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  • Use the Five Senses in Your Quest to Write One True Sentence
Use the Five Senses in Your Quest to Write One True Sentence
Written by
Kendra Bonnett
May 2012
Written by
Kendra Bonnett
May 2012

Kendra Bonnett, a partner at
Women's Memoirs, is guest editor this week on She Writes.

 A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway wrote, "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." The author lived by this rule. His letters to friends and colleagues are filled with
references to how he spent a whole day writing and rewriting a single paragraph.

After repeating these lines several times to myself, I decided to pull out my dog-eared, Post-it-laden copy of Hemingway's
 The Old Man and The Sea.The story begins, "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was definitely and finally
 salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week."

In just the first 86 words--simple words, not overly punctuated--the author gives us a clear sense of where the story is going.

In the first 63 words of the second paragraph, Hemingway begins to create a vivid portrait of the old man: "The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords."

And so the story goes...one true sentence, one true paragraph after another.

The Quest for One True Sentence

But what constitutes one true sentence? This got me thinking. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know one when I read it. I even think I know a few things that can hurt our efforts.We can start with what I call
Lazy Adverbs. In his book
On Writing, Stephen King campaigned against the adverb. The problem with adverbs (and many adjectives, for that matter) is that they become a crutch. They're like potato chips; it's hard to stop once we begin using them.Mary marched angrily across the room and threw the ugly dress on the bed.

It's clear enough. We know what Mary did, but as readers we'd rather see the scene for ourselves and form our own opinions. The writer needs to SHOW what Mary did; not tell us. As for the dress, if our writer had described a high-collared, long-sleeved frock of cotton chintz splashed with a pattern of purple and green tulips and cinched at the waist with a pumpkin-orange, patent leather belt and matching orange, organza flowers on her right hip, we'd agree. That dress is ugly. And we'd applaud Mary's good taste.

Descriptive detail allows the reader to reach her own conclusions, and in the process connect with the writer and the story. 

Metaphor Madness

My second pet peeve is the metaphor. I often think that most of us should never be trusted to climb ladders more than four-feet tall or play with metaphors. Terrified that a declaratory sentence is bad form and destined to get us labelled literary light weights, we turn simple detail into elaborate metaphors and similes.

When cold, gray raindrops fall on the bald head of a Dinka tribesman, he gets wet. But never is the rain beating out a Sudanese Dervish on the drum of his pate. Nor is his deceased father bathing him in tears to cleanse his soul as he hunkers down in the North African desert.

I know a few people who create beautiful metaphors. I'm not one of them. If you have the gift, use it...sparingly. If you're one of the 99 percent of us who tend to go over-the-top, however, avoid them.

Just remember that most clichés started out life as metaphors. So, as they say, "Look before you leap."

Truth Lies in Simple Sensory Detail

So what do we include in our one true sentence?

Detail. Good, honest, descriptive detail that requires neither a thesaurus of adverbs and adjectives or colorful imagination. All we need are finely honed sensory powers to experience our scenes as completely and fully as possible. We have five senses, and we need to rely on them all.

Even when our characters are talking or engaging in activity, their senses are responding to the environmental cues around them. They smell, touch, hear, see and sometimes even taste...all while going about their business. We need to capture this in clear, simple words and phrases so that our readers can gently transition from bystanders to being part of the scene. Our readers are relying on us to lend them our eyes, noses, taste buds, ears and skin so they can fully take in a scene.

Fun with the Five Senses

I know what you're thinking: But, Kendra, you're taking all the fun out of writing. I love finding obscure references that make my readers think. Better still, I love sending them to the dictionary to find the meaning of some adjective that I discovered and hasn't been used in any book for the past 30 years. And you've relegated all my most clever references, my precious metaphors, to the junk heap.

Not at all. When you give yourself fully to the exercise of sensory detail, you open up your writing to new opportunities. Opportunities that will challenge you and entertain your readers. Let me give you a couple of examples:

Have you ever noticed the power of smells to transport your mind? It's as if we're imprinted by certain scents. The acrid, industrial smell of the concrete in an underground garage always sends my thoughts to the garage under our apartment building. I'm three years old, sitting in the back seat of my father's old Studebaker. We are coming home from the property where our first house is being built. My parents, who are happy with the progress being made, are in the front seat discussing plans for what will be our family home for the next 48 years. Faster than Old Scotty could ever beam me up, I'm comforted by feelings of security and contentment. I am safe.

Now imagine writing a scene where Tom and Debbie are having an argument about spending money on a new swing set for the kids. Suddenly Tom gets a whiff of something familiar. It's the smell of the fresh-cut mint in Debbie's hand. Instantly his mind is transported to a better place. He remembers the first time his father trusted him to mow the grass. As he walked behind the powerful machine, proud that he is at the controls, he smells the mint that's spread from the herb garden into the yard. In that instant, his mood changes. His anger evaporates, and he not only agrees that the kids need swings but also a slide and jungle gym. Debbie is left standing slack jawed. What just happened?

