Using the Five Senses in Writing Part One – Hearing and Sound


 I am sorry to be so late in posting today, but the morning started out with contract negotiations and that took my attention away from MW. My bad!

I am not going to be original at all today. I am jumping in on everyone else’s coattails and taking a suggestion from Stuart as well – I am going to talk about descriptions in terms of the senses for the next few weeks. Thanks Stuart, for the idea.

The sensory part of writing was always important to me as a writer. In the yearly years of my career it was usually visual because I’m a visual person. I see and react to what I see on an emotional level, so that made writing about visual clues and cues simple. Sensory writing got harder—and I began to add to my writer’s tool box with sensory images—when I met Bob. Bob was a writer in my old, long-lamented writing group, and he passed away a few years back after having a very debilitating stroke. But before that, Bob was a master of sensory input in his descriptions, and I learned a lot from him. I think we all did. So for this series of posts – These are for you Bob!

Sounds are underused by our society. When a writer describes the places his character is in, or even other characters by way of what they hear, it takes our visual-oriented readers into new areas. Used well, sounds add a complex layer to stories and descriptions and allow our characters to respond on a deeper level. A raspy voice tells the reader that the character has a serious cigarette problem or a cold or is sick. The sound of an uneven gait tells the reader that the person following on the dark road is injured. The tone of a voice shares emotional input, and assures the character that someone is lying.

In police procedurals, the tech-savvy investigator will listen to the kidnapper’s ransom demand and hear something. He or she will then run the audio through all sorts of specialized machines and discover the sound that places the kidnapper in a specific place. Perhaps it will be a buoy bell that places the call near the dock, or a bird call that indicates the caller is in the woods or even an exotic bird call proving the caller is at the zoo.

Character reactions to sensory input are important. The way sounds make our characters feel matters. The way our words (that include sounds) effect the reader adds to immediacy. The sound of a mewling kitten or a crying and terrified baby or the whinny of a terrified horse change our characters’ decision making processes and therefore the direction of a story arc. Or even the direction of an entire plot arc. The information sounds give can be pivotal. 

From my own writing, of course, there is Beast. Beast has taken my own sensory writing to new and sometimes annoying levels. Beast is one of two first person POV characters in the Jane Yellowrock series. (And yes, I know that two-first-person POV novels are verboten. I didn’t care.) Beast is the soul of a partially sentient mountain lion who shares Jane’s body. She is a fabulous character to write because she is so visceral, so attuned to her world on a sensory level. She isn’t easy to write, however. Her voice is primitive, her thinking processes are violent, basic, and instinctive. Beast is stubborn, intuitive, and takes me places I never intended to go as a writer. Beast made me even more sensory-minded in my writing processes. Beast made Jane a different character from what I originally intended when I first found her.

So – taking from my own work, including the WIP (untitled as yet) I offer some hearing-examples and the way they work. Some are from Beast’s POV senses, some are from Jane’s, and some overlap between the two souls.

From Jane’s POV.

Overhead, a hawk flew, black against the dark sky. It called, greeting the day with a single, piercing cry. It was too early for most species of hawk to hunt. Something had disturbed it.

The hawk cry allows me as a writer to share several things: Setting – outdoors. Time of day – very early dawn. The single cry sets an emotional ambience of solitude. The fact that it is too early for this hawk to be hunting and the very fact that it is making noise, tells my character that something is wrong. 

From Beast’s POV.

I panted. Listened for sounds. In the floor of car, Bruiser’s voice still called on the phone, full of fear. But outside there were no cars, no music, no voices talking over one another. Only silence.

In this scene, Jane has just been forced to shift into her beast, and the animal is taking in the world the only she can, via senses. Silence is unusual for Beast, who hears much better than human hearing allows. The fact that there is no sound made by man is unusual. And in this case, a very good thing.

Jane’s POV.

I could hear my heart beat. Thumpthumpthumpthump, fastfastfast. Too fast. I tried again to find the calm in the center of myself, but there was nothing there, no center, no peace. Just the sound of my speeding heart and wet, raspy breath.

Something warm dripped and pooled in my palm with the hilt of the knife. Blood. I was bleeding out. I was dying.

This segment could be used for texture (as the blood pools in her hand) as well as hearing. Jane is in mortal danger. Deprived of vision except the inside of a car, her human ears are attuned to everything in her environment. And what she hears speaks of panic and fear and death.

