Dig Deeper, Use Your Five Senses


I was out running errands today, and I passed an elderly couple on my way into the wine store. As I raced by (to get out of the snow), I caught a snootful of the man’s cologne. It was the same as my dad’s, and in that nanosecond, I was transported back to Christmas hugs and crazy family dinners, where Dad always wore a smile on his face and a joke on the tip of his tongue. If Dad wasn’t filming me at cheer parades or coaching one more smile out of me before I whisked off to prom, he was always in the background, making me feel safe and loved.

I shoved the memories into the background until I could get back to my car and have a good cry. That one whiff of cologne, and I’m missing Dad so much, it hurts to breathe, and I’d give my entire cache of tequila just to be eight years old and sitting across the dining room table again, waiting for Dad to do something silly.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, everything. If you ask most of my authors, they’ll tell you one of my favorite comments during editing is “Dig deeper. Use your senses.” What I mean by that is to draw upon your five senses to evoke a memory that is associated with a feeling. The idea is if you can taste, touch, smell, see, or hear something, you can effectively write it. But you gotta dig deep to find it.

Sometimes I think we’ve forgotten how to dig deep because I see a lot of dry writing in submissions. It’s one thing to say “I miss my dad.” It’s quite another to say how and why in order to communicate that sense of missing someone to your reader. For me, it was a whiff of cologne. That sense of smell got my creative juices flowing to where I could write from the heart. Sometimes it’s music, and sometimes it’s touching a favorite blanket. Whatever sense you use, you’re looking for a primer to get you to that place of raw emotion.

I’m not saying you need to toss yourself on a couch, a la Freud, and analyze every emotion you write about. But if you have a chapter that has a lot of impact, then you’re not going to get away with writing, “She was sad.” You may need to call upon one or more of your five senses to get to that place where the deep emotions lurk.

Not only does this make for richer writing, but you keep the reader engaged in your story by conveying what that particular emotion feels like to your character (or you, if you’re writing a memoir). It helps the reader better understand and care about the character.

The most important thing you need to remember is DON’T BE AFRAID TO GO THERE. I run into this with memoir writers. Their stories are emotional, and having experienced it once already, they can be afraid, too exhausted to “go there” again, or simply emotionally drained when writing their stories. However, that emotion is the golden thread that ties the story together.

Emotion is the reason you decided to write your story, and you need to reconnect with those emotions. No one is interested in a Cornflakes dry accounting of your experience. It has to be well-rounded and full-bodied, like a fresh Twinkie (please don’t remind me they are no longer available. I’m still wearing my mourning shroud). And this goes for nonfiction and fiction.

So take another look at your writing. Are there places where your emotional content is a few sandwiches shy of a full picnic? Are there places where you need to get quiet, go deep within, and touch that memory with one of your five senses? If so, get crackin’!

As for Dad, I’ll see him end of February…where I can smell that cologne to my little heart’s content.

4 Responses to Dig Deeper, Use Your Five Senses

  1. Lynn, Your short bit about your father touched all my emotions– I was there with you. It takes a great writer to tell others how to write. Keep doing it.

  2. ericjbaker says:

    Such great advise. I’ve gotten it before but still tend to depend too heavily on my characters’ eyes and ears. I promise to do a five-senses draft when I’m done with the first pass of my current project.

  3. tbrosz says:

    My Mom sent me my grandfather’s old straw fishing hat some years ago. I freely admit I spent a lot of time smelling it, catching Old Spice, farmer-type lotion, and all the things that smelled like my Grandpa.

    The hat’s still here, the brim stained dark, but the smells are gone.

  4. Team Oyeniyi says:

    I received similar advice recently re my own memoir. Dig Deep. You are SO right – having lived it once it is bloody hard to go there again. Besides, there is this awful thought that one will appear a completely insane, especially when one felt that way many times during the events.

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