5-4-3-2-1 Method for Sensory Details in Writing

Writers, do you sometimes get so wrapped up in dialogue or action beats that you neglect some good, solid sensory description? Then you inevitably dump a paragraph of description in the middle of your scene that completely halts the flow. A solution to this is an exercise designed to help people suffering from anxiety. It’s the 5-4-3-2-1 method for sensory details.

Ground Yourself in Your Environment

The concept of grounding techniques to alleviate stress and anxiety were developed by Alexander Lowen in the 80s and 90s as part of bioenergetic therapy. Grounding techniques are coping mechanisms for people suffering from anxiety or panic attacks. They anchor the person to the present moment. 

Alexander Lowen states in his book Bioenergentics:

“The person senses what it feels like to be free from inhibitions. At the same time he feels connected and integrated – with his body and, through his body, with his environment.”

The 54321 grounding method shifts your focus from anxious loops to your surroundings. It can interrupt negative thoughts and focus your mind on the present moment. 

The technique asks you notice things in your environment:

5 things you can see
4 things you can physically feel
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste

The physical body tethers you to the world and by shifting the focus, you can change how you are thinking. 

Meaningful Sensory Details

This same technique can be used by writers to create a vivid picture in your readers head. The difference here is you need to funnel all the sensory details through your viewpoint character. They are the ones who are experiencing the world. It’s their details that would appear on the page. 

5 Things They See

It’s easy to notice the big things, buildings, weather, people. But as the writer, you need to dial in on specifics. Maybe the foundation of the building is cracked and bits of concrete litter the pavement. Maybe you see a leaf skipping along the road under a light breeze. Maybe the server at your table blinks compulsively. 

The goal is to find details that would be important to your viewpoint character. Why would they notice these details over different ones?

4 Things They Feel

Here you can include both details associated with touch, but also feelings your viewpoint character can have. This differs from the grounding technique, as that wishes to skew away from negative emotions. As an author, however, you want to dive straight into your character’s worries and fears. 

3 Things They Hear

Again, it’s tempting to pick out the loaded noises. Even the grounding technique cautions to focus on subtle or overlooked sounds. What sorts of noises are in the background that are easily overlooked? Perhaps it’s the way someone cracks their fingers, or the slap of sandals on a tile floor. 

2 Things They Smell

Olfactory is one of the oldest in our arsenal of senses and thus has a direct path to emotions. A smell can elicit memories and even hunger. 

1 Thing They Taste

If your character is eating or drinking anything, you must include some taste details. However, you can also describe the taste of blood or dirt if they are knocked to the ground, or the taste of the air with an incoming storm. That being said, this is the detail that can feel the most forced if done incorrectly. It can sometimes be omitted.

Once you have a list of these sensory details, you can sprinkle them throughout the scene or chapter wherever they fit naturally. 

The Eye of Horus

The Egyptians believed that the right eye of Horus could be broken into pieces to represent the various senses. The pupil represented sight and either side of the eye stood for hearing and smell. The symbol straight down (looking a bit like a finger) became the sense of touch. The sense of taste was represented by the curled symbol. 

Yet the Egyptians added a sixth sense, that of thought. They believed that conscious thought and wisdom were a fundamental sense. Don’t believe it? Next time you read a book and the author describes something, think… Can you picture it in your mind? If so, you are using this sixth sense. 

As a writer, it’s your job to stimulate this sixth sense by marshaling the various other senses to create a vivid mental picture. Only then can you ground your reader in the world of your story.

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