Using Your Five Senses to Build a World


The Heart and Craft of Writing


Lesson Info

Using Your Five Senses to Build a World

I have a three year old who I think I'm gonna show this to after this class is over. The five senses are so important in your writing. As I said, I started writing Memoir and when I was writing Memoir I didn't think too intensely about worldbuilding because the world I was writing about was already real. I knew it was real, I didn't think about it. But when I started writing my first novel, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the pressure of creating a world that felt realistic in a way that I hadn't thought of before and so I got really intense about the five senses and when I was writing about my character being in a particular place, what did she see when she looked around, you know? Did the air have a particular smell? Did the air have a certain weight, you know? Is she in a swampy environment? Is she in a dry environment? What is she hearing, what does her mouth taste like? You know, had she just had a cigarette? These are the sort of things that I think it's very helpful for those mo...

ments when you feel a little blocked in your writing, when you're at a little bit of standstill. Take stock of the five senses, like what can you have your character or your narrator, what can they observe about their world? It's always just good to check in with things like that. She created her presentation, that's what I was doing while I was thinking about this. Okay, that's boring. All was quiet, save the hum of the cars on the freeway outside her window. Okay, getting a little bit more of a picture of what this person's world looks like. Occasionally her eyes would would rise and linger on the tchotchkes on her windowsill. Maybe she's like an old woman. You see tchotchkes and you're just like, she's like an old, Eastern European woman. If she breathed deep, she could smell the Christmas tree slowly dying in the other room. Alright, we kind of know what time of the year it is. Her mouth tasted of sour lime from the zinc lozenges she'd taken to ward off a cold. Really getting the Eastern European huddled lady vibe from this. Her hands were cold as she typed, but she was too cheap to turn on the heat. So that was me writing this proposal. I mean, this (laughs) this presentation, and you can just see, like you just build it out a little by little, I mean it's not like this is a terribly exciting scene I've just set, but I've set a type of scene that now allows for something to happen, right? Something could happen, like somebody could storm into the room and yell at her, you know. We feel a little grounded, and that's something that readers are looking for when they're reading a book. You want a reader to feel grounded in your story, and for that to happen, you need to feel grounded in your story. It's not enough to only be talking about the interiority of your character. It's not enough to only be sort of recording almost in a reporting type of way. Like, this happened and then that happened. You need to make sure you're sewing it all together with these five senses. If you just keep that in mind, that can really be the glue and the connective tissue that really helps your story stay alive and carry forward. So I really recommend touching base with yourself with that.

Class Description

If you’ve embarked on the process of writing your first book, there’s a good chance that you’re struggling a bit. Books are big, unwieldy creatures, and even the bravest of among us can feel overwhelmed by the thought of filling all those hundreds of blank pages with intelligent, effervescent words.

Award-winning author, editor and teacher Michelle Tea offers this class to help you believe in your abilities as a writer, stick to your goal and push through that first draft. She’ll outline some of the key tricks to writing a great book and inspire you to produce the vibrant, sparkling and unique work that’s inside your head and waiting to come out.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Be specific and avoid vagueness.
  • Bring your five senses to your writing by including sound, light, scent, texture and taste in every scene.
  • Find your pacing: write slow, write strong.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Build your unique voice and create a shelf of voices you wish your voice to be in conversation with.
  • Keep your editing brain away from your creative brain.



What a wonderful class! Michelle is knowledgeable, authentic, generous and open-hearted with her experience and advice. She offers a genuine sense of validation and practical tips for new writers. I especially liked her thoughts on how to carve out a space for your writing.