Having a Sense in Writing

105182105411181CDPEver set the alarm and woke up a few minutes before it goes off? Estimated what time of day it is? How long you’ve been at a task? Some people can sense time. We sense hunger, pain, heat, cold, and perhaps magnetic fields.

While working on the author’s page on my website, I researched a little about using the five senses, only to find that some think there are many more than five senses…as many as twenty-one! We are always instructed to use at least two or three senses in a scene we write, and this gave me much more to think about, and “sense” what more I can include to develop a scene or flesh it out.

Why are senses so important in a story? They put us there. When I smell coal smoke, I am immediately in my childhood on the farm where we had a coal furnace. Wood smoke places me in the old country school. The sense of smell is one of the strongest memory triggers there is.

The sense of smell exists because of the olfactory bulb, which is close to the limbic system in the brain—sometimes called the emotional brain. And where or when we experience a smell determines whether the memory associated with it will be pleasant or distasteful. Studies have shown when fetuses are exposed to certain strong smells, such as cigarette smoke, alcohol or garlic, they will exhibit a preference for these smells after birth. Can we pre-dispose our children to become smokers or alcoholics?

However, having your characters in a story react differently to the same smell might lead to conflict—fodder for the story.

Other senses are just as important. But, in looking up what might be considered a “sense,” it became apparent we go beyond the five usual ones—smell, sight, taste, sound, and touch.

Can we sense when a loved one is in danger? This is used quite frequently in books. I have had a couple of personal experiences along this line.

One night, when my oldest was two, I dreamed I was her, and had awakened in my bed thinking I’d lost my pillow. Almost immediately, I was awakened in real life to hear my daughter beginning to cry. I automatically got out of bed while still half-asleep, (as most mothers are conditioned to do with the first cry), and told my husband, “She’s okay, she just thinks she lost her pillow.”

As I padded barefoot through the house to her bedroom, I came fully awake to realize how ridiculous I must have just sounded. Upon entering my child’s bedroom, I asked her what was wrong.

“I lost my pillow,” she whimpered with her eyes closed. She hadn’t.

“No, Honey,” I reassured her, “It’s right here, you didn’t lose it.”

She immediately slid back into her dream world, while I got the shivers, and spooked, barricaded the outside door.

Can you think of more senses we might use in a story?

7 thoughts on “Having a Sense in Writing

  1. A great way to describe the senses and how they impact us. Not always easy to add to a story, but it does deepen the attachment of the reader. Thanks. Doris


  2. Great post on the senses Neva. I try to close my eyes for a moment after I’ve written the scene and try to “feel” it. That’s when the senses allow me to add more to the story. I’ve also had the sense that something was wrong and I’ve learned to listen closely to that feeling.


  3. Great post, Neva. That extra ‘mother’ sense is retained in some people for a much longer time than others. I felt ‘in tune’ with my daughters when they were very small but it wore off as they went between the ages of 1 and 2. In my case I think a natural sort of ‘mother anxiety’ is there- we want to be assured our offspring are safe. I like how you point out that there are many degrees of those 5 senses!


  4. I firmly believe there are more senses than just the five. I’ve had too many strange “coincidences” happen, particularly with my animals. Somehow I’ve sensed a problem without knowing what.

    I always need to remind myself to add physical senses when I’m revising. I’m such a visual person, I forget about smell and taste completely.

    Fun blog.


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