Write Your Novel : Using the Senses

Style concerns not what you write, but how you write it. Do you want to read “an arch of colors formed in the sky due to the refraction and dispersion of the sun’s light by rain or other water droplets in the atmosphere”? I guess if you’re a scientist, you’d like this description, but for most of us who live in the real world, “rainbow” evokes a much clearer picture and in far fewer words.

Style is also known as your “voice.” It is the way you write that is unique to you. When you are writing the first draft, getting the story down is the most important aspect of writing. Now that you have that done, the individual words and the way they are put together becomes the focus of your work.


Sensual writing does not necessarily mean sexual writing. Your writing should involve all five senses. For instance, if you see the sentence, “They sat in a booth in the restaurant.” You would consider this boring – at least I do. It tells the reader nothing beyond the fact that the characters are in a restaurant. Look at the next paragraph and compare it to the above sentence.

It took her eyes a minute to adjust to the dim lighting inside the restaurant. She shivered in the air-conditioned chill. It had to be thirty degrees colder than the blast furnace heat outside. Once her vision cleared, she took her time to study the interior. Tan burlap outlined in walnut trim covered the upper half of the walls. Where it could be seen, old-fashioned wainscoting covered the lower half. Alcove-like booths lined two of the walls, their sides nearly as high as the low ceiling. The hostess led them past empty tables to the booth farthest from the door. In the background, she heard the wait staff singing and joking as they prepared for the coming noon rush. Mouthwatering aromas emanated from the direction of the kitchen.

You see the difference? I could go on to describe some of the foods or that it’s an ethnic restaurant or other telling description, but we’ve evoked the senses here – tactile in the burlap walls and air conditioned chill; vision in the low lighting and colors; sounds of the wait staff; mouth-watering aromas for taste. All evoke a sensual response.

The details are important in writing, but don’t become so enamored of them that you add too many. I wrote the above passage with a scene in mind where the details of the interior of the restaurant were important. If the setting isn’t important, add a few details for flavor, but don’t overpower the scene with them or your reader will skip over them. Check your writing for the following:

  • Sight:
    • Use specific colors when possible. Instead of “red”, try cerise, ruby, maroon, brick, etc.
    • Use types of lighting: muted, harsh, glaring, candle-lit
    • Describe the surrounding conditions: grimy, military-order, immaculate, cluttered
  • Sound:
    • Think about background sounds: ringing phone, slamming doors, creaking doors, squeaking floors or stairs, church bells, traffic, train whistles, dogs barking, construction, lawn mowers, etc.
    • Think about sounds in nature: wind in trees (gales, zephyr, etc.), water (roaring falls, burbling streams), birds, trees creaking, etc.
  • Smells
    • Odor quality: fetid, putrid, moldy, sweaty, woodsy, clinical, medical, country fresh (Note: I have to laugh when I see this on an air freshener can – have you ever been in the country when the farmer’s are spreading fertilizer? Or when a skunk has let loose? “Fresh” is not the term that comes to mind.)
    •  Aromas: baking bread, vinegar, ammonia, cinnamon, cigars, frying onions, cooked cabbage, fish, mildew
    • Taste: something can be sweet, sour, bitter, rancid, tart, zesty, tangy, briny, spicy, bland, etc.
    • Touch: soft, harsh, delicate, burning, heavy, numb, dry, oily, clammy, velvety, silky, rough, cool, glassy, etc.
    • Character aspects – don’t forget these when describing something:
      • Size: hulking (instead of big), shrimpy, petite
      • Visual: tattoos, beard/mustache, odd clothing (Goth, piercings, militaristic, filmy, slutty), the way they stand (slouch, ramrod straight), walk (amble, stride, shuffle), hair style (bun, Mohawk, spiked, long)
      • Speech: barely audible, booming, babyish, cultured, clipped, drawled
      • Habits: lazy, messy, prompt, reliable, fastidious
      • Attitudes: selfish, honest, confident, irritable, arrogant, modest, sincere, snobbish
      • Background: work ethics, diligent, religious, studious, shy, boring, ethical


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