Skip to main content

5 Ways to Seize the Moment With Sensory Detail in Action Scenes

What are your characters' seeing, hearing, tasting, and smelling? Bestselling author Helen Hardt offers tips for writing sensory details.

Have you ever read a scene that absolutely did not turn your crank?

I’m not talking solely about love scenes. What about action scenes? By the way, an action scene doesn’t have to be a fight scene. It’s any scene where your characters are doing something, so love scenes fall squarely into that category.

Why didn’t this particular scene work for you? Writing is subjective, and perhaps you just didn’t enjoy that particular author’s voice, even if it was flawlessly written. That’s happened to me, and I’m sure it’s happened to most of you. But more often than not, when an action scene doesn’t do it for me, it lacks sensory detail.

Sensory detail is extremely important in fiction writing. The reader wants to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel—and I’m not just talking sense of touch here, I mean inner feelings, as well—everything the character does. These details immerse the reader into the character’s head and heart. When a reader becomes a character, you’ve done your job well.

Not to get too technical on you, but “sensory,” as defined, means “conveying nerve impulses from the sense organs to the nerve centers.” As writers, we need to go beyond labeling feelings and emotion, even beyond describing them. We need to become our POV character, feel what he or she feels, see what he or she sees, etc. Then we translate those feelings—those nerve impulses—into words. When you master sensory detail, your scenes will be urgent, in the moment, and very powerful.

Easier said than done, right? Actually, it’s not that difficult, and with a little practice, your action scenes will shine with new color and vibrancy. Here are five tips to help seize the moment with sensory detail, followed by examples from my newest release, Follow Me Always.

Keep a good thesaurus handy.

Yes, the thesaurus is your best friend. It’s an excellent tool for improving sensory detail. Make sure you use lots of descriptive action verbs. No passive voice allowed! Keep adverbs to a minimum, but don’t be afraid to use them if they work for the scene. Adjectives are essential, especially for describing scents. While description is a good start, use other tools—action, dialogue, imagery, similes/metaphors, to name a few—to convey feelings through words. Don’t overdo it, though. Simple is always more powerful.

From Follow Me Always:

“Dig in,” he says from across the table.

I begin with a forkful of salad. It’s dressed with a honey-vinaigrette that sparks my tastebuds. Nicely done, Marilyn. I pull off a piece of my bread and dip it in the olive oil. More deliciousness and again my tastebuds react to a tang. The olive oil has been infused with something spicy, most likely cayenne or jalapeño with a touch of garlic.

And then the lasagna. The sauce is acidic with a hot spiciness due again to hot pepper. Something I wasn’t expecting. This evening’s meal seems to have a theme. Spicy.

Just like what’s coming in the bedroom.

5 Ways to Seize the Moment With Sensory Detail in Action Scenes

Get inside your character’s head and heart.

When you create each scene, ask yourself what each character is feeling. What does she see? Hear? Taste? Smell? What does she feel beneath her fingers? Against her body? What is she thinking? How is her body physically reacting? How is she emotionally reacting? Answer these questions, and then work the answers into the scene in the most vivid way possible. Don’t forget your non-POV character. Work his senses into the scene through dialogue and actions.

From Follow Me Always:

He hands the candle to me then. I grasp it tightly.

He pulls out a match. “I could use a lighter, but I prefer matches.” He strikes it and then lights the candle. “Watch the flame. Let it hypnotize you as you hold it.”

I bring the candle in front of me, breathing in the aroma of the lit match, the sweetness of the burning wax. The small flame grows, flickering in a discordant rhythm. I stare at its orange warmth, at the red wax beginning to melt. Relaxation overtakes me, though my body still hums from the flogging.

Just say no to labeling.

Resist the temptation to label emotions and expressions instead of showing them from the POV character’s perspective. That’s lazy writing, and it tells instead of shows. For example: Instead of “she looked at him curiously,” write something like, “she cocked her head to the side and lifted one eyebrow.”

From Follow Me Always:

He nods, his eyes heavy-lidded. Still, no moisture pools in them. Braden doesn’t cry. I have the feeling he hasn’t cried since that day.

If he even did then.