And wouldn't it be more interesting to write, Susan watched Steve's car disappear out of sight. He was gone. He'd only taken a few personal things from the house, but one of those was Tramp. Shaggy-haired old Tramp with his crooked smile. She'd miss him greeting her at the front door each evening when she came home from work. He didn't just wag his tail, happy to see her; his whole body shook with joy. As Susan turned to go back inside she spied an old yellow tennis ball lying in the shade of the massive oak. She stopped, turned back, walked across the front yard and leaned down to pick up the ball. With its furry cover worn and dirty, it had seen better days. So had she. She put the ball in her pocket and walked back to the house. Tears streamed down her face.

One Word of Caution

When thinking through your scene, you should try to capture everything. Describe what each character looks like right down to the deep crease in his brow or the mole on her cheek. Breathe in the smells coming from the kitchen, the heavy diesel odors from the truck idling at the stoplight. Listen for the humming of the bees flitting about the gardenias. Take it all in. Make notes about every sensory detail you see, hear, smell, feel and taste.

But when you're ready to write, choose your details carefully. Too much of even a good thing and your readers will not know where to focus their attention. Simple details can bring your scenes to life, but sensory overload will ruin the effect.

Five Senses Writing Prompt

Close your eyes. Picture a scene from a story or memoir you're writing. Keep your eyes closed and notice everything through your sensory organs. Touch skin. Feel the fine hairs on the arm. Or are they coarse and thick? Feel the heavy wool coat hanging on a character's thin frame. Is it scratchy where the wool touches skin at the wrists and neck?

Listen for the many layers of sound...a jet flying over the house, the antique clock ticking away on the mantle, the hum of the refrigerator.

If your scene is outside, maybe you smell fresh-cut grass; rich, peaty compost; and herbs and flowers in a nearby garden. What exactly do you smell? Lilacs? Roses? Spearmint? Basil? Write it all down.

Does your character still taste the bacon and eggs he had for breakfast an hour ago? Maybe a child keeps licking her lips as she enjoys the sticky remains of her ice cream cone. Are you taking notes?

Pull the 1888 Morgan silver dollar from your pocket.Your grandfather used to carry it; now it's yours. Lady Liberty's finely detailed hair is smooth, almost invisible, from wear. 

When you have experienced your scene fully. Select only the details that enhance your story. Maybe Joe is getting ready to meet with his boss. With so many firings recently, he wonders if he's next. Joe slips his hand into his pants pocket; his fingers find Gramps' old Morgan silver dollar. Gramps carried that coin for as long as Joe can remember. He'd said it was minted the year he was born. These days Lady Liberty is showing her age. Gramps used to rub his left thumb over her face. "For luck," he'd say and wink. Joe reached for the door knob to Mr. Grayson's office. "For luck." He winked as he pushed the door open.

Give it a try, and tell us how it works out.

Mastering the Five Senses

Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep, my co-author Matilda Butler has a chapter on writing with the five senses. She can't turn to the social sciences for help in understanding the nuances of sensory detail, but she does bring in some interesting scientific knowledge. Did you know that our senses were not all created equal? And colors have meaning in our culture. Brown is the color of stability and reliability. And what's it like to write about the absence of certain senses? You'll learn about anosmia and ageusia. Matilda provides tools and word lists for describing what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell. And plenty of writing exercises.


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  • Kendra Bonnett

    How cool, Pamela. Nothing makes a writer happier than helping or inspiring another writer. So glad you found this and are back writing your scene. You've made my day.

  • Thank you for this post! It is just what I needed at this time. Yesterday I was working on a scene, and was trying to incorporate the five senses. It just wasn't turning out the way I liked it. After a lot of scratching out, re writing, and pen tapping, I thought it was time to leave it alone for while and come back to it later. After reading this, I am encouraged and ready to get back to work.

  • Kendra Bonnett

    Cool. Glad you find it worthwhile, Nissi.

  • Nissi Mutale

    This is a post I can see myself coming back to for a long time.

    Thanks for posting x

  • Kendra Bonnett

    Timing is everything, Daphne. Glad this helped.

  • Kendra Bonnett

    Thanks, Stephen. Using this stuff really does help to bring your readers right into your scenes.

  • Kendra Bonnett

    Melanie, I appreciate your words. I have several scents that take me on wonderful trips into the past. The interesting thing is I've never had a bad odor have the same effect. Only the good ones. I guess that's a blessing.

  • Kendra Bonnett

    Thanks, Margarett, I'm glad the information is helpful. 

  • Thanks. This is a god reminder of what I should be putting into my stories. Reading this I've mentally reviewed some of my scenes and I need more sensory information in them.

  • Daphne Q

    This is such good advice... and comes at a perfect time

  • Melanie Jackson

    I appreciate the suggestion about smells and scents. I have rarely taken advantage of this particular sense in my writing. I'm going to use it in my very next scene. Though I will also follow your advice about avoiding overload!

  • Margarett Meyers

    Thank you for this sage advice.  I will take it to heart.