Setting the Scene in Your Story: The five senses

As you write your story, consider your character’s surroundings. What does your character see, hear, smell, touch and taste?

Think of a movie or television show you’ve seen and create a sensory list. “Show, don’t tell.” An example might be M*A*S*H, either the movie or television show. What do you see and hear as you watch the show? Can you imagine the smells? Setting uses all the senses, so think “See, hear, smell, touch and taste.”

Examples might include:

  • Sight
    •  the sight of helicopters crossing gray mountains, red crosses on khaki Army tents, ambulances hurrying to the landing pad, red crosses on their sides and roof. The perspective gets bigger as the helicopter starts to descend. Nurse and medics race, carrying empty canvas stretchers, camouflage netting over equipment near the pad,  Jeeps speed up the hill towards the helicopter, dust flying. All of this is “telling.” Think of ways to “show.” You will probably use some of the other senses to help “show” the scene.

“My Blue Heaven” in Korean played over the PA system as Hawkeye and BJ swung their golf clubs near the medical camp deep in the gray mountains. The sunny day was suddenly broken by the whop-whop-whop of helicopters approaching. Hawkeye looked up, then both men sprinted to camp and hopped into jeeps. Other vehicles marked with giant red crosses followed, racing to the helicopter pad.

The setting is shown using the actions of Hawkeye and BJ, the sunny day and the approach of the jeeps heading to the helicopter pad.

  • Sounds
    • music over the PA system, the whirl of the helicopter blades, rattle and rhythmic clatter of the blades, people yelling (music covers some), second helicopter sounds, Jeeps revving their engines.
  • Smells
    • fuel, dry dusty air, perspiration, blood (smells metallic), antiseptic, burning hair (smells like sulfur), body odors
  • Taste
    • dust, dry mouth, maybe someone in the scene is chewing gum or smoking a cigarette
  • Touch
    • hot metal jeep and helicopters, gritty feel of tarp, stretchers, wet sweaty skin, sticky viscous blood oozing, slimy blood clots, heat of the sun, wind blowing from helicopter, dirt pelting skin

All of the senses can help with setting.

Imagine the scene in your story and write down all the things you can think of that fit each category. Keep the list hand because there might be similar elements in other scenes. Or your list can trigger other ideas for a different story you work on later.

List items you might use in other stories like someone eating popcorn (touch, smell, taste, sound, sight) or Mom making a pot roast for dinner or exploring an old musty home or forest. As you make your senses list, refer to it when you are stuck and it will help spark your imagination.

Happy writing!

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