Posted On June 20, 2013 by Print This Post

Engaging the Senses with Maria McKenzie

Welcome back to Maria McKenzie! Maria joined us last fall with a fabulous post on The Art of Writing Dialogue. Today she tells us how to engage the senses.

guv photoWhat you see is what you get, right?  Not when it comes to writing.  If we only focus on what’s seen, our writing will be flat, unexciting and boring. Reading the written word isn’t a sensory experience, so it’s up to the writer to make it one.  A.J.  Humpage at All Write – Fiction Advice says, “The senses are the most amazing tool available to a writer, yet the most underused.”

It’s easy to forget about them when we’re on a writing roll, but all of the senses must be incorporated to infuse life into our narratives to create an emotional connection between story and reader.

Todd Stone, author of Novelist’s Boot Camp, says, “As you use description to build that emotional connection between your reader and your story, consider carefully which sense you want to use. Some senses are more—more personal, closer, more private—than others. Using the more intimate senses can make your description more emotionally powerful.”

Stone explains that each of the senses has a level of intimacy, so let’s take a closer look at each one and see how we can use them to enhance our writing.

Sight:  The most passive sense.  We go through life with our eyes open, so we don’t need to do anything to see something.  There’s very little involvement with sight because what we see remains outside of our bodies.

To effectively use the sense of sight in writing, Apryl Duncan at FictionAddiction.NET suggests dropping as many adjectives as possible and using nouns to describe an object. The bridge, like a giant steel cage, stretched the length of three football fields.

Instead of using a vague adjective like pretty to describe something, explain how it’s pretty.  On the coffee table sat a dozen pink tulips arranged in a crystal vase.  The sun shone through the translucent petals as if they were angels wings.

Escape_6[1]Sound:  More intimate than sight.  Stone explains that sound causes a physical change in the body, which is the vibration of the eardrum.  We can close our eyes to block out a sight, but more effort is required to block out a sound.  Sounds are more easily remembered, especially when repeated rhythmically (like “redrum” from Stephen King’s The Shining).

A description that uses sounds is more memorable, and thus more intimate, than a visual image.  However, sound is considered a more passive sense because stimulation can come from far away.

When describing sounds, Apryl Duncan says try to use words that capture what’s heard in the atmosphere.  If a couple walks into a fine restaurant, they could hear the hum of soft conversation, silverware clinking gently on china, and the melodious sound of a Schumann quintet for piano and strings.

Even little sounds can add to our stories.  A nervous character could fidget with the peppermints in his pocket, making the wrappers crackle.

When possible be blunt with sound.  A small pistol pops, an explosion bangs.  Just thinking about hearing nails on a blackboard makes me squirm.  Duncan uses that description to describe the sound made when a character keys a car—very effective.

Touch:  As far as intimacy, touch falls in the center of the spectrum. It is easily remembered, and touch memory is stored in a different part of the brain than sight or sound. Touch can be active or passive. Characters can touch or be touched. Whatever stimulates touch must be close. It can be a powerful emotional trigger.  Imagine your character’s reaction to the feel of a lover’s caress, as opposed to the grip of an abusive boyfriend.  His calloused hands burned her as he twisted them deeply into her flesh. 

Touch can be used as an intimate character marker—leathery skin, calloused hands, scarred face. Touch, however, remains outside the body. So, although it’s more intimate than sight or sound, it’s less intimate than smell and taste.

When describing textures (his wool sweater, her silk dress, etc.), Duncan suggests putting your hands on them to get an accurate sense of how they feel.

Smell. Stone says that the human brain’s neural connections tie certain smells to certain primeval instincts and emotions, making it an intimate sense. Smells can produce strong, emotional reactions even when very faint. We often smell something that reminds us of a familiar place, or even another person. A woman’s perfume, a man’s cologne.

Smell is a vivid sensory component capable of transporting us back to happy or traumatic times.  Once inside the house for the visitation, his senses were assaulted by the sickeningly sweet smell of orchids, gardenias and lilies.

I have a friend who grew up in an alcoholic home.  To this day he hates the smell of beer because of the memories it conjures up. Does the smell of oatmeal cookies remind you of your grandma’s house? For an extremely powerful and intimate effect on the reader, utilize the sense of smell in your descriptions.

MASQUERADE_Ebook[1]Duncan says that sometimes, as with sound,  it’s fine to be blunt with smell.  A zoo smells like dung.  With that word  readers can easily get the picture!

Taste. The most intimate of the senses. Stone says that the taste buds, mouth and gums provide fast track access to the body and parts of the brain. Sensations that originate in the mouth can cause very powerful, very emotional reactions almost instantly. To activate taste, a stimulant must enter through the mouth, voluntarily or involuntarily. Taste can also reflect emotion, such as the sweetness of a lover’s kiss, or the coppery taste of a character’s own blood.

If you’re like me, food will appear a lot in your stories! Duncan says that when writing a scene with characters eating, “hint at what they taste, and how it might affect them. What does that wine taste of on the tongue? Or that steak? How does the dessert taste?”

An easy way to help you describe taste in your writing is to actually taste the item you’re trying to write about.  How does the food feel on your tongue?  When you bite it, does it squirt?  Use your imagination and see what happens!

 Kitty held his gaze as she took a deep, sensual bite from the peach.  Sweetness filled her mouth,  juice trickled to her chin.  With his thumb, Ash brushed away the juice, then licked it from his finger…      

It isn’t necessary to overload your narrative with all the senses at once.  Choose the ones most appropriate in key scenes to allow your readers to see, feel, touch, taste and smell the story you’ve created for their enjoyment. 


