The Senses in Literature -Ruth Ennis

In creative writing, the author caters to the appeal of the targeted readers. As every audience is as diverse and complex as the people that make it, there are very few factors that can apply to everyone. One factor we can – almost – always take for granted is the ability to connect through basic, instinctive, human senses. Sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. The author utilises this common thread in various mediums of literature. They are used to complement or to contradict the thoughts of the characters, or audience, or events, or places. They are used as a fundamental familiarity in an unfamiliar context; when a reader opens the first page of a new book, they rely on the comparisons of senses to translate the unfamiliar into the familiar.

Often, though far from always, these five senses are deliberately descriptive and comparative; intertwining the known and unknown combinations to create a hybrid that is a simile. Subjectively, the most common of senses explored in these similes is sight. However, it would be negligent of anyone writing literature creatively to deny the other four senses. Yes, we can indulge how Nana’s old blanket is “as colourful as a bumblebee hugging a flower”. But how does it appeal to the other senses? Is it “as soft as kittens’ fur, as familiar as a mother’s perfume, as comforting as homemade bread, as nostalgic as the forgotten nursery rhyme”? It is the duty of the author to encapsulate the reader in as many senses that is practical and engaging. The senses are an authors’ tool that enrich the narrative with its presence, and denies it of intimacy with its absence.

It is important to recognise certain senses are more apt to certain literary mediums than others. In film, we are told repeatedly to “show, not tell”. Subject to artistic choice, film is attributed to encapsulating perspectives in a unique and physical way that is not as applicable to other mediums. In film, sight is displayed, edited and manipulated to give us a very calculated perception. When Johnny is scripted to walk into the room, and the next shot zooms on the decorative teacup in the corner, we, the audience, immediately translate that sense of sight to portray importance on this now-significant tea cup. However, if this context was set in the theatre; Johnny is scripted to walk into the room, and looks at the tea cup. The visual impact of this action is lessened due to the ambiguity of sight on stage; the audience can translate the entire stage generally, but without the direction of the writer, cannot translate acute impact as intently. Sight is deliberately more meaningful in the medium of film than it is in theatre. Theatre relies on the combination of senses more equally. Alternatively, and arguably, the medium of poetry, particularly slam poetry, relies on the sense of sound. This essay focuses largely on the role of the senses in creative writing of prose and poetry.


Broadly speaking, sight is the sense catered to the most in prose. It takes an incredibly brief amount of time for the eyes, as the receptor, to accept information, transfer this to the brain to be rationalised, and transfer this information as a reaction in the body. It is instinctive, instantaneous, and impulsive. It is also, potentially, the most familiar of senses, which can be used to the advantage of the writer. A writer can provide the generalised visual information in a scene; “Charlie walked into the classroom”. The reader, familiar with the sight of a classroom, can use this information to make generalised assumptions; the classroom has chairs, tables, a blackboard, etc. The writer can use this rapid assumption, based on familiarity, to develop the visual information that is considered more relevant and more unique to the scene; “Charlie sat at his desk, where his most recent game of hangman was etched into the wooden table”. The writing is enriched by the strategic use of sight, what is visually familiar, by focusing primarily on visualisation that can contribute to setting, character or plot development.

Due to the speed we can process visual information in a text, the reader doesn’t not often need to translate the sense to a comparative. Rather, sight is the default comparison. It is not unrealistic to assume that most average readers are visual learners. That is to say; they can relate and remember informational imagery more consistently and detailed than other senses that may need to be translated. This speed can be used to the advantage of the writer. When articulating pace in an extract, an author can utilise the intense speed of visual processing to make the pace of the narrative faster. This can be particularly useful for, but far from limited to, action scenes. In an extract, the physical and visual description of an act and events can be understood at the pace as if the reader was experiencing the sight themselves; “She saw that black hat and coat combination. She ducked her head. He waved to her. She blushed and rushed past him”. Whilst other senses contribute to the emotional state of the scene, sight is undeniably a practical tool for providing fundamental information at a lifelike rate.