Dive into deep point of view.

Deep point of view is exactly what it sounds like—going so deep into the character that the author no longer exists. Only the character and her thoughts, words, and actions exist, and the reader slides into her skin and becomes her. If your character gets chills, your reader gets chills. You, as the author, may have gotten chills when you wrote it.

From Follow Me Always:

I look toward the door of the building. Is the limo still out there? I can make a run for it. These two are giving me the creeps.

“What do you want?” I ask.

“Just to talk.”

Icicles spear the back of my neck. Breathe, Skye. Breathe. Don’t show them you’re scared.

“If that’s all you want, you have a phone. You’ve disabled Braden’s security and his elevator. What’s going on here?”

But knowledge edges its way into my frightened mind. I know full well why they’re here.

Braden was right.

(3 Tips for Writing an Effective Love Scene)

Internal dialogue is your friend.

Internal dialogue pulls the reader right into the scene along with the character. Couple it with sensory detail, and you’ll have a winning scene.

From Follow Me Always:

I suck in a breath when Beau pulls out a pistol. Braden’s body tenses, but only I notice, since I’m touching him.

Has he been held at gunpoint before?

I haven’t, and the way my heart is beating and my skin prickling with fear, it’s not something I ever want to repeat.

But Braden is in control. So very in control.

“Put that away, Beau,” he says. “You and I both know you’re not man enough to actually use it.”

Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.

What if Braden’s wrong? What if that gun goes off? Right into our bodies?

God, Braden! Everything turns black and ugly all at once. The man I love could be gone with one pull of a trigger. I should step in front of Braden. Save him. But my feet won’t move. They’re mired in concrete. And then this maniac turn on me next. I can’t lose Braden. And I don’t want to die. I’m too young. My life is just beginning. I have the most wonderful career in the world, the most wonderful man in the world, the most—

Quicker than a flash, Braden executes some kind of kick, sending the gun flying out of Beau’s hand and sliding across the marble floor of the lobby until it stops against a wall.

Writing the Romance Novel

This course explores why romance is the same, yet different. Some essential components of romance are unique to the genre, while some romance requirements are identical to those of any good fiction story. Neither Stephen King nor Tom Clancy could sit down and write a romance unless he first familiarized himself with the specific factors that create a successful romance.

Click to continue.

How to Write a Compelling Premise for a Thriller

How to Create a Compelling Premise for a Thriller

Learn how to create a compelling premise for a thriller or mystery novel by asking a simple question and tying it to a specific circumstance to set the stage for a thrilling read.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Make a Plan

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Make a Plan

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have your characters make a plan.

3 Tips for Writing Dystopian Young Adult Fiction

3 Tips for Writing Dystopian Young Adult Fiction

If you've ever heard it said that there's no new way to write a story, let author Julian R. Vaca tell you otherwise. Here, he shares 3 tips for writing dystopian young adult fiction to help silence our inner critics.

Rimma Onoseta: On Trusting the Process of Revision

Rimma Onoseta: On Trusting the Process of Revision

Author Rimma Onoseta discusses how seeing other Black female authors on bookshelves encouraged her to finish writing her contemporary YA novel, How You Grow Wings.

Writer's Digest September/October 2022 Cover

Writer's Digest September/October 2022 Cover Reveal

Writer's Digest is excited to announce our Sept/Oct 2022 issue featuring our Annual Literary Agent Roundup, an interview with NYT-bestselling YA horror novelist Tiffany D. Jackson, and articles about writing sinister stories.

Your Story #120

Your Story #120

Write the opening line to a story based on the photo prompt below. (One sentence only.) You can be poignant, funny, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.

5 Tips for Writing as a Parent

5 Tips for Writing as a Parent

Author Sarah Grunder Ruiz shares how she fits writing into her life and offers 5 tips on how to achieve a sustainable writing life as a parent.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 621

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write an animal poem.

Why Is This Love Scene Here? How To Write Compelling Love Scenes

Why Is This Love Scene Here? How To Write Compelling Love Scenes

Not sure which way to turn when writing intimate scenes? Author Jo McNally shares how to write compelling love scenes that make sense for the story you’re writing.