Jane’s POV.

Without turning my head, I glanced at Nikki. His face was closed, as ungiving as a marble statue. No answer there either. Well crap. “May I ask another question about your master, without giving offence?” I asked. What I’d like to do is beat it out of you, but I have my orders.
Ro chuckled, almost as if she had heard my thoughts. Vamps were adept as any predator at reading body language and interpreting vocal tones as cues, so maybe in a way, she had.

Here my character has given something unintended away. As humans, we do that a lot. Our tones speak the truth when we want to lie and vice versa. In the same way, our characters need to do that, and not only what they learn from other character’s slips and mistakes and tells, but what the POV character tells of herself to others.

From Beast’s POV.

Listened to sounds—cars, music from everywhere, voices talking over one another. Gathered limbs beneath, lithe and lissome—her words for me.

Ugly man-made light, shadow-stung vision. Yet clear, sharp. She never saw like this. Scented like this. I stretched. Front legs and chest. Pulling back legs, spine, belly. Little clicks fell away. Things from her hair rolled off boulders.

With Beast, even the explanations of what she hears and sees and smells have to be in her voice, which is tricky. I have to avoid the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” aspect of the words, while still maintaining the primitive speech patters of an animal who has learned some human speech. In this scene, Jane has beads in her hair before the shift, and the fact that the beads fall away is an indication that the physics allowing her to shift into another animal form do not include things other than her flesh.

I have to admit – I love Beast. I totally love writing from her POV. I love it so much that I have to resist the desire to write too much through her mind and senses and bore the reader.

Jane’s POV.

“Troll?” Katie asked. Her body froze with that inhuman stillness vamps possess when thinking, resting, or whatever else it is they do when they aren’t hunting, eating, or killing. Her shoulders dropped and her fangs clicked back into the roof of her mouth with a sudden spurt of humor. Vampires can’t laugh and go vampy at the same time. It’s two distinct parts of them, one part still human, one part rabid hunter.

The sequence of sounds tells the reader (and Jane) that the enraged vampire in front of her is having an emotional reaction. The sounds tell us what is happening: the single dialogue word, followed by the click of weapons being withdrawn, and lastly by the laughter as the vampire remembers a moment of humanity in humor.

But seldom is only one sense used by a writer to describe or to show action. It is usually multiple senses that give immediacy to prose. In my WIP, I have a scene where sensory input and then loss of that input take the scene to new levels.

Jane’s POV.

The muzzle flash blinded me, but I fired back, three shots in his general direction. He rose into my window again and fired two more shots. He moved freaky fast, and could see in the dark. Not human-normal. A punching pain hit me, like a hard strike delivered by black-belt with something to prove. Burning and icy. Chest shot. He’d hit me.

But I smelled blood, his as well as mine. Blinded by the flashes, deaf from the concussive explosions, I felt along my booted foot for my backup weapon. My chest stabbed with pain and I couldn’t reach the holster.

I am not finished with this scene – it’s rough draft from yesterday. It’s still too slow and I’ll likely change something (don’t know what) in the part here: He rose into my window again. “Rose” is too slow for the action, but I like the way Jane’s senses work and then don’t.

Mixed senses from Jane’s POV from Skinwalker

The sun was setting, casting a red glow on the horizon, limning the ancient buildings, shuttered windows, and wrought-iron balconies in fuchsia. It was pretty in a purely human way. I opened my senses and let my Beast taste the world. She liked the smells and wanted to prowl.

This little segment is one of the first times in the series that I mention Beast as a separate intelligence, and I did it with the merged reactions to the sensory input. Even now, I am not thrilled with this part, and in my mind, I still rewrite it every time I read it. But as we say here at MW – at some point, we have to stop rewriting and let our baby go.

Mixed senses, Jane’s POV.

He popped the top on a Coke and poured it over ice so cold it crackled and split when the liquid hit, placed a wedge of lime on the rim, and handed it to me. His employer got a tall fluted glass of something milky, smelling sharp and alcoholic. Well, at least it wasn’t blood on ice. Ick.

I used sight and hearing and smell to create an emotional reaction in my character.

A longer segment with mixed sensory input in Jane’s POV.

Our walk ended up at the Royal Mojo Blues Company. The smell of fried food and beer and the sound of live music blasted its way into the street, the house band rocking. The RMBC had an outside dining area, a bar, food that smelled hot off the grill, and a dance floor. And the people not on the streets? They were inside. The place was packed. My feet were tapping before I reached the door. After a preliminary sniff to rule out the presence of rogue, I headed to the dance floor, losing Bliss and Rick in the crowd.

