Using Your Senses. Or Not. #amwriting

First, I apologize for my site going cockamamie. I’m trying to update and that takes a lot of fiddling. They tell me I ought to clone it and configure the clone site and, when I have it the way I want it, update the real site. And I’m like, “Huh?”


I know I talk about this a lot, but it’s important.

If you’re a writer or if you’ve studied writing, I’m sure you’ve been told that using sensory details enhance the story.

I’m here to ask you to rein that in a little bit, hoss.

See, here’s the thing: When I’m reading a story, I want to be in the moment. I want to experience what’s going on along with the viewpoint character.

What that means is, I want to hear, taste, smell, touch, and see whatever the viewpoint character NOTICES, not what the viewpoint character hears, tastes, smells, touches, and sees.

Something that really jars me out of the moment is misplaced or meaningless sensory detail.

reasonI’m such a cheapskate. I want everything in a story to do more than one thing. If Anouk hears a mockingbird, I want there to be some reason she hears it. There might be mockingbirds mocking their brains out, but do we notice it? Usually not. We don’t observe everything that’s within our range of vision; if Billingsgate sees a Lexus, I want there to be a reason. If Action Man is in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out fight, the chances that he would notice the scent of frying tortillas is slim — if he does notice it, it better have more impact than just the fact of it.

I also don’t want the story to come to a dead stop to explain why Paula notices the texture of the tablecloth. If there’s a reason, you won’t be stopping the story; if you have to stop the story, there’s no reason for that detail at that moment.

Now, none of this applies in a naturally sensory-rich setting. If somebody goes to the circus, it’s perfectly legitimate for them to be all: popcorn, grit under my feet, lights and colors, taste of spun sugar, calliope music.

But not many of us walk out of the door in the morning and go: chirpy birds, this flower and that flower and this other flower, honeysuckle, my heels go click click click, peppermint toothpaste. If I’m going to be in the moment of somebody noticing all that, I want it to mean something, you know?

Like, okay: As Paula listened to Albert list the reasons he was leaving her, she ran her fingers over the tablecloth, morbidly aware of the warp and weft of the fabric, of the broken threads and imperfections left by years of use and laundering.


If you’re not writing from the viewpoint of a particular character, if you have an omniscient narrator, you have a little more wiggle room, but even there you need to choose wisely. You want to bring me into the setting, not juggle details for me. I hate being nibbled to death by ducks.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Write a scene with no sensory details. Write it again, each time focusing on one sensory detail that has a reason for being there. Can you write one with ALL the sensory details, each one with some purpose, without overloading the scene?


I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Using Your Senses. Or Not. #amwriting

  1. Dan

    June 15, 2015 at 7:14am

    Welcome back “Likje” button and links, there are links down there.

    Revealing the little details without explicitly talking about them is an art form in and of itself. Great post, thanks for the fix.


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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      June 15, 2015 at 7:18am

      Yay, Likes! Yay, links! I don’t like this theme very much, but it’s better than the broken one. Imma keep looking until I find another one I like that also works! I liked the one I had, but then they “improved” it….

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        • Author
          • Holly Jahangiri

            June 19, 2015 at 7:42am

            No, but things looked…different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it (okay, don’t laugh, I’m not overly observant, but then there are people who still think my theme is purple and I know they’ve read my blog more recently than that!)

            P.S. Seriously, if you “can tell” if I’m human or spammer, why I have to check the little box?? Hmmm?

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  2. Jane

    June 16, 2015 at 7:02am


    “But, Angelique…”
    “Shut up, Gregory, and row.”


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  3. Holly Jahangiri

    June 17, 2015 at 11:41pm

    Her coworkers complained endlessly of Monday mornings. Calliope could not wait to get out of the house after a stifling weekend with Ben. She slipped out the front door while he was still brushing his teeth: side to side, up and down, Mr. Minty Freshness, himself. An exceptionally chirpy bird looked just as desperate to get INTO the house as Calliope had been to leave it; she looked up to see it beating its wings frantically against the dryer vent flap and knew, with a sinking feeling, where the putrid smell behind the dryer was coming from. Time to call the cleaners. Maybe they’d find the skeletons in her closet while blowing out the vents. Maybe she’d just drag them out and bury them, herself. Oleander, Belladonna, Eurphorbia… some flower Ben planted that she could never remember the name of… and a bright little honeysuckle hedge against disaster between them. Calliope’s heels went click, click, click against the pavement as she strode purposefully towards the bus stop. Monday morning was off to a lovely start.

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    • Author
      • Holly Jahangiri

        June 18, 2015 at 4:45pm

        Particularly if I hear the unspoken: “Bet you can’t.” Or, “You must NEVER…” Or, “Dare ya!” And then, only if it sounds like a fun challenge. 😉

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        • Author

          Marian Allen

          June 18, 2015 at 9:30pm

          Yeah, I know you love a challenge! You’re always up FOR a challenge, and always up TO a challenge. 🙂

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