Sound is just as familiar as sight to the average reader. However, it tends to be recognised in a less conscious manner. Whilst sight can be subjective, sound is more universal; you can close your eyes but not your ears. Information is less filtered and is more of a continuous flow of information. Therefore, it is the duty of the writer to distinguish what is relevant; how it can contribute to the understanding of a scene.

For film and theatre, sound and sight go hand in hand with each other. In film and theatre, just as it is as with sight, sound is dictated in the script to manipulate the audience’s attention. In a home setting, the “insistent ticking of a clock and the tapping of a sibling’s foot” reflects the building emotional tension of our angst-driven teenage protagonist. The screenplay or script intentionally heightens the importance of these ticks to establish and contribute to the “show, don’t tell” aspirations of the writer, in a less literal sense. General “background noise” is not, and should not be, limited to script. The establishment of the sounds surrounding a scene can offer that constant flow of information in seconds; both to replace sight and to compliment it; “The rush of the river made it difficult to hear Susie’s giggle behind him, but Fred recognised it nonetheless”.

Arguably the most common use of sound in writing is dialogue. It can be utilised across film, theatre, prose, poetry and more. In dialogue, the writer is expected to maintain a consistency in dialect, phrases and mannerisms in speech. In preparation for this, the writer must know the history, personality and objectives of a character in incredible detail. The sound of a character should be so clear to the reader that is comes as naturally as the flow of information that sound provides. Often, writers will create the sound of their characters with the phonetics in their speech; a southern Belle speaking as so: “Ah said t’wad be the end of mah mamma”. Arguably this is something of a crutch. If the emotional, physical, social and environmental setting of a scene is established well enough, the reader can create the sound of a voice with this information. When it comes to dialogue, the reader is not always given the liberty of establishing a voice of a character themselves, inhibiting a closer connection to said character.

Whilst dialogue credits a much deeper insight with its relationship with sound, it is important to recognise non-verbal sound and its attributes. Sound is important, not only within the narrative, but also the external of the narrative. In an age where audio books have grown to be a more common, potentially more convenient, means of enjoying a text, it corresponds with the importance of oral pronunciation. How a text sounds, how it is paced, is more significant to a reader than is always understood. Take for example in poetry and spoken word. While Shakespeare’s sonnets are meticulously constructed, they are designed to be spoken aloud. It is when a reader, or rather, a listener as your audience hears how perfectly each syllable is placed does it truly become a work of art. In slam poetry, the entire objective is how the words are paced, emphasised, iterated; the sound external of the narrative determines the reality of a text. It is the fine line between what is paper and what can become a reality to an audience.


For an author, to have a tool that can accurately convey emotional thought on a physical level is in valuable. This tool is found in the description, application and connotations associated with touch. Touch has a credible relationship with sight; in which we can see a touch on script, film or stage, and can immediately find meaning in it. Touch is an action; the physical representation of a conscious or subconscious internal state. Through the script of theatre and film, when we see a mother gently push her child into the classroom door on their first day, the reader and audience can comprehend the state of nervousness, apprehension and unease of the child, and the support, encouragement and determination of the mother. Touch is potentially the most instinctive and the most intimate of all senses in literature.

Touch can be experienced instantaneously, and, as a result, cannot always be translated in an articulate or otherwise sensual manner. It is based on instinct and appeals to the experience the reader, as a humane character. In prose and poetry, touch is described and used to replace articulating instinct. When “the boiling water from the kettle spills on Robert’s arm”, the reader can immediately intellectualise the intense pain that Robert can only articulate through profanity. Touch is also a significantly more ambiguous sense. You may notice that touch often can be subjective to the emotional and physical state of those experiencing it; attempting to impose literal reasoning to literary comparatives. Touch can momentarily dissolve the context of the world the characters exist in. Its immediate nature demands the attention of the reader, turning the focus from the “beautiful red sunset” to the notably smaller sensation of “bare legs grazing against each other, nothing between them but grains of sand”. Touch can enrich a piece of literature, arguably translating the unknown to more humane contexts.


