Note: This post was inspired by a workshop led by writer/actor/playwright Tom Laveen, where I originally learned about the lesser known of the 9 senses. If you have an opportunity to attend one of his workshops, do it! I highly suggest buying a copy of his dialogue book, How To Write Awesome Dialogue! For Fiction, Film and Theatre: Techniques from a published author and theatre guy.
Hi, lovely writer. Since you’re worth your salt, I know you know that you need to ‘show and not tell’ in your writing, and that to do that, you need to describe your setting and events using every single sense out there (though of course not all at the same time), not just sight.
But how many senses are there?
If you said 5 (which I hope you didn’t, since the title of this post is ‘writing with the 9 senses, silly duck), then you’re certainly not alone. Most people learned about the 5 main senses, sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell (We’re not going to get into the debate about that controversial sixth sense today… Frankly that’s a topic for a different blog). These five senses are the ones defined by Aristotle way back when, which is why they’re so well known. It’s incredibly important to write with all of these senses – the smell of wet paint, the gritty feeling of sand between toes, the clank of dropped metal in a foundry… but there’s more than that.
That’s right. There are four lesser known senses, and writing with them can give your work a whole new sense of depth.
So what are these four mysterious senses? Read on to find out!
The sixth sense, thermoception, is the easiest to understand, and also the one sense you’re probably including in your writing without realizing it. Thermoception refers to our ability to sense temperature. You might be inclined to lump this one in with the sense of touch, but if you think about it, it is completely separate – on a frigid January day, you don’t actually need anything to touch your skin to get the information that it’s cold out. You just know.
How to use it: you can use thermoception to alert your readers to any change of temperature, whether it’s a ghost walking into a room, or your MC flying a helicopter into a live volcano.
Equillibrioception is our sense of balance. Using the fluid in our inner ears as a gauge (kind of like those
Blocks with liquid filled tubes in the middle your mom uses to hang pictures straight), we can always tell what angle we’re at in relation to the earth.
How to use it: Any situation where your character is thrown off balance; like being on a ship, falling, or during an Earthquake.
Nociception is the sense of physical pain. Again, this is a completely separate sense from touch – you can feel pain without anything physically touching you.
This is another sense that you’ve probably used without knowing it.
How to use it: If you’re character’s hurt, ill, or if they will be undergoing some disease later in the book that you want to foreshadow.
Also, don’t forget internal pain – the only organ in the body without pain receptors is the brain. Internal pain is not as intense as pain from injuries on the surface of the body, but your character will definitely sense something is wrong.
Proprioception is our ability to tell where our limbs are in relation to our body, even if we can’t see them. If you close your eyes and move your arm around, you can still sense where your hand is.
How to use it: When your character is in the dark and cannot see.
Bonus senses! Itch and pressure
While the above four senses (plus the original five defined by Aristotle) are uniformly accepted, itch and pressure are both also considered separate from your sense of touch. Cool right?
How to use it: Does that new sweater from Great-Aunt-Susan make your MC feel like clawing at their neck? Are they on a submarine a mile below the ocean’s surface, and feel the heaviness of tons and tons of water pushing down on them?
Double Bonus! Animal Senses!
Many animals can sense things that seem to almost border on the supernatural for us humans. Birds can ‘see’ the magnetic grid that runs through the earth, and use it to migrate every year. Sharks can sense electricity in the water, and everyone knows bats use echolocation to navigate and hunt at night (Fun fact: there’s a lot of research that shows that the brains of blind people who lose their sight early enough in life can learn to echolocate – they actually form ‘pictures’ of what’s happening around them based on echoes. How’s that for a writing prompt??)
How to use it: Something funky going on with the earth’s magnetic field? Have the birds act weird! The possibilities are endless and will be dictated by your particular story.