A black woman with the voice of an angel blasted a foot-stomping seventies piece by Linda Ronstadt. She was backed up by five other musicians on drums, keyboard, bass, and guitars. A selection of wind instruments rested in a rack.

Conversations merged into a background roar, with Beast picking up a few words here and there: flirting, business complaints, a drug deal taking place sotto voce between two patrons near the bar. No vamp discussions. And the only vamp scent in the joint didn’t smell fresh, though it was familiar. Couples and singles were on the floor, so dancing alone wouldn’t make me stand out. I flowed onto the floor, into the crowd. Into the heat and swirling smoke and started to move. I opened with a corkscrew and shifted into a maya. One of the courses I took between children’s home/high school/teenaged misery and the freedom of RL—real life—was a year of belly dance classes. The best thing about belly dancing was the freestyle moves it added to my repertoire. On a dance floor? I smoke.

By mixing the sensory images, I give Jane a deeper impact on the reader. And hopefully make then want to go dancing. J

There is no right or wrong way to write. We say that often here at MW. But I posit that writing without strong sensory images (not just visual!) and character reactions to those images is wrong. Using our senses – all of them – is vital to intense, immediate prose that sucks the reader in and makes him part of our world.



35 comments to Using the Five Senses in Writing Part One – Hearing and Sound

  • Fantastic post, Faith. All those wonderful examples not only make me want to work harder at using the senses but also make me impatient for Raven Cursed! As Jane would say — Crap!

  • Part of what I love about the Jane books is that they are so sensual, in the truest sense of the word. Yes, Beast is primal, and attuned to her senses and the world around her. But so is Jane, and together they make a compelling narrative pair. Reading these books, one can’t help but be transported to their world. The descriptions are so rich, complex, engaging. Nice post.

  • Unicorn

    I am drooling onto my desk. I wanna read the Jane Yellowrock books!
    I adore such sensual descriptions. My favourite sense to use in description? Touch. A cold wind on one’s cheek, a sword’s hilt in one’s hand. The roar of heat as the dragon’s fireball barely misses him. I delight in touch in action scenes; it just seems to transport me right into the character’s head.
    Thanks for a really great post.

  • Mikaela

    I want to write like that! 🙂 Description is my biggest flaw. I getting better at it, though. ( It would be depressing if I didn’t!)And, if my first drafts lacks it, I can always fix it during revision. I like to use scent and touch.

  • I’m really excited about this series of posts, and especially eager for the one on taste! My current WiP, I’m working on integrating at least 4 of the 5 senses at each pivotal point as well as continue to mix up the order, descriptions and combination.

    I find taste the most challenging though and sound the most fun. I love describing the syncopated beat rhythm in a sword fight or the scurrying of claws across drywall, scritching into the paint or wallpaper and setting the narrator on edge.

    I guess I might be an audio person. lately it’s easier for me to get through a book in audio format than sitting down, thanks to lots of drive times, and when i write I like to close my eyes and image the creaks of the floor boards or the growling of a diesel engine.

    *clap*clap*clap* I can’t wait for the next installment (not that this one wasn’t awesomely fantastic either) I <3 MW

  • mudepoz

    Thank you! I was going to ask you something about this as I worked on my own rewrites. Examples help so much! Axisor, I listen to audio as well, both at work as well as in my car. My books are in the upstairs ‘reading room’ where the dogs can’t try to steal them so my hands are free to pet. Urk.

    I have a dog that can’t communicate other than by senses. No talking. It’s an area I can play with a little deeper.

  • Thank you Stuart. That makes my day!

    David, I agree that Jane is more sensual/sense-aware than humans, but Beast is hyper aware. I wrote a scene in the new book where she kills and eats a goat and from a human 5-senses standpoint it is positively gruesome. From Beast’s POV it is just dinner.

  • Unicorn, I admit that makes me very happy. But do clean up the drool! 🙂

    Mikaela, I used to never use scent. Now (thanks to Bob) I use it a lot more. And like you, the rewrites make it work. That is where I add in a lot of sensory details.

  • Axior, I agree that taste is hardest to use, but it also adds the most flavor. (Pun was not intended but it is funny.) I find that when I can include flavor/taste the descriptions go deeper, more intense. Glad you like the series. Stuart was smart!

