August 14, 2018

Beyond Visuals: How to “Show” with Other Senses

Two women walking blindfolded with text: Beyond the Limits of Visual Cues

Despite my post last time about showing vs. telling—and specifically how the advice to “show, don’t tell” can be misleading or harmful—we often do want to show our story and not just summarize events for readers. Finding the right balance can be tricky though, which is why, in addition to my post last week, I have several other posts on the topic to help:

Also, after publishing my post last week, I found a great resource by Chris Winkle with examples of different levels of telling vs. showing and tips on when to choose each approach.

As she explains, the most pure telling approach simply states conclusions for the reader, but between that and showing a full scene, we can mix different amounts of telling and showing for purposes of:

  • exposition (telling statements that let readers reach the final conclusion),
  • background (such as the worldbuilding context we discussed last time), or
  • summarizing a specific scene.

But today I want to talk more about showing, and specifically this question: What are our options for showing beyond visual descriptions?

The word showing obviously makes us think visually, but just as we experience the real world through more than just our visual sense, so do our characters. The purpose of showing is to immerse readers in our character’s world, and we can create a deeper world for our characters and readers by engaging other senses.

(Note: I’m updating a previous post today because I spent most of yesterday at the vet, as my cat stopped eating and needed all the tests. (We don’t yet have a diagnosis, but she’s on medication and we’ve been able to tempt her into a few bites.) In addition, a monsoon storm the previous night took out a neighbor’s tree that crashed into our yard. Thankfully, damage wasn’t too bad, but still… Yesterday was quite a day. *grimace*)

How Can We Show?

Other than the exceptions, “showing” usually is better than telling because it pulls readers deeper into the story. But that means we need to figure out how to show, and that can be a trickier step.

I’ve gushed many times about The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. One reason I love the ET so much is that its listings of physical, internal, and mental responses for different emotions help me expand my “showing” vocabulary for descriptions.

Just as we can have emotional response “crutches,” like too many smiles or nods or characters expressing anger the same way, we can also have crutches in how we show story elements, like including only visual cues when describing a setting. Expanding our “showing” vocabulary can help with all of our crutches, so let’s take a look at how we can use our other senses to improve our descriptions.

Our Default Senses Can Be Limiting

Like many, I’m a visually oriented person, so my first instinct is to use visual cues and describe people or settings with the sense of sight. My next most commonly used sense for descriptions is sound.

The remaining senses of touchsmell, and taste can be hard to include in our stories. I’ve definitely improved over the years, but describing with these senses doesn’t come as naturally to me.

Just as we experience the world through many senses, so do our characters. Click To TweetWhen I succeed, I have to admit the scenes often have a stronger feeling of “you are there,” so I always look for ways to improve the variety of my descriptions. Getting me to think beyond just “sight”—or beyond the basic five senses at all—is one way the ET helps me expand my descriptions.

Yes, some of the Physical Signals the ET lists are visual (“hunched shoulders”), but it also includes auditory (“letting out an uncontrolled moan”), tactile (“fiddling with jewelry or other items”), and a few are behavioral (“a smirk or eye roll”). In addition, most of the Internal Sensations are visceral (“tightness in the chest”), and the Mental Responses are all internal (“negative thoughts”).

That variety helps us tap into various senses and ways of showing our characters’ emotions and actions. But let’s see if we can think of other ways to expand our senses.

Introducing the Other “Senses”

At a workshop I attended several years ago, Marilyn Kelly talked about senses beyond the basic five, such as pain, balance, temperature, etc. (She even has a book called Eleven Senses—Who Knew?)

Other senses are scientifically recognized, and they’re all ways our characters interact with and respond to their environment. For each scene, we want to check in with our characters and see which senses apply to their situation.

Do you know we have more than 5 senses to use for descriptions? Click To TweetWhat are they aware of? Are they comfortable, uncomfortable, reacting, acting, etc.? And most importantly, how do our characters feel about that?

We don’t want to just add in lots of pointless description. That’s no better than an information dump and would slow down our story’s pace.

Instead, we want to reveal how any sensory details matter to the characters or the story. We can use descriptions to add subtext, such as when the character says one thing but their response to the situation exposes a different reaction or when their reaction (like a stumble) exposes a vulnerability.

As Marilyn says:

“The senses are of little impact if we don’t translate them into Emotions.”

Using the Other “Senses” for Descriptions

When we keep all of the senses in mind for our writing, we can tap into a broader array of descriptions. I’m going to share some examples to get us started on non-visual descriptions, but feel free to add more in the comments!

For example, we can describe settings or characters in non-visual ways by:

Sound: Set Moods and Trigger Instincts

  • a sound that booms, echoes, or disappears in a space
  • an annoying background noise
  • a habit of throat-clearing or tapping nails
  • the vibration of objects from resonating sounds

Touch: Sense of Comfort or Warning

  • a furniture fabric that’s sumptuous or rough
  • a breeze from an open window on skin
  • the numb tingles when a limb “falls asleep”
  • an itch from an insect bite

Smell: Often Triggers Memories

  • a fresh, stale, or musty smell in an area
  • a strong inhalation to identify a disgusting or appealing scent
  • the smell of old books triggering memories of library study groups
  • the attractive aroma of a love interest

Taste: Bitter, Salty, Sour, Sweet, and Savory

  • a taste of salty air near shores or dusty air in a desert
  • a sour taste that rises up the throat with negative emotions
  • the taste of skin or a kiss
  • a strong smell that registers on the tongue as well