Smell is notable for its intense and polarised nature. When driving on the motorway at top speed, we are not told how “neutral this road smells”. It is only when we reach the back, country roads do is the silage highlighted. Smell is an extremity, as in it demands recognition of its presence and cannot be ignored once realised. Therefore, smell is effective in setting a scene, particularly in prose and occasionally poetry. Because theatre and film are more visual arts, it could prove redundant to apply the specialised sense of smell to a distinctly different specialised medium.

Smell brings a heightened awareness to the character. When our daring protagonist walks into the factory and “the stench of gas floods him, he remembers James smoking outside the door”. A sense of danger is implied in a manner of seconds, without the physical description of the danger. Similarly, when “Kelly brushes past an older woman in the street, she catches her perfume. It is the same perfume her mother wore, and her eyes well up”. Smell holds close ties to our memory. It is not always easily articulated and is often used as a comparative to aid visual concepts; “The fireplace exuded the air of the oak tree it was patiently burning”. It is not necessarily as instinctive and as quickly recognisable as touch or sound. However, it does allow the author to assume intelligence in the reader, to make links and associations with the scents described.

It can act as a tool to memory, a reference for the present and a warning for the future. In the experience of scent, it can be found to be the most translatable of all the senses across the physical and literary medium of time. It is not easily tainted, or confused, or manipulated over time; unlike, for example, sight and sound. It is invaluable in interchanging exposition and developmental strategies in the progression of a narrative. Smell is unique in the limited attributes it can bring to a text, and it is up to the author to dictate the time and place to introduce it.


Both taste and smell intertwine with each other, in how they are associated with emotive responses in the reader. When you smell the homemade bread in the nearby bakery, you can vividly imagine the taste of it, warm in your mouth. A trope commonly displayed on film, the odour of a dead body inspires the desire to rid of the taste in the mouth, through spitting or, more dramatically, vomiting. Taste often acts as a product of smell; enhancing a sense to induce a fuller experience in the reader. However, it can also be utilised as a storytelling medium on its own.

The most obvious opportunity to use taste in a text is in relation to food. This is one of the few exceptions taste can be applied through several textual mediums. In poetry or prose, the author can detail “how sweet and welcoming the juice was, after a long day playing in the sun”. However, taste can be combined with sight to create a similar concept. The reader or audience does not need the taste to be articulated, because the piercing of the lips can tell us how spicy it is after “Carl spiked Tom’s coffee with red sauce”.

Taste is applicable to a careful variety of experiences. The taste of poisons, of a lover, even on a metaphorical level; the taste of freedom. Just as it is with the more ambiguous senses, touch and smell, taste can be indulged as a metaphor to iterate the unspoken. It is an effective tool to capture the instinct of desire; a taste is never enough and leaves us wanting more. Describing taste in a text, even through sight and smell, is a clever way to articulate “this is a beginning, and a middle, but there is more to come; the end of this taste will be worthwhile”. Because taste often collaborates with other senses to improve a narrative, it is not of less significance, but equal.

The senses are the greatest tool of a writer to any genre to humanise and make a text more familiar, and relevant to the reader. It can detail a character’s age, experience, maturity, intent, physical and emotional intelligence. It can describe the tone, risks, possibilities and consequences of a setting and action. The practise of exploring these senses in unconventional contexts should be encouraged; write an action scene using primarily touch, or a fight scene primarily using sound, or a love scene using all the senses. Exercises like these will encourage an awareness of the senses, that you can apply with a more natural flow to your story that will resonate with your reader. And whilst some senses may be less familiar to translate to the reader, they can result in a richer reading experience. They are vital to the credibility of the world the reader is exploring; as valid and sensual as their own world.


About the contributor

Ruth Ennis is studying Children's Literature in Trinity College Dublin. She has written for Children's Books Ireland, The University Observer, The UCD Caveat Lector, The Dublin Book Festival and The Blue Nib. She aspires to be a children's author, and has a particular interest in poetry and short stories. She currently works as the Marketing and Publicity Officer for The O'Brien Press.

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