    Mud, like yours, my own critters talk so much, all the little moans, groans, squeaks, bark-tones. Combined with body language, they can say a lot, and I too use that in my writing. In fact, I need more body language in my Beast descriptions. Maybe a lot more.

  • Razziecat

    Love those bits of Beast’s POV! I can see how easily you could be drawn into writing a lot that way. 🙂

    Sometimes I have to remind myself to describe a scene from senses other than sight or hearing. Smell is very important, more so than people realize. One of the first things I notice when I travel to somewhere I’ve never been before is the way the place smells. Scents are a part of our most precious memories: the smells of holiday baking, Christmas trees, Mom’s perfume, a new car, your dog’s fur. Whatever my character is doing, I try to bring in a smell, a taste, or a texture that conveys the experience more fully. It’s challenging but also a lot of fun.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I find touch to be the easiest extra sense to add to my writing, but this post is a great reminder about the importance of including sound in most descriptions. Our hearing is so much a part of everyday that we filter a lot of things out, but it will be a rare character indeed who’s not being impacted by the different sounds happening around them, and who doesn’t use sounds to cue their own actions. Thank you for this post and, of course, all of your fabulous examples.

  • Please do write more from Beast’s perspective – she’s so often unintentionally (on her part) hilarious. I’m still chuckling over her “stupid dog.” And there’s something about her pragmatic crankiness that I can really identify with.

    In my own writing I’m very much struggling with how to pack more sensory detail in without slowing down the action of the scene. I want the sense to be emotionally evocative of the character’s perspective, but not devolve into telling rather than showing. I notice that you do use verbs of sense (scented, tasted, etc) a lot and they work, but I’ve been told repeatedly to get those out of my own work. And the people saying it were right in my case. So how do you incorporate verbs of sense effectively? Or get the sensory details in without the verbs of sense?

  • “I didn’t smell anything.”

    *smiles at the memory*

  • This is great, Faith. Pity that Bob is no longer around to share in it. I especially liked this line: “The way sounds make our characters feel matters.” Character’s reactions to things are useful in so many ways, but it is something that is so often overlooked. That reaction opens the door to so many other useful tangents. At the very least, it prevents the sound(s) from being one more item on that dreaded ‘laundry list’ we all despise so much.

  • Razzie, I remember the smell of the gulf when I was growing up. With the car windows down, I could smell it from far away, and I always knew we were close to the vacation cabin, set right on the white-as-sugar sand beach. And then the sound of storms over the water.

    Hep, thanks. For me, texture is less easy than sound, but we are all different in the impact each sense has on us. It’s hard to quantify, but so easy to experience.

  • Sarah, for me, it’s keeping it active instead of passive as much as possible. And yes, I have to work at that. EX:
    I heard the thunder on the night air.
    Thunder rumbled on the night air.

    Plus, when *Beast* listens or scents that is active where as hears or smells is more passive. I use those words more sparingly. Animals are always active when their sensory organs are in use and on some level humans know that. Animals don’t have our filters.

    In this one >> I panted. Listened for sounds. In the floor of car, Bruiser’s voice still called on the phone, full of fear. But outside there were no cars, no music, no voices talking over one another. Only silence.
    *Listened* is very active, made so by the words *still called…full of fear…Outside…only silence*. You can tell she is listening with all her being.

  • Misty. Yeah. *lifts glass* To Bob!

    Edmund, I totally agree. If there are only sounds and no reactions to them, they are, indeed, only laundry snapping in the wind or trees falling in the forest with no one to hear. It is the reactions that make the sounds important.

  • Thanks for this post Faith! Like Axisor, I’m really excited about this series. It’s a great reminder to think beyond the action, which is often a problem of mine. I’m going to have to go back and add more sensory detail to my WIP…particularly when my lead is in her wolf form. I feel pretty good on the action and instincts in those scenes, but reading your passages, I realize I still have a lot of work to do to add depth and meaning.

    And I loved the examples! I can’t wait for Raven Cursed!

  • Great post, Faith! And I’ll second everyone else’s comments about Beast’s POV. We Want More!

    Not only should sensory input affect our characters’ actions, reactions and emotions, so too should a character’s emotions or situation impact how he experiences those senses. Pleasant sounds can *hurt* when you have a magraine or a hangover. A favorite food may taste like ash or sawdust when you’re depressed. A feather’s touch can feel like sandpaper when you’re in shock…

  • Ack! Visual writing is my fatal flaw!

