How to Show (Not Tell) the Five Senses

All rejected writers have heard it before: I need you to show me, not tell me. I’ve heard it too, though not explicitly, from the few readers I’ve asked to edit my manuscript. Seems like a simple concept to fix, don’t you think?

On the outer surface, sure, I’d agree with that. But then I went to look at my work and realized I needed to do some serious research before revising my “telling” sentences.

After all, what’s the point in re-wording my work if I didn’t understand the root cause holding me back?


First, let’s look at two major problems my manuscript readers noticed, as pointed out by agent Mary C. Moore.

  1. One of the biggest hitches in your writing is the over explanation of action/movement. Often you do not need to fill in every action a character takes, e.g. “he dismounted the horse and walked him over to a fence post,” or “He spun around so he faced forward.” These are all filler actions that slow the pace and are unnecessary to the central plot.

Perfect examples of when I would “tell” what was going on in my story v. “showing” my reader, a.k.a. spoon-feeding, my reader the story. A definite no-no!

Readers don’t want to be spoon-fed. If they can’t visualize the story, why waste time reading it?

That’s right, I said waste. I don’t want to write the book a reader puts down and thinks, eh, not worth it. I want them to imagine the world I’ve created and experience the adventure my characters take on, encouraging them to re-read – not throw away.

messy baby

Don’t spoon feed me the story, I can feed myself! Ok, I’m messy, but I want to do it!

The question, then, is how do we do avoiding telling? Let’s look at problem two first.

  1. The dialogue tags are too fancy (She squealed, He reassured, They bellowed). These are distracting and take away from the dialogue. The dialogue itself should give the emotion, not the tag.

This was an ah-ha moment for me in my writing. Oh crap, I thought. I only do that…everywhere.

Well, one more reason why revising is so important!

Distracting speech tags like the ones mentioned are cliché and unnecessary. The word said (what they tell you NOT to write in elementary school) is really the magic tag. Why?

Because any other word is distracting, and unnecessary adverbs used to spice up “said” only tell me something about a character’s voice or feelings instead of show me something about them.

For example, instead of saying:

“Get out!” he bellowed.

I could say: “Get out!” he said, throwing his hands over his head, grinding his teeth and spitting in the boy’s face.       

See the difference? The second one gives me a lot more about how “he” reacts to the situation, which the dialogue supports, instead of the other way around.


Okay, now that I’d figured out the difference between my stronger “showing” writing v. my original “telling” style, I set out to fix those issues in my manuscript (time to tackle problem one).

A daunting task, maybe, if I hadn’t done some research on the five senses and the six universal emotions that all people feel, according to psychological studies reviewed by Cornell University, writer @ChuckSambuchino, and articles from the websites Humintell & novel-writing help.

What are the five senses and how do I write them?

Writers Digest’s Chuck Sambuchino mentions how there isn’t anything “more boring in real life than being told all about someone you’ve never met.” A good point, and an honest one that helps differentiate showing v. telling in writing.

Yes, we do need to provide some exposition and backstory in novels, but too much will bore the reader. Developing tension, delivering natural dialogue, and showing expressions & actions, however, can improve the quality of your sentences.

The easiest way to do this?

Understanding exactly what the five senses are, as well as the six universal emotions that all people feel, and will relate to, if described in a novel.


  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Sound
  • Taste
  • Touch

THE SEVEN UNIVERSAL EMOTIONS: i.e. – the emotions everyone feels & understands

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Contempt

Next, put these concepts into writing:



Can you imagine how difficult it would be to describe a sunset if you’d never seen one before?


The easiest and, therefore, most commonly used by writers. In other words, the culprit of telling v. showing writing if you only write visuals, painting pictures of appearances of people, places, etc., without triggering the other four senses in the reader. For instance,

His hair looked black v. His matted hair ruffled in the wind, black and furious like a valiant soldier charging forward in the heat of battle.  

Yes, it is nice to know the character’s hair is black, but remember…we don’t want to spoon-feed information to our readers. The second example mentions the hair is black, too, but indicates sound (ruffling of wind), touch (wind against your face), and other senses (when you think about it). If I was a reader, I’m buying the book with sentence two. Wouldn’t you?



Nothing triggers a memory like smell…

Smell, without a doubt, is the best trigger of nostalgic memories, giving the reader a greater connection to a character’s internal thoughts…without telling them about them. Using smell can help the reader relive the backstory of a character through flashbacks without black & white descriptions of what happened (boring!).

For me, it’s the smell of grapes. Can you smell them better with sentence two v. sentence one?


Time to take a trip down memory lane – using my nose!

She walked through the vineyard. v. The sweet, musty scent of the grapes falling off the deciduous vines reminded her of her grandpa, teaching her how to suck the juice out of the fruit without eating the skin – a tricky advantage. She smiled a half-smile, missing him.