Pain: Awareness of Skin, Joints and Bones, and Organs

  • the ache of muscles after exertion
  • the sting of a slap or bright lights
  • the pressure of a headache in the temples
  • the heat of heartburn

Balance, Direction, and Acceleration: Inner Ear’s Equilibrium

  • a stumble or stop mid-stride at a surprise
  • a whirling of arms to regain balance
  • a blindfolded character still having a sense of which way they’re moving
  • the excitement of being pushed back in a car’s seat during high speeds

Kinesthetic Sense: Positions of Limbs and Body Parts

  • a character who’s a klutz because they’re weak in this sense (*raises hand*)
  • a touch typist (or any other skilled activity that can be done by touch)
  • a tennis player learning the reach of their arm with a new racquet
  • a character affected by alcohol (“close your eyes and touch your nose”)

Temperature: Hot and Cold (and Humidity)

  • a need to keep moving or shivering in the cold
  • a damp chill soaking into the bones
  • a drained feeling from sweating in hot, humid air
  • a relaxed nap in the warm sunshine

Time Passage: Perception of the Passage of Time

  • the tiredness or alertness following circadian (daily) rhythms
  • a yawn when time seems to move slowly (boredom)
  • a “blink” of time when rushing or enjoying activities
  • a loss of this sense while unconscious

Other “Senses”:

  • Miscellaneous Internal Senses: hunger, nausea, suffocation, thirst, bloated/cramps, etc.
  • Involuntary Responses: blushing, blinking, heart/breathing rate, gag reflex, intoxication, etc.
  • Intuition, Sixth Sense, or Instincts (often found in paranormal stories *smile*)
  • Common Sense or Street Sense (knowledge of what to do or how to handle a situation)

More Choices Equals More Variety

We’re often told to include more senses—especially more than just sight—but that can be difficult. After all, how often do our characters go around tasting things? *grin*

Instead, if we think of all of these senses, we’ll have more options for adding in non-visual descriptions. More angles to attack an issue means more opportunities to explore an idea. Or even with vision, we can add in unusual details like how well a character sees at night or their nearsightedness.

That doesn’t mean every paragraph needs to include non-visual cues—just occasional sprinkles are fine. However, a good aim might be to include at least one strong non-visual description in each scene.

Use Deep POV to Add Sensory Information

Once we’re aware of all these senses, how do we get into the right mindset to add them? We need to put ourselves into our characters.

When we use deep point of view (POV), we can think about our character’s experience:

  • What are the different sensory organs of their body telling them? (skin, nose, inner ear, etc.)
  • What else are they aware of? (movement, time, urges to swallow, etc.)

But this isn’t necessarily something else to stress about during drafting. Many of us write lean first drafts and add in layers later. Fleshing out our descriptions in revisions works just as well. As long as we’re adding senses at some point, our stories will be better for the sensory information.

If we expand the ways we experience scenes through our characters, we’ll be more likely to notice non-visual details to include in our descriptions. These other senses all add up to a stronger “you are there” feeling for the reader, and that’s really the ultimate goal of “showing not telling.” *smile*

Do you struggle with non-visual cues in your writing? Which senses are you strongest with in your descriptions? Which senses are you weakest with? Had you heard of this idea of other senses or have you used them in your writing? Do you think a better understanding of these other senses will help you vary your descriptions?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Hey Jami, I think I’m best at touch, pain, temperature, and intuition/sixth sense. (Some would even say that I overuse the intuition…) My tactile imagination is the strongest, and my visual imagination the crappiest. I’m not a very visual person, though visual metaphors can help me understand or appreciate abstract ideas. My favorite ways to “show” are via internal thoughts and dialogue between characters! Maybe because I’m more verbal? Slightly related to this topic, Jami, would you be able to do a post in the future on how to write action beats in scenes? The closest post I could find here was on observing real people and jotting down their bodily gestures, which is good, but not exactly what I was looking for. I mean action beats as in the things characters do during or between their speeches in dialogues. Some examples include: scratching their head, pouring the visitor a cup of tea, rummaging through a pack of Doritos, glancing at the clock, slumping on the sofa, fingering the petals on a flower, etc. In other words, little actions where characters are interacting with physical objects, that may or may not reveal their current mood. But a great thing with these action beats, is that you can prevent the “talking heads” phenomenon AND show the reader their physical surroundings without flooding them with too much setting detail at once. (You would be integrating at least two senses as well, e.g. visual + tactile, when you describe a character fingering a…  — Read More »

Lois Simenson

Much of my setting is wildfire. I’m writing a romance between 2 firefighters. I’ve already used up every possible word it seems that is fire related. My critters keep saying repetitive, you’ve already used smelling smoke, stinging smoke, tasting smoke, etc. So I’m reading novels that include fire sensory show or tell…at this point I’m not picky! Reading Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury. Looking for others. The bane of this first novel is not repeating sensory words or dialogue attributes. I have the Ackerman/Puglisi thesauri sex-tuplet set, but still struggle with this. I welcome any and all suggestions. Welp!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, great list! I always include sensory stimuli from the environment and sometimes this can provide a clue or warning. One of my characters is hyper sensitive so he gets smells, temperatures and echoes more than most people. His eyes are of course sensitive to too much light so this helps me remember to use his other senses. As a bonus, he’s a wine taster.

Glynis Jolly

I hadn’t thought about those other things that can change perception, like temperature or intuition. This is great! Thank you. 😀

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