What are some tips you can share to engage the senses?

Join us tomorrow for How to choose the right publishing option for YOU by Oliver Rhodes- you won’t want to miss it!



Maria McKenzie writes historical fiction.  She is the author of the Amazon bestseller The Governor’s Sons, and Escape: Book One of the Unchained Trilogy.  She has just released book two of the trilogy, Masquerade:

Celebrated actress Lavinia Hargraves lives life as a masquerade. She hides her Negro ancestry to pursue her dream of becoming the world’s greatest actress. She elopes with Vernon Hargraves, the owner of New York’s premier theater troupe, to acquire all that she could ever want: a new life as white, stardom on the stage, and an abundant supply of money. The secret of her mother’s slave-girl past could easily destroy the life she has constructed.

Maria graduated from Wittenberg University with a bachelor’s degree in English.  She also received a master’s degree in library science from Atlanta University.  Before becoming an author, she worked as a librarian for several years.  She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two boys.

Purchase Maria’s books at Amazon:



The Governor’s Sons

Visit Maria at 

Connect with her on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter@maria_mckenzie

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19 Responses to “Engaging the Senses with Maria McKenzie”

  1. Carrie, thank you so much for having me back at Romance University! I hope this post is useful to your audience. I always have to force myself to incorporate the senses, but adding them makes a story so much more powerful!

    Posted by Maria McKenzie | June 20, 2013, 7:32 am
  2. Morning Maria!

    I agree, senses can make or break a story. It’s one of the things I have to go back in and layer. Especially smell and taste. But if it’s done right, I can lose myself in a book and be “rigcht there” with the characters. It makes all the difference between being a book and being an “un-put-downable” book.

    Thanks so much for joining us again Maria!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | June 20, 2013, 8:08 am
  3. Hi, Maria. Thank you for the wonderful post and reminders about incorporating sensory input into writing.

    It’s something I love doing! I will usually envision myself in the scene and draw on the senses that are the most powerful to me in that moment.

    I love when an author takes the time to layer in senses, relaying them in a way that a reader can easily relate to. It makes the scene “crackle.” It’s so easy to forget you’re reading and just disappear into the scene!

    Posted by Mae Clair | June 20, 2013, 9:10 am
  4. Awesome advice! So many new writers ignore the senses too often. Another huge mistake is adding in way too many sensory details. That puts a halt on the pacing of the story, so it’s important to be careful about how you add description, where it is and how much. Here’s an article on it called How to Write Description Your Readers Won’t Skim Over –

    Posted by Jessica Flory | June 20, 2013, 9:15 am
  5. Hi Maria,

    The senses are overlooked. We are so dependent upon them, they float through without a thought.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | June 20, 2013, 9:27 am
  6. Great advice Maria. I love the taste of that peach. You’re writing is always full of sensual delights.

    Posted by Eve Gaal | June 20, 2013, 10:14 am
  7. I meant your writing not you’re writing. Whoops, haven’t had my coffee yet. Wish I could change it.

    Posted by Eve Gaal | June 20, 2013, 10:15 am
  8. Hi, Eve! Thanks for visiting me here, and thanks so much for your kind words!

    Btw, it’s so easy to write you’re for your and then realize it after the fact–been there done that;).

    Posted by Maria McKenzie | June 20, 2013, 10:37 am
  9. Hi Maria,

    I’m with Mary Jo. The senses are sometimes overlooked when I’m trying to get the story on page.

    Use of sensory is a wonderful tool for developing a character and making them more relatable to the reader. BTW…I use food in my books all the time. A character’s food likes/dislikes says a lot about them!

    Thanks for joining us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | June 20, 2013, 3:21 pm
    • Hi, Jennifer! Thanks for having me here. I use food a lot in my stories, too! Once I had a bad character not like chocolate. But I decided to change that since non-chocolate lovers feel discriminated against sometimes;).

      Posted by Maria McKenzie | June 20, 2013, 6:44 pm
  10. *waves madly* Hi Maria! It’s great to see you here again! I miss you and my other OVRWA friends so much – I hope you can come to Chicago for a visit one of these days!

    Thanks so much for a great post! I missed Todd Stone’s Boot Camp when he came to Cincinnati, but Keri took excellent notes. (And I bought his book.) Still, it’s good to be reminded of these points. There’s so much to remember, sometimes I think my brain is going to overflow. (If it hasn’t already – some days I feel like I’m leaving a trail of brain cells in my wake.)

    I’m hard at work revising and expanding a novella right now. I’m going to keep your post handy and go back and double-check it.



    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 20, 2013, 5:47 pm
    • Hi, Becke!! Waves madly back at you:)! I miss you too–and missed seeing you at Lori Foster:(. I hope I can visit you in Chicago sometime!

      I’m so glad you liked the post! After I attended Todd’s workshop I bought his book. I love how he explains the intimacy of the senses.

      Best of luck with your novella–I’ll be looking for it! And thank you all at RU for another chance to visit!


      Posted by Maria McKenzie | June 20, 2013, 6:52 pm
  11. Thank you Maria for joining us today – it was a pleasure having you. =)

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | June 20, 2013, 11:40 pm
  12. Incorporating the senses into a story can truly be a powerful device that transports readers into the midst of the action. This is a skill I am constantly working to improve. Thank you for sharing these great tips, Maria!

    Posted by Reese Ryan | June 22, 2013, 4:43 pm

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