Adding Visual Impact to Your Story

By Bob Boze, with guest Robyn Bennett

As authors, we’re all taught to develop our story primarily through our characters. We’re taught to paint detailed descriptions of our characters and to use dialogue, conflict, flashbacks, and other methods to let the reader form images—images of our protagonist, our antagonist, our hero, their lover, and our story’s supporting cast.

But what about our settings? Our scenes? Aren’t they just as important to building our story as our characters? Isn’t where they go, what they eat, and what they see, hear, and smell important too? Of course it is.

Painting a picture

The picture you paint in any scene must contain at least some of these images to be complete, to draw the reader into your scene and make them feel as if they’re part of it. Many of us refer to this as “Show, don’t tell.” Uh, yes! Of course! How simple! But, is it?

Let’s give it a shot. Write a quick scene of someone walking through town or a village to a bookshop.

Okay. Time’s up. Let’s see how you did. Did you describe what they saw? What they passed? The bookshop ahead of them?

What did they smell as they passed that restaurant/bakery/pub?

Did they stop in the pub for a beer? What kind? What did it come in—a mug or glass? What did it smell and taste like?

How about the woman they passed, the one with the dog? Did they hear her say “Hello”? Did they get a whiff of her lavender perfume? What emotions did they feel as they reached down to pet her dog, the one that rolled over for a belly rub almost instantly? Fear, love, confusion?

Using the five senses

If it’s not clear yet, we’re asking you to put yourself into your character’s shoes, for you to describe the scene using their five senses. What they

  • Saw
  • Touched
  • Tasted
  • Heard
  • Smelled

Also, what emotions, if any, did each invoke? What about when they saw their destination, the bookstore? Did they smile? Chuckle? Did the smell of old books fill their nostrils?

If you’ve included all or most of the above types of descriptions in your example, you’ve painted a complete picture for your reader—not only of the scene but of your character too! After all, aren’t we all best described by our inner feelings? By how we react to what we see, smell, hear, touch, and taste? By the memories and emotions each conjures up, or doesn’t?

Finally, don’t forget the sixth sense, intuition. Intuition not only influences, it interprets what our senses are telling us. It translates their meaning into our unique world.

Picking a predominant sense for your character

We all have a predominant sense, often related to how and where we were raised, that also brings up memories such as

  • The calming of blue
  • The smell of the sea
  • The taste of chocolate
  • The feel of a soft blanket
  • The relaxing sound of waves breaking

A good way to illustrate this would be with a character who is a chef. Their predominant sense will probably be taste. If you’re writing a scene with a character who’s a chef, they will be trained and will use their instinct to home in on taste. Thus, you’ll need to describe what it is they’re tasting: rich flavors, melt-in-the-mouth meringues, the sharp taste of tart lemon, the velvety taste of chocolate mousse.

If your character is a skipper on a boat, their predominant sense may be feel, the feel of the churning waves, for example. Or they may feel which way the wind is blowing by raising their face to capture the breeze, or what size the swell is by the way the boat moves under them.

Adding visual impact

And if your story is set on a horse ranch—wow!—lots of visual impact here: horses (colors, type, gender, size, role—stud or retired!), manure, hay, leather, dirt, bridle, water, stables, and more.

The same things can conjure up different images and emotions, depending on where we are, our emotions, and the situation:

  • The same salad tastes much better when dining in a fine restaurant than it does at home.
  • Breaking waves can be soothing, or terrifying if you can’t swim, no matter how small.
  • Remember, our fears and likes influence everything we do and see. So, too, do our memories and past experiences.

If all this sounds complicated, it’s not. Once you learn to be your character, it will become natural. It will also make you a much better writer.

Pin, pin, pin!

One of the things that Robyn finds helpful is using Pinterest. Robyn is a highly visual person. When she’s writing a scene, she needs to have a good picture in her mind of what she is describing, but that can sometimes be difficult, particularly if she’s trying to describe a place she’s never been to! For example, in a scene from Robyn’s latest book, she takes her characters to Katoomba in Australia, and they stay at a gorgeous old villa. She found pictures of the villa she had in mind on Pinterest and used them to describe everything from the color the villa was painted to the intricate design of the veranda, the soft furnishings inside the drawing room, and the gorgeous colors of flowers that graced the garden. Robyn pins her scenes onto a Pinterest board so she can refer to them when she’s writing.

Likewise, I often take my characters to countries I’ve been to, but often they end up in a village or town I’ve not visited. Here, like Robyn, I use the Internet to research and describe places I take them to: famous castles, forests, centuries-old villages, river cruises, and other historical places.

Use of playlists

Another tool that is helpful is to make a playlist for your characters or your book to create a mood. This can help when you’re writing or getting further into your character’s head. Both Robyn and I include songs from singers or bands that we know our characters would like, and we play them when we’re writing. For example, “I Could Use a Hero” by Bering Strait played constantly as I wrote the wedding reception scene for Horses of Tir Na Nog, Book I.

In summary, put yourself in your character’s shoes in each scene you paint. Use your five senses to plant the reader firmly in the scene through your character’s eyes, mind, and emotions. Let them see and feel what your character does.

An editor’s role

For the editors out there, what role do you play in all this?

That’s simple. Does the story you’re editing put you into the character’s shoes? Can you see, feel, smell, hear, or taste what they’re sensing? If not, what’s missing? What should you suggest your author add to make their scene or setting more enticing? You don’t need to rewrite it for them, just suggest adding one or more sensory items to help pull the reader in.

Finally, if you’re not sure what to suggest, perhaps you’ll want to go back and see where your author might build their character’s image a little more fully: define or hint at their fears, their likes, their memories, and their predominant sense.

Okay, we’ve ranted on and on enough! Your turn.

Take a scene from something you’ve been writing. Have you included at least three of the five senses (not any more than that or your reader may go into sensory overload!)? Have you allocated a dominant sense for your character? Have you included something of their dominant sense in that scene?

Bob Boze lives in the South Bay area of San Diego, and his writing partner, Robyn Bennett, lives in Blenheim on New Zealand’s South Island. Both are published romance and nonfiction authors, editors, speakers, and bloggers. Together they offer a variety of writer and business services through their business website, Writing Allsorts. To learn more about their books and services, go to

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