Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility

Sorry to mislead you, but this isn’t a treatise on Jane Austen’s classic novel pitting one sister’s passion against the other sister’s sound reasoning, although that might make for an interesting post some day (Kait, you interested?). Full disclosure: way back when during high school, my English class was assigned Sense and Sensibility to read, followed by a book report. When school ended for the day I high-tailed it downtown to Cooper’s News Stand and the spiral rack which held Cliffs Notes for many of the classics. Fortunately, there were two copies available. I think I paid about three or four bucks for it, but it was worth every cent to spare the fifteen-year-old me from over three-hundred pages of drudgery (my opinion at the time). But I digress.

Deadly Catch newer cover

A few days ago I was reading through a blog listing URLs on numerous topics helpful to writers. One that caught my eye was about using the five senses to enhance our fiction: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. I’ll admit to thinking, How mundane. Any writer worth his salt knows that, even most beginners. And then it struck me—what a pompous ass I was to think that! Mr. Know-it-all-Author, how often do you use the five senses to enhance your own fiction? And so I decided to put it to the test, using my first Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Catch, as the guinea pig.


I grabbed a copy of the book and opened it to Chapter One. With bated breath (oh, the drama, the tension!), I put myself to the test and began reading:


A quick flick of the wrist and the lure flashed in the rising sun, arched thirty or so yards alongside the grass flats and landed with a quiet splash barely a foot from the edge.


Much to my delight (and surprise) I was able to scratch off the first two of the five senses in just the second sentence of the novel. Not bad, if I do say so myself.

“flashed” = Sight.

“splash” = Hearing.

 Whoopee! So far, so good. I wondered if my luck would hold. I ventured on. At the bottom of the first page and on to the second page of Chapter One, I read,


The lure wiggled and skirted the grassy edge for ten or fifteen feet when I felt resistance.

“felt”—Hurrah for me! I now could scratch off sense number three, Touch. I’d only reached the top of the second page of my mystery and I already had used senses one, two, and three. Heck, I was—“The Natural,” to borrow the title from Bernard Malamud’s 1952 classic baseball novel. Would my luck continue? I scanned on down the page.


About halfway to the target a light breeze rose and drifted my way. That’s when the stench hit, almost gagging me.

Hot damn! “stench” certainly qualified for “Smell.” Four out of five senses used in the first two pages of Deadly Catch, and in order as listed on the blog I’d read, no less. Was it karma, or merely coincidence?


I could hardly contain myself as I ventured to the following page in search of the next—fifth— sense. Could I possibly go five for five, a perfect batting average of 1.000, or would my streak end at a very respectable .800? I took a deep breath and plunged ahead.

A couple pages into Chapter Two I found this:


I fished a roll of breath mints from my pocket and popped a couple in my mouth.

Hmm, does that qualify? The sentence doesn’t directly state anything about taste, but the implication is there. Mac had polished off a six-pack of beer while waiting for the Florida Marine Patrol to show up after he’d discovered the decomposed body he’d hooked beside the grass flat. It’s not a direct reference, but I think it qualifies. But not to worry: I didn’t score five for five. In between the “smell” and the “taste” references were other mentions of the previously used senses. So, no perfect five for five. But hey, batting .800 ain’t bad at all—just ask any baseball fan.

Confidence word destruction


So, what’s the moral of this post? Well, I believe good writing will always include the five senses placed here and there throughout the story to enhance the reader’s enjoyment. Not on every page, or every other page. It just happened to occur in Deadly Catch. I had no idea of that when I reopened the book for the first time in many months. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. I don’t recall consciously planting the five senses in the opening pages of the book. It just happened. And that fact boosts my confidence in my writing.

Lesson learned? Using the five senses in fiction makes Sense and Sensibility.


What about you? If you’re a writer, does your work include these five senses to help enrich your readers’ enjoyment? And as readers, do our favorite books and authors employ the senses to widen our experience as we travel through the pages? Grab a book from the author of your choice and see how far into the story you get until you find all five. It’s fun, and a good way to test your reading chops!


11 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility

  1. Have to think about the treatise, Mike. I devoured Jane Austen in high school, but don’t remember reading her since. Henry James, a different story. He and F. Scott are my go tos for the what am I going to read syndrome when I can’t land on a book that appeals.

    The five senses. Hum, I’m going to have to go back and take a look at my books. In real life I use senses in unusual ways. It comes from being a Floridian, down here we taste and smell the weather. Nothing has quite the ozone scent of a thunder storm on the way and fog and hurricanes bring the taste of salt. Touch too is a weather predictor. Summer air wraps itself around us like a sticky blanket. I’m fairly confident those all show up, but others? Or senses used in a more normal way? Gotta check that out.

    Good post, Mike!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I try to include all five in my stories. It’s not always easy. Taste can be a bit tricky and awkward if not used with finesse, but I am conscience of it. Good for you! All five in the first two pages. Give that man a beer!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Kait. Hey, I grew up in Panama City, FL & lived most of my life there until moving to the foothills of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. So, I’m well-versed in the heat, humidity, sights, sounds, and smells of a coastal region. I remember my wife I and heading out for our early morning walks. We lived about six blocks from the beach. Sometimes we would hit a wall of hot, humid air short of the beach. We’d know then to turn around and continue our walk on the “cool” side of that invisible but very real wall. Grab your latest book and begin reading. I’ll bet you’ll find you’ve used all five senses in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 at the latest. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very tasteful post Michael, I can almost smell that corpse. The post is an effective reminder to use the senses to engage the reader and I have noticed you never fail to do so. I used a lot of taste in my book as well as smell and touch. I have to go back and see how quickly I did it. I know I used hearing from the droning voice and chants. I won’t give myself a score but I do think about the issues in your post constantly. A book should be like a word painting in my opinion. Your post was engaging as always.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. MJ, your book, The Remembered Self, is full of the five senses, often in the most excruciating of portrayences. It’s a tough read, and definitely NOT for the faint of heart. Thanks so much for your supportive comments. Here’s hoping your next book is not so painful to write. You are definitely among the brave!


  5. Well said, Mike. Any writer worth his or her salt should use sensory language, and liberally. It’s the whole “Show, don’t tell” adage. That said, too much description, especially in a mystery, can really affect the pacing, and that’s a problem. Example, a writer describing, in laborious detail, a hospital room. Everyone’s been in one, so just a few key details is enough to set the scene. In general, a writer should only describe the most unusual or interesting elements about a particular setting. Which brings me to another point: a writer should, whenever possible, set scenes in interesting places. In Alphabet Land, I went out of my way to have key scenes, including the penultimate one, in odd places, like an abandoned nuclear plant. As a writer, it was challenging to write, and for the reader, hopefully, fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree that excessive description can bog down a mystery, or most any story if used to excess. The key is, IMHO, to use descriptions, senses, and most everything a writer has in his/her arsenal, to the best value one can. Yep, hit the high notes and leave the low-midrange notes to the reader’s imagination. It’s tough to stay consistent, which is where a good editor comes in handy; one who is able to see things we writers have become blinded to by going over and over and over the same passages innumerable times. No man, or writer, is an island. No writer is perfect. We all have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. One sign of a good writer is that he/she isn’t afraid to call on others for help. Thanks for the great comments!


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