How to Use the Five Senses for Inspiration in Your Writing

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

One great way to get new story ideas or kick-start your writing is to use the five senses for inspiration.

Most writers think of the senses as a way to spice up flat descriptions. In fact, I have one writer friend who used to keep a post-it note stuck to his computer screen with the five senses written on it so he’d be sure not to leave any one of them out.

What most writers don’t realize is that the senses are also a great way to get a fresh perspective and come up with new ideas for your story.

Here’s a short sampler of ways you can engage the five senses in your writing.

Sound

This sense forces us to focus. When we listen–really listen–to something, we zoom in and focus on it in depth. It is important to practice listening and not just letting sounds wash over us, so we train our minds to pay attention. This is the first of the senses that I always turn to because once I can focus, the writing comes naturally.

Warm up your writing chops by listening to some music. The Planets by Gustav Holst is a great piece for just about any writer because each movement captures a completely different mood. To hear the different moods in Holst’s The Planets, click on the following links:

Mars     |     Venus     |     Mercury     |     Jupiter     |     Saturn     |     Uranus   |     Neptune


Sight

This is probably the one of the five senses that we use most often. When we describe things in our writing, it’s easy to forget the other senses and focus only on what we see, because vision is so powerful. But there are other ways we can use sight to inspire us as well.

Look at a painting or photograph and try to figure out the story behind it. Who is the main character? Why is he there? If is photo or painting is a snapshot of a moment, what happened just before that moment? What happens after?

Another exercise I love is going to a paint store and browsing the paint chips. A color can sum up a mood in a way that would require dozens of words. In fact, I often give my protagonists a “signature color” and post the paint chip on my bulletin board for as long as I’m working with that character.


Touch

Touch forces us to notice the little things. When we close our eyes and ears, and rely only on our fingers, the ordinary things in life become extraordinary.

Try this: close your eyes and pick up a small object (a paper clip, a small stone, a seashell, etc.). Let your fingers explore the object and notice all the minute details. By examining an object through touch alone, you will notice things about it that you would not have picked up on otherwise.


Taste

This sense is all about interaction. When we taste something, we gobble it up, drink it in and experience it from the inside out. Taste also elicits very visceral reactions. If we don’t like the taste of something, we know right away and we know it in our core. When I need to access raw emotion, I turn to taste because there’s an immediacy to it that none of the other senses seems to capture in the same way.

Give your writing a jolt by tasting something that gives you a strong visceral response. I often turn to jelly beans when I need to access this one of the five senses.


Smell

Finally, there’s smell. This sense is unique because of all the senses, smell is the only one that has a direct pathway between the receptor (in this case the nose) and the memory center of the brain.

Think about it, smells often bring up unexpected memories or make you remember things that had been buried for years. I know that one particular scent—a combination I can’t even describe—always makes me think of my grandmother’s house. Smell is a powerful sense because it’s loaded with so much memory and emotion.

When I turn to smell, I use it to access memories. A lavender lotion reminds me of a vacation I took years ago to Scandinavia. The smell of coconut reminds me of drinking coconut water on the beaches of Brazil when visiting family. If I need to remember a moment or put my character in a setting I visited long ago, I try to draw on a smell to bring that place to life.


Why It Works

The senses are such a powerful source of inspiration for writers that in the past I used to teach an entire 5-week writing course based on the five senses. While many of the DIY MFA courses are specifically designed for adults, this course worked equally well with adults and kids, including ones as as young as elementary school.

What makes the five senses such a good source of inspiration is because they are something that writers of all ages can latch onto and “get” pretty quickly. This is why, whenever I need to jump-start my creativity, I turn to the five senses for inspiration early in the brainstorming process.

Now it’s your turn.

Do you use the five senses for inspiration? Which of the senses do you turn to most often? Which ones could use a little more attention? My challenge for you this week is to choose one of the senses—preferably one you use least—and do something with it to inspire your writing.

  • Robbie Lowe

    In writing I most often use sight and sound…the easiest of the senses to convey in words. Well, there’s taste. It just doesn’t seem to come into play as much. I’m sure I describe textures and physical sensations more often than taste. So it is the sense of smell that I neglect the most in my writing. Interesting, considering how much I am aware of smells in daily life. Just today I scanned some Pinterest images for something pretty to look at before I laid down for a nap after running errands all day. A photo of a “tunnel” of wisterias held my attention as the memory of the scent of wisteria blossoms filled me. I slept well. I think I can see the wisdom of using the sense of smell to inspire my writing as well as enhance it directly wherever smell might be effective. I accept the challenge to discover ways to inspire myself with the sense of smell.

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