Good writing – like a good bar of rich dark chocolate – activates all your senses: ears, eyes, nose, fingers, and even your taste buds. Here are four concrete, specific examples of how to use your senses and sensory details when you write.
“If there is a profound secret to good writing, it lies in the engagement of the senses,” writes Oakley Hall in How Fiction Works: Proven Secrets to Writing Successful Stories That Hook Readers and Sell. He describes dozens of literary techniques, with examples from famous writers. Hall uses fiction writing snippets to describe what he teaches, but nonfiction writers can apply all his examples and techniques to their magazine articles, book chapters, and blog posts.
Here’s what he says about using your senses to improve your writing…
1. Use what you see in your writing
“Scarlet sandstone and sulky red marble became incandescent with the light, as though with inner fires, which merged with the blue cast of the air. The fantastic wrinkling of canyons and ravines…turning shadows blacker than black, the whole in movement…as the light advanced and shadow retreated…”
This is from Separations by Hall, who encourages writers to use color, form, light, and shadow to write descriptions that help readers see what writers see: “Her sleek black head nodded and her wrists were active, showing off the glinting, jingling bracelets she had bought all over the world.”
What are four things this description tells you about this woman? A secret of good writing is to show, don’t tell. Show, using the sensory detail of sound! Sight and sound often work together, and don’t necessarily need to be obvious or painstakingly described.
2. Use what you taste in your writing
“She spoke of fruit that tasted the way sapphires look…” writes Toni Morrison in Paradise.
Hall says descriptions of taste are almost always given in terms of other senses or in comparisons: “heavy, slow taste of blood,” wine tastes like liquid sunlight,” hot dog tasting like manna.” Why? Perhaps because taste is difficult to describe in writing.
Here’s an interesting tip for using sensory details in writing, from Arthur Plotnik in Spunk and Bite:
A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style: “Edgy writing and literature manifests and evokes emotional states, but in aesthetically stimulating ways. How? By pushing some element – situation, event imagery, language – to the limit, toward the precarious divide between unease and displeasure. Unease makes for intensity in art; the more the better – until it crosses the line into turnoff territory.”
3. Use what you physically feel
“I would wake with her weight tilting our mattress, her Shalimar settling over me when she leaned to kiss me and pull up the chenille bedspread, which had a nubble like Braille under my hands…I could feel through the bedspread the faint heat of her body as she sat a few inches from where I lay, that heat was all I needed.”
This is from Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club. What does this example of touch tell us about both characters? And, look at Karr’s use of “settling over me” and “weight tilting our mattress.” The secret to good writing is in the sensory details. Writers can use their senses to show, not tell.
4. What you smell – using your nose in your writing
“Proust’s lime-flower tea and madeleines; Colette’s flowers, which carried her back to childhood gardens and her mother, Sido; Virginia Woolf’s parade of city smells; Joyce’s memory of baby urine and oilcloth, holiness, and sin; Kipling’s rain-damp acacia, which reminded him of home and the complex smells of military life; Dostoyevsky’s ‘Petersburg stench’; Coleridge’s notebooks…”
Visuals fade, but odor is timeless, isn’t it? Hall encourages writers to use specific sensory details, not abstract ones, when describing smells.
Two interesting tips about your senses in writing:
- Sensory details are used best in conjunction – which is why the examples above contain more than one sense.
- Touch and taste are the most specific of the senses, because they’re unique to the individual experiencing them. Sound, sight, and smell are available to others nearby.
“Take chances in your writing,” urges Arthur Plotnik in Spunk and Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style. “To, this ain’t Oxford, where word bunglers fear towel whippings and social snubs. Stick your thumb into that thesaurus and pull out a plumb. If now and then you end up with a prune, you’ll have learned something – and both you and English will survive.”
Read Spunk and Bite to Add Fire to Your Writing
I’m reading Spunk and Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style – and I love it!
Arthur Plotnik encourages writers to bend all the writing rules and break all the journalism laws. He says we should “draw on all levels of language to animate expression.” To that end, he devotes 31 chapters to detailed analyses of the factors that make language sing.
Plotnik is especially adept at providing exactly the right quotation to make his point – and he draws from a wide variety of writers. In discussing onomatopoeia, for example, he cites the “throck” and “sploosh” of graphic novelist Mike Allred. Plotnik also excerpts humor writer James Thurber, who long ago was writing about tires that “booped and whooshed.”
For a quick list that may help with word choice – and sensory details in your writing – read 51 Over-Used Adverbs, Nouns, and Clichés in Writing.
What do you think of these examples of using your senses in your written work? Comments welcome below!