    Honestly, maybe it’s just because I’ve been working on this one thing for so long that I can try to do better next time, and because I am trudging ever so slowly to the finish line before I can start editing in earnest, but as it stands, most of my writing is almost entirely visual. I know that I’m capable of going back and fixing it, but I hope that I can get just a bit better about it with the next project. So thank you for this post—invoking the other senses is one skill I really want to get better at.

    Lovely examples, Faith. And as for “rose” … what about “surged”?

  • Wonderful post, Faith! Thank you so much for sharing such excellent examples. I too was drooling on my desk. I think it is safe to say you have mastered the art of layering sensory information into your story, regardless of what you might think!

  • Julia

    Thanks for this post, Faith! I really enjoyed it.

    In my current novel, I’ve been working extensively with sound, because my protaganist has a gift that causes him to hear life-energy as music. What he knows about other people comes almost entirely from sound.

    As I’m revising, I realized that scenes from his POV provide very little visual description! While I think this is in keeping with his character, I’m trying to increase the visual cues from other POV characters so that the reader still experiences the visuals of my world — and “sees” through my other characters.

  • Megan, as a wolf character, the senosry aspects of the worldbuilding are very important!

    Lyn, Good point! It is so true that our emotions affect our perceptions of sensory input. Good call.

    Laura, thanks! You can do it. And I love *surged!*

  • Thank you, DR. I like mixing it up! Wipe up the drool! 🙂

    Julia, I adore the synesthesia idea you describe. How different! The revision process *adding* visual cues should be fun.

  • Julia

    Thank you, Faith! And yes, it’s lots of fun.

  • Julia: Very cool! That kind of layering would make for a fascinating read, I’m sure.

    I had to chuckle when I read that your character “hears” life energy. That’s similar to something I’m doing in my story world. Characters who are “sensitive” to magic (which is based on life energy) are able to sense it in different ways: some hear sounds when magic is used, others see colors, others smell it, etc.

    I’m guessing I won’t have any trouble practicing up on my sensory descriptions!

  • Fantastic post, Faith. Sometimes I skip longer ones, but I’m glad I took the time to read through this.

    In my first book, I struggled to include sensory details beyond sight. I concentrated so much on my MC’s colorless darksight, that I almost forgot about the rest. Another POV character is a lion-man, which was easier to get into smells and sounds, but still the story felt limited.

    In the new WIP, I discovered/decided in a latter chapter that the MCs rift-magic provides him with hyper-active senses. That’s something I’m going to write into the rest of the book to give it a stronger sensory appeal.

    Great examples. Lovely writing.

  • Julia

    Thanks, Marvello! And thanks for the description of your own world. I bet the ones who sense magic through color are fun to write. 🙂

  • NG Dave, (hand to heart) You don’t wade/slog/plow through my long posts??? I’m horrified. (laughing) I do get a bit long winded sometimes.

    Do remember that the eyes of big-cats like lions see color differently from humans. I’m still trying to decide what blood looks like to them.

    Hmmm. You know what? We need to have a session of commenters posting your own sensory descriptions. Hmmm. that would be fun!

  • A sensory posting session? I’d be for that. So long as we’re not being asked to invoke all five senses in a single passage …

    (Total aside … was there no Thursday poster scheduled for today? And do you ever take suggestions of authors to possibly approach?)

  • Laura, we did indeed have someone scheduled. She was working on her post when the Chorandrian battle fleet passed over her house, knocking out her internet. When she went outdoors and realized the Chorandrians were threatening the safety of the planet, she leaped into her G-850 Thorhammer, roared into into space and threw herself headfirst into the battle. I expect to hear the explosions of defeated battle cruisers crashing to the ground any second now.

    Either that, or she forgot it was her day. *smile*

    If you have suggestions of authors you’d like us to invite, by all means let us know. We’re not shy about approaching them for our readers!

  • I love the idea of a sensory posting session.

  • Oh – and as for how Big Cat (Beast) sees blood – that’s obvious. She ‘sees’ it through her nose.

  • Cool, Misty! Thanks!

    Blasted Chorandian battle fleets. They’re becoming such a nuisance these days.

  • Laura, you’re not kidding. Between them and the giant purple borer worms eating their way through the Earth’s crust, it’s a wonder we get anything done. 😀