Everyone loves the sound of a street performer. Music just makes the day better 🙂

Sound, like in movies, can make or break the tension lingering in a moment. We all know the awkward silence on a date (absence of sound can be just as entertaining as sound effects), the boom of an explosion, the crackle of the fire…see what I’m getting at? It’s not the adjective you’re looking for when writing sound into your painted sentences, it’s verbs…and smart ones – the choices everyone can identify because they’ve heard them before. Take a typical action like walking a dog…

The dog walked down the street. v. I trotted behind Rocky, pounding my feet against the pavement in a rhythm that patterned the jingle of his collar and the pant of his tongue. No friend accompanied me on a summer morning like my dog.  



Umm…does this photo even need a tag? YUM!


Nothing brings people together like food. It comforts us, it satisfies us, it sometimes even fills the voids in our emotions, lifting our spirits on a bad day or making the night a tad more romantic. Sometimes you don’t even need to mention what a character tastes to help the reader understand what their character’s tongue senses. Just mention the word tongue – people can imagine what the character tastes because, fun fact, we all eat! For example…

She dove into the ocean. v. She opened her lips, washing her tongue with a mouthful of salt water.

Notice how I didn’t mention the character was in the ocean in the second sentence? Do you think you would imagine her in the sea if you hadn’t read the first sentence…well…first?




Priceless, the warmth of snuggling with your best friend 🙂 Touch brings us together, even if we lack other senses.


Touch. No sense can replace it. Especially not sight. Recently, I learned of a friend-of-a-friend who discovered her 5-week baby boy is completely deaf and potentially blind. Can you imagine, a mother who coos to her newborn son hour after loving hour, learning her sweet baby has never heard her voice? Maybe never even seen her? It’s horrific, the idea. But all people can touch. And if this baby is blind and deaf, he can feel the warmth of his mother when she holds him and the thump of her heart beating against his head when he lies on her chest. Drumming him into his dreamworld of nightingales and fairies. Isn’t that a brighter description than The deaf baby lay on his mother’s chest?

Last but not least, don’t forget THE SIXTH SENSE (a very powerful sense that peeks into the character’s psyche, if your novel focuses on a world with supernatural beings).



If you’ve made it this far, there’s a chance (though I hope not!) that your stomach is grumbling or the goop in your drooping eyes is growing thicker, making you sleepier. So I’ll make this snappy – my last suggestion that helped me revise my writing, making it more descriptive!

According to All Things Workplace: “There are 10,000 different facial expressions. About 3,000 of these facial expressions are relevant to emotion and most people only use 50-60 in normal conversation.” Good to know, but telling a reader how these 10,000 facial expressions look on your character’s face is not enough to entertain the reader trying to imagine (and experience!) your novel’s adventure.

Want to know how to change that? Less is more, my friend. Out of those 10,000 facial expressions, seven are universally felt, indicating clear changes in emotions by slight facial muscle movements. Below, I’ve provided Cornell University’s study of the subtle changes in muscle movement (indicating these emotions through facial expressions) with the help of my oh-so-lovely (bear with me, no extravagant makeup on today!) photo collage, demonstrating the subtle differences with visual examples. What are they?

EMOTIONS MOTION CUES (muscle movement)
Happiness Raising and lowering of mouth corners
Sadness Lowering of mouth corners, raising inner portion of brows, eyelids loose
Anger Brows lowered, lips pressed firmly (margins of lips may be pulled in) or teeth bared, eyes bulging
Disgust Upper lip pulled up, nose bridge is wrinkled, cheeks raised, eyebrows pulled down
Fear Eyebrows pulled up and together, upper eyelids pulled up, mouth stretched (opened slightly)
Surprise Entire eyebrows pulled up, eyelids pulled up (expose more white of the eye), mouth hangs open
Contempt Eyes neutral, lip corner pulled up and back on one side only (contempt is the only unilateral expression)

Can You Tell Which is Which?

seven emotions

Which one, which one? Can you tell? Can you imagine how you would describe your character’s facial expressions in your writing?

Were You Right?

seven emotions w: description

How many did you guess right?


Why do you think understanding the seven universal emotions matters? Because we all feel them! And if your character feels them, your reader can imagine how they feel, too! Understanding how a character would look when they feel one of these emotions is crucial to writing sight, but (Do I have to say it again? If you insist.) don’t tell what their facial expression looks like alone. Our faces might be the focus of our appearances, but it’s all of our senses & shared emotions that help us connect with a novel’s characters on a different level.


Don’t write: She felt angry. (Way too vague!)

Write: Rage boiled inside her stomach, heating the inside of her throat as she restrained the screams scrapping her diaphragm, begging to escape. She pressed her lips firmly into each other, narrowing her eyebrows and shaking, like the cover on a pot containing boiling water, rattling against the metal until steam popped it off. My mom was not someone you messed with when she was angry.

Well there you go, some sense and emotion pointers to help you write descriptions that SHOW (NOT TELL)! Hope it helps!  I would love to hear your comments and any other thoughts you have on writing…with all five senses!