“Show, don’t tell.” Advice every writer has heard at least once. In addition to the usual challenges of effective storytelling—the plot, the worldbuilding, the characters, you also have do it in a way that makes readers feel as though they’re in the story right along with your characters. This post is meant to help you a bit with all of that, through the power of the senses.
Never, ever underestimate the power of the five senses in your writing. Consider that everything you experience, of course, involves the senses in some way. You’ve probably recalled memories from years ago listening to a song that was playing in that moment. Or remember someone by the perfume or cologne they wore. Or try a meal you could swear you’ve never tried, but you know you’ve tasted it before. And so on.
The senses are a powerful tool to show your reader what’s happening, how the character feels about it, what about the scene might be familiar to them, and how FUBAR’D that character might be.
As you’re writing a story, ask yourself this question: how do you want the character (and reader) to feel in this moment? Safe, scared, bored, frustrated, trapped? When people say “show, don’t tell,” this is what they mean. How do you give the reader the experience you want to give them without telling them “The mansion is creepy”? Use the senses, of course!
TW: mild violence, mention of self harm
The protagonist has never left their small village in a remote planet tucked away in the corner of the galaxy. They have known nothing but struggle, scraping by to survive. It’s not uncommon for them to skip meals so their younger siblings have something to eat, or sacrifice something important to them to be able to afford medicine for the ailing parent.
Suddenly, they are thrust into a world entirely unlike their own. By some twist of fate, they must answer the call to adventure, and find themselves transported to the empire at the center of the galaxy, full of decadence and downright gross displays of wealth and hedonism. Roads paved of priceless gems and minerals that would feed a family from their home planet for years. Pillars stretching high into the sky, built of marble with veins of pure gold. Nobles draped in the finest silks embroidered with crystals, their wrists, necks and fingers affixed with the rarest jewels.
And even still, in this land of wealth and endless greed, the protagonist catches sight of the less fortunate curled up in dark alleyways or begging on the streets. Even here, where resources are abundant, they see neighborhoods where the old wooden houses are crumbling and the residents’ faces are caked with dirt, and gaunt with exhaustion and malnourishment.
We might not know much about this place yet, nor does the protagonist. We might not have even met any characters from here at this point. But we are still absorbing plenty of information through their eyes, by seeing what they see. No doubt, the protagonist has already developed an opinion of this place, and it’s not a good one.
Sight is one of the easiest ways to indicate to your reader what’s going on, and foreshadow what’s to come. By indicating to the reader what the character is seeing, we can already theorize what a setting or character is like and what kind of trouble (or benefit) they may present.
- A horror novel (bad vibes): the branches of dead trees reaching toward you, the sun cut off by a towering canopy, shadows shifting in the darkness, a silhouetted figure approaching, quick flashes of movement in the peripheral, a decaying corpse, crows watching
- A fantasy novel (bad vibes): cottages boarded up and abandoned, villagers shrinking away in fear or fleeing indoors, soldiers patrolling the roads, soldiers ruthlessly trampling or batting aside anyone in their way, a family huddled over the grey and bruised body of a child
- A fantasy novel (good vibes): children playing tag in the streets, merchants eagerly advertising and selling their wares, street performers, villagers waving at the characters, colorful flags and market stalls
- A sci-fi novel (bad vibes): a desolate wasteland of gray sand and crackled earth, the ruins of an advanced city, the desiccated corpses of an unknown alien species, badly singed and abandoned homes, dried up bodies of water
After liberating a village from a horde of skeletons, the protagonist and their companions visit a tavern in a town many miles north. Laughter spills out of the doors before they even step inside, and they are greeted with lively tavern music and the stomping of feet as the patrons sing along with the band on stage. The whole tavern seems to shake as the tavern-goers stand up and dance, or shout across the way when another group of villagers burst onto the scene.
It is the first time the group have been able to relax since the village before, and several of the group even start to dance and laugh along with the crowd. But the protagonist can’t help but notice a small group of men in hoods muttering to each other, eyes darting back and forth. When they inch closer, hoping to catch bits of the hushed conversation, they catch some words like “army” and “dead” and “endless.” A chill runs down the protagonist’s spine. And it only gets worse when, through the raucous laughter and joyful music, they can hear a familiar sound: the rumbling of an approaching army, and the rattling of a million bones clattering together.
What sounds comfort you? Scare you? Annoy you? What sounds thrust you into the past, or even make you think about the future? How can sound help your character determine whether they’re somewhere it’s safe to relax, or they should keep their guard up constantly? Are there any sounds that bring up past trauma, or help the characters realize when danger is afoot? Do any characters or creatures make sounds that your character (and reader) will start to recognize over time? As with all the other senses, what can sound reveal about the scene? Which sounds might up the tension for the reader?
The protagonist above recognizes the sound of the approaching skeleton army after becoming painfully familiar with it fighting through the horde before. It is a sound they come to dread and loathe, because they know it means impending doom. It breaks through the peace and joy of the moment, and while most of the villagers may not recognize what the sound means until they see the army approaching, the characters we’ve spent all this time with already know what it means.
