Monday, August 27, 2018

The Writer's Job is to Help Readers Experience Fiction

by Ane Mulligan @AneMulligan

We’ve all read novels that held us tightly engaged from page one to “The End.” Then we’ve read others that while good, we could read a chapter and put it down. There can be various reasons, but I believe when we can experience the story not just read it, we overlook a multitude of possible problems.

So how do we get a book that offers an experience? By taking a lesson from a layer cake.

When is a Novel Like A Layer Cake?
When you add layers, of course! To draw your readers into your story, you want to create an experience for them. But that experience is filtered through your POV character. You know that already? Good.

But are you layering the five senses into your fiction so the reader hears, sees, smells, tastes, and feels it? It’s actually a matter of “showing vs. telling” gone wild. Your characters, plot, etc. are the flour, butter, and liquid you mix to build your cake … uh, novel. 

The 5 Senses are your icing.
The icing on a cake is what makes it extra special. It’s the first thing that draw us to a cake. By using all 5 senses in your writing, you add the icing that makes the novel an experience. 

Today, I want to take a look at two of these senses.

Sense of hearing
If you’re tellingthem what the character is experiencing, it’s like this:
I can say: “Joan heard a siren in the distance.”
Showingthem is like this: A siren wailed in the distance.

Then you take it one step further: A silence wailed in the distance. Joan glanced in her rearview mirror. The blue flashing lights of an emergency vehicle drew closer. Her heartbeat accelerated as slowed her car and pulled over.

In the second one, you experience it with her. We’ve all heard a siren. I don’t know about you, but the first thing I do is check my rearview mirror. I don’t want to get in their way. It can also trigger a memory, and that’s what we all hope our writing will do. Then it becomes personal and memorable to our readers. 

They might also wonder why her heartbeat accelerated. Is there something in her past that causes this reaction? Raising questions draws readers on to find out the answer. 

Sense of smell
This is another one that is often forgotten. I love to incorporate it one into my writing. If your character is taking a walk through the woods, you want your reader to smell the pines. If it’s after a rain shower, the forest floor is damp and the scent of leaf mold rises as the character traverses the path.

When Claire enters Dee’s ‘n’ Doughs in any of my Chapel Springs series books, you join her as the aroma of vanilla, yeast, and sugar waft around her. From Chapel Springs Revival, the introduction to the bakery went like this:

Claire paused on the threshold for a moment, closed her eyes, and let the heavenly aroma of yeast, vanilla and almonds entice her. That indulgence alone would probably add another inch to her waistline.

Aromas trigger memories and that makes your fiction relatable. Be sure to use all the senses in your fiction and you’ll have your reader experiencing the story instead of merely reading it.


How adding the 5 senses to fiction is the icing on a layer cake - @AneMulligan on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Ane Mulligan writes Southern-fried fiction served with a tall, sweet tea. She's an award-winning, multi-published novelist and playwright, who believes chocolate and coffee are two of the four major food groups. You can find her on her website


  1. Yum! I smell a great manuscript! Taste it too!

  2. What a great lesson. Thank you Ms. Ane. I love how each layer builds upon the other. God's blessings ma'am.

  3. Thanks for these important tips, Ane! Whenever I think of using the sense of smell in writing fiction, I'm reminded of the famous "Madeleine Scene" in Marcel Proust's early 20th-century classic novel, IN SEARCH OF THINGS PAST ("À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU" in the original French). For those interested, here are two links, one to some info on the French pastry called the "Madeleine" made famous by Marcel Proust, and the other, to some biographical info on the author himself: and .

  4. Smell is one I overlook in my writing.

  5. Love the layer cake analogy. How useful (and tasting).
    Great post, Ane.

  6. Is it okay to give a link to a blog post I wrote on this very subject after a trip to Italy? Here it is, if it's not okay, just don't publish my comment. It's okay. "Never a Sense-less Moment, Writing the BIG FIVE."

    1. Loved your Italy post Ms. Jackie. Parla molto bene italiano, amico mio.

  7. Thank you, Jim. Me thinks you have been to Italy as well! This trip was the third short-term mission trip I've taken with our church - putting on a two-week Vacation Bible School for a couple dozen delightful boys and girls. And.... I DID eat very well! Haha