by Kay Marshall Strom

Years ago—in another life, it seems—I dabbled in writing TV and movie scripts. In some ways it was easier than writing books, because the audience can look at the screen and see what is happening. They hear passion in the actors’ voices, and they too are moved. They feel fear, and it propels the story forward. But we book authors have only words. Yet if we use those words well, they are all we need.

To describe well-rounded characters, we write something like this: Tom, just twenty-three, is already graying; a straight scar on his chin makes him look as though he was blessed with a romantic dimple. Obviously nervous, Tom has chewed his fingernails down to the quick.

Good, but one-sided. The physical description of your character is limited to the sense of sight. Imagine how much more well-rounded it might be if you used words that let your readers know the characters through other senses as well.

  • Smell: The little old lady’s sweatshirt reeked of fish fried well past its due date.
  • Hearing: Burt was a small man, but the low growl that rumbled from deep inside him sent even the bravest hurrying away.
  • Touch: Sue did her best to smile despite the scrape left on her cheek by his three-day-old stubble.
  • Taste: It wasn’t until I took a big bite of oatmeal that I understood the breakfast bowls left half full. Sally had forgotten the salt.

It’s not only character descriptions you can bring to life by writing through the senses. It’s a perfect way to invite your readers into your setting. They can:

  • smell the brine of the shrimp boats at the dock waiting to be freed of the day’s catch.
  • taste the salty lips of the young man eager for his first kiss.
  • cry out as children run across the scorching sand on bare feet.
  • cover their ears against the deafening screech of seagulls fighting over a baguette left behind.

Sensible writing not only shows your readers your setting and your characters, it also pulls them in to hear and taste and smell and touch. Sensible writing grabs hold of your readers and won’t let them go until they read THE END.

Kay Marshall Strom

Author and speaker, Kay Marshall Strom has written 42 books and film scripts, including A Caregiver’s Survival Guide: How to Stay Healthy When Your Loved One Is Sick and Daughters of Hope: Stories of Witness and Courage in the Face of Persecution plus numerous devotionals, magazine articles, and curricula. Kay and her husband, author Dan Kline, will keynote at the 2017 Oregon Christian Writers Spring One–Day Conference May 20 at Northwest Christian University in Eugene. Kay will also teach a one-hour workshop on “The Power of Writing Small”—or writing short pieces—which helps writers get published earlier and provides the beginnings of that all-important platform.