I need to do that better. I usually don’t think about hem until I go back to polish what I’ve written the next day. And my critique partner and writers’ club ALWAYS tell me to add more of the 5 senses to my work. And they’re right. The senses ground a reader in where they are, bring a scene to life.

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  9. I’m going to love this series, Joan! I always strive to use the senses is my writing. Smell is probably my favorite, along with vision, but all are powerful tools, and can do so much to set a scene. I have a habit of trying to immerse myself in the setting before I begin writing. I like to think about what I hear, smell, see, etc., And then I start building my setting for that particular scene. I truly believe using the five senses (or any combination of them) enriches an author’s writing. Great post!

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  10. Wonderful post today, Joan. Really looking forward to the rest of the series. I try to use all the senses, but I’m kind of hit and miss. And as a bull terrier owner for 18 years of my life, The Incredible Journey is one of my all-time favorites.

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  11. Lovely examples, Joan, and a great post overall. Our senses are an important part of our lives and make a great writing tool that many don’t take advantage of. Looking forward to the next installment, thanks! Shared. 🙂

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  12. Fantastic examples, Joan. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. And, as you say, the sense of smell is one of the most under-utilised of them all by a lot of writers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Reblogged this on: … with the comment … Hi everyone. Joan Hall has a great post on using the five senses in writing over at Story Empire today. This is the first of the series and well worth checking out >>>

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  13. An excellent piece. I too feel our five senses are ignored, or severely rationed by some writers. I beta-read a well written book recently, and it was well past page 100 before the protagonists ate anything…Of course, when the ‘goodie’ is chasing the ‘baddie,’ he doesn’t suddenly stand stock still,enter a restaurant and order coq au vin or spag.bol…But, surely, he must, at the very least, be energised by a bacon buttie! I recall, with great pleasure, reading Isabel Allende’s books, where food almost became ‘characters’ in the story…And who could forget “Tom Jones”! (I’m just under ten stone. Honest.) Cheers.

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