- A horror novel (bad vibes): creaking wood, tree branches scraping the windows, whispering, hissing, screaming in the distance, eerie silence (hey, silence can be just as telling as loud noises!), groaning and moaning, water dripping, a wolf howling, the cry of an unidentified animal
- A sci-fi novel (bad vibes): smoke hissing from a damaged engine, an enemy weapon firing, the growls of a dangerous alien creature, liberty dying via thunderous applause
- A fantasy novel (good vibes): the pleasant crackling of wood burning in a fireplace, the gentle “whoosh” of healing magic, the “zap” of a successful spell (as opposed to the frustrating hiss of a spell failing), the boiling of a potion in a cauldron, the click of a locked treasure chest opening at last
The protagonist is called to action when a wise old prophet informs them that they are The Chosen One. Their first task is to enlist the help of an ancient witch who can aid them in their quest to defeat the powerful Dragon God. As they step into the witch’s lair, they are immediately assaulted by the strong scent of herbs, incense, and a smell like burning meat. As they approach the witch, they see a bubbling cauldron behind her, and the smoke pouring out of it produces a sickly sweet odor that, for some reason, the protagonist recognizes. It reminds them of their mom’s home cooking. But also the grass after a heavy spring rain, when they used to go out exploring with their friends. And the smell of old pages and ink in the books they used to read when no one was watching.
Smell, in my humble opinion, is the most underrated of the five senses. Did you know that the smell of food affects the way you taste it? I learned that embarrassingly late in life, but it’s a testament to how much you can convey based on showing us what it is the characters are smelling.
If something dangerous is nearby, what might it smell like? If it’s a monster, it might smell like wet fur or blood or rotten eggs. If it’s a demon, it might smell like something burning. If it’s a ghost, it might smell like something the ghost was known for in life (perfume, paint, fish, etc). Any dystopian novel could be rife with bad smells if clean water and soap become a luxury. Lots of rotted food and dead animals, body odor, the smoky remains of destroyed towns, infected wounds, bad breath everywhere, and so on.
Smells can be familiar and help you indicate to the reader that something they should remember from before is about to go down again. It can also set the tone, as using more pleasant smells could imply a more pleasant setting. Or perhaps the opposite: a scent we normally associate with safety and/or pleasantness could instead be applied to the villain, or a curse, or a summoning circle, or anything else we and the protagonist recognize as bad, very bad.
- A horror novel (bad vibes): the sickly smell of feces, the pungent smell of a corpse, a smell like pennies or rust (blood), burning hair or flesh, the distinct soap or shampoo of a familiar (and dangerous) person, sweat, rotting meat
- A fantasy novel (good vibes): sweet-smelling herbs, meat roasting on a campfire, bread baking in the oven at home, alcoholic-smelling healing potions
- A sci-fi novel (good vibes): the sterile smell of a hospital, the smell of fried wires after successfully destroying an evil surveillance database, the fresh smell of nature after finally landing at your destination
The protagonist is a dragon shifter. Or, at least, he’s supposed to be. But while everyone around him has been able to shift into their dragon form since they were small children, the protagonist has been trapped as a human.
Treated as an outcast, he tries to force the transformation however possible. He visits an apothecary and tries any number of cures, herbs, and potions, to no avail. His family hires scientists and sorcerers alike to find a way to unlock the protagonist’s hidden power. But after a while, even they start to lose hope and believe that the protagonist simply has no power.
One day, he learns the truth. And in learning it, he unlocks the power hidden deep inside of him. He starts to feel the worst pain he’s ever felt in his life, like his entire body is aflame. Eventually, the pain subsides and is replaced by numbness, then the feeling of power rushing through him. Then the feeling that his body is no longer his own, but something bigger and stronger.
What does magic feel like? Or superpowers? If something in your story affects the body, particularly something that doesn’t exist outside of your story, how can you help the reader understand what is happening? If your character is in pain, how can you show us how severe that pain is? How were they injured? Stabbed, burned, punched, shot? And if that pain abruptly turns to numbness, is that you telling us the character has died or passed out? Does the character’s companion feel their body grow cold and limp?
Is someone going through a transformation of some kind? Does it feel good? Can the character run so fast they can feel the wind through their hair? Or are they so strong that a car feels no heavier than a textbook to them?
Touch is incredibly versatile. It lets the character both affect the world and be affected by it. When writing a scene, ask yourself what it might feel like to be in whatever setting the character finds themself in. If they’re in a haunted house, maybe the air feels unusually cold. If they’re in a desert, they’ll feel parched, sweaty, and fatigued. The most engaging scenes don’t tell the reader what’s happening to the characters, but instead give an understanding of what it feels like to be in their place.
