Tour of the Five Senses: Taste

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We're chugging right along on our Tour of the Five Senses. Go back and catch SIGHT and TOUCH if you missed them. Today, we're tackling TASTE.

Taste can be exceptionally powerful in setting a scene and conveying reactions. Several summers ago, I volunteered with the children’s programming at our local zoo, and we did an exercise that introduced kids to different parts of their palates.

When we handed out the chocolate, they grew so excited thinking it was going to be for the “sweet” realm. Their faces were absolutely priceless as they discovered we’d given them bitter baking chocolate instead!

So let’s see how we can harness that chocolate lesson for writing:

Taste is Diverse
One of the fun ways to establish a world — fantastic or otherwise — is to describe the cuisine. It’s an opportunity to give your world, country or city a personality. Think about tastes around our own world. A southern barbeque will taste very different from an Italian meal, which will taste different still from Asian fare or Norwegian lutefisk, for example. Tastes can say a lot about a culture, as well as the land and geography around it. Mix it up, have some fun, and set your world apart.

Taste is Linked to Memory (and to Smell)
When I say “Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies,” what comes to mind? My guess is it’s more than just a taste of warm gooey goodness. It’s also the smell of baking cookies fresh from the oven, maybe the cozy safe feeling of Grandma’s house, or remembered voices as you shared that first bite.

On the less pleasant side…think about any food that’s ever come back up. Can you say ick? Taste has an incredible ability to transport us to a specific moment in time. We can use this for our characters – draw on their memories and personal experiences to make food more than just food.

Taste Doesn’t Have to be Literal
Set aside all our delicious food examples for a moment. Taste can describe an emotion too. Dread. Fear. Panic. Even bitterness. Think about how those emotions would stay on your characters’ tongues, roll about and slip down into their gullets. When people use the phrase, “It left a bad taste in my mouth,” this is what they mean. Get creative and really make it work for you!

When You Taste Something, it’s Not Just Your Tongue that Responds

Yes, your tongue does most of the heavy lifting, but think about the last time you loved or hated a certain taste. If you loved it, chances are your eyes lit up, you smiled or licked your lips and maybe even made yummy noises (You’re drooling over those cookies again, aren’t you?).

If you hope to never taste that particular essence again, you probably scrunched up your nose, backed away shaking your head or…you know…had other, more violent, reactions. The point is, you DID something more than just taste. Those actions can drive a story forward.

Let’s check in with our favorite examples:

Lovers on a Beach
I couldn’t see the stars, not directly, but I didn’t know how they could possibly top their reflection in his eyes. His skin was slick, smooth and hard, though tender enough to give where my fingers caressed it. His lips still held the salt of our swim. Its pucker on my tongue sent memories cascading through me like the waves and the heat that had driven us under again and again.

There, beneath all that deliciousness, a deeper more hurtful flavor took shape. The taste of goodbye.

Were-bats Attack!!
I saw them. Dozens of them. Winging at me with their little claws out—furred, like a bear’s, not feathered. And then all went black. Omigosh, had one of them landed on my FACE?! I tasted iron. Blood, at the corner of my mouth. That would attract them. I spat before it could fill my mouth and curdle my already panicked stomach.

My hand grappled in the night, found something that felt like lace spun in a consistency of dead things. It sunk in when I pressed hard, and I stifled a cry of horror.


  1. Taste is probably the one I use the least. My characters do eat though, so I need to add it more often.

  2. I'm loving this series of yours. I do try to include taste in my writing, but sometimes I don't put enough detail in.

  3. I don't think I've hit on the sensation of taste much in my novels, other than mentioning alcohol. For some reason, that always gets a taste description out of me when I'm writing. :P

  4. Like the others, I need to work on my taste descriptions! At the moment it's more an absence of taste. My characters live in a manufactured world, the food is prefabricated and tasteless. I suppose that says something about their culture in itself.

  5. Taste is probably the sense that I use the least in my writing! Even when my characters are eating, they're focusing on something else besides the food, like dynamics with the others, their own thoughts, etc. I'll have to try incorporating taste in both the literal and non-literal sense in my new book!

  6. This is an incredible example: There, beneath all that deliciousness, a deeper more hurtful flavor took shape. The taste of goodbye.

  7. Alex - One of my very first crit groups did an excellent job of banging into each other's heads the importance of allowing characters to EAT! :)

    Misha - Thanks so much! It's always tricky to judge what's too much vs. too little vs. the Goldilocks amount, especially on early drafts.

    L.G. - Haha! We know where your priorities are.

    Nick - Oh, that definitely says something! That's actually a fantastic point to make. The absence of taste can reveal just as much as a taste itself. What if those warm gooey cookies tasted like...nothing?

    Julie - Another good point! Describing food isn't necessarily the same as describing taste, and the books that pull me in most usually find a way to do both.

    Margo - Aw, thank you! I did like that one. :)

  8. Taste really is a good one to add, although it's sometimes hard to unless the character is eating something.

  9. My most favorite sense of all. I make it a point to have my POV characters eat something now and then, or have something unpleasant get in their mouth, one way or another. Taking on a dare can do that to anyone. :)

  10. Such a cool post. From a reader's perspective, I can barely remember ever feeling any sort of response when taste was described in a story. I wonder why that is. Interesting!