- A horror novel (bad vibes): a cursed character slowly realizes they’re losing all sense of touch, the protagonist feels a searing pain in their arm and realize the monster stalking them has slashed them, a character clinging to their sanity starts burning themselves
- A sci-fi novel (bad vibes): the blunt and then burning pain of a gun firing and hitting a character’s abdomen, the feeling of being socked in the face by a character with super strength, the excruciating pain of a character slowly being turned into a crystal
- A fantasy novel (good vibes): the addictive rush of adrenaline as a burst of fire erupts from a character’s palm, the soft fur of a friendly animal companion, the rush of warmth after being healed (look, I know I used healing a lot. What can I say? Healing is nice)
After a character is brutally attacked in a dark alleyway and left for dead, a vampire appears by his side, making a quick cut on her arm and pouring blood into his mouth. As their mind starts to go blank, the character can only think that he wishes whoever is near him would stop, that he liquid being poured into his mouth tastes horrible: tangy and coppery…like blood.
When the character awakens, they are somewhere else. A bedroom. The coppery taste is gone, but now their tongue feels dry and they desperately need some water. They stumble into the nearby bathroom and gulps down some tap water from the sink, but it tastes…different. Awful. Like the way old gym socks smell. They cough and spit it out at first, but desperate for something, anything, they force it down. It does nothing to quench their thirst.
The vampire appears shortly after. She explains to him that she found him dying in the alleyway. Without another word, she hands him a glass of red liquid. He cannot stop himself from snatching the glass from her and gulping it all down in a few quick swallows. It tastes like honey and chocolate and everything sweet and wonderful he has ever tasted. Nothing like the sickly taste of pennies like before.
Taste can be the trickiest of the five senses, because your character isn’t necessarily going to be tasting things all the time. We’re smelling, hearing, and seeing things all the time, and maybe picking up or touching objects to get a feel for the setting. But it’s not like there’s always going to be an evil cannoli sitting on a table to tell the character they’re inside a cursed house.
That’s not to say that taste can’t or shouldn’t be incorporated when you can. Taste might help determine the quality of an inn or restaurant, or the cooking of a character. It might help a character realize they’re being poisoned or that something is otherwise wrong with what they’re eating or drinking. Sometimes you can even taste the air, especially for particularly strong or bad smells.
- A fantasy novel (bad vibes): the sour taste of a potion brewed incorrectly, the bloody taste of raw meat, the bitter taste of a potion cursed with dark magic
- A horror novel (bad vibes): the bitter taste of poison in a stew cooked up by a kindly and unassuming old woman (oddly specific. Huh.), the coppery taste of blood after being stabbed, the metallic taste of carbon monoxide, the loss of taste after getting sick (oh boy)
- A fantasy novel (good vibes): the sweet taste of a strength potion, the fruity taste of a good ale at a local inn, the savory taste of meat after weeks surviving on berries in the forest
The protagonist is invited to a gala in a city that the rest of the world views as borderline utopian. Everything is perfect. The leaders are benevolent and empathetic. Poverty does not exist. Everyone gets along. Everyone is healthy. Everyone is happy.
But the protagonist has a bad feeling. They don’t really have any reason to. Everything seems perfect. The gala is a hit. There’s no danger in sight, even though they’ve grown used to being on edge and expecting to be attacked at any moment. That doesn’t happen here.
They are playfully teased by everyone, even their friends and fellow adventurers, for being paranoid. “Come on, [name]!” they say, slapping the protagonist on the back affectionately, “We’re safe. We’re fine! You can relax now!” But try as they might, they cannot.
This sense is arguably the most interesting of all of them because on the surface, it’s…nothing. You are taking in the world around you and just getting the feeling that something is off. And the funny thing? Sometimes there’s no indication that anything is amiss at all. No weird smells or sounds or sights. It’s just a vibe. A bad vibe, a feeling in your gut. An instinctual fear, or a feeling that something important is missing.
In all of my examples for the other senses, I indicated whether the senses were supposed to imply a good or a bad “vibe.” Some of them are quite blatant (the smell of blood or a corpse does not exactly scream “good vibes”), but some are a lot more subtle. And they alone might be meaningless. Another thing that makes intuition so interesting is that it can play off of the other senses or work entirely on its own.
No matter what, we’re programmed to sense when something is wrong. It’s how we survive. If someone approaches you and makes you feel uncomfortable even though they seem perfectly normal and friendly, it’s far better to listen to your instincts even if it makes you feel silly. It could save your life.
The same is true for characters. Maybe they feel foolish or paranoid voicing their concerns. Maybe those around them mock them or lecture them for dampening the good mood.
The less evidence the character has that something is wrong, the more likely it is that they will be ignored and disaster may strike. As the writer, when you’re making it clear that a character is getting a bad feeling, that often means that something really is wrong. A bad vibe is the simplest way to foreshadow that things are not as they seem, and they’re about to go bad very soon.
- A horror novel: the sickening feeling that someone (or something) is watching you
- A fantasy novel: the sense that something has affected the world’s magic in some way
- A sci-fi novel: the dreadful feeling that the enemy army’s ships retreating is not a good thing; they have something else up their sleeve