Good writing – like a warm loaf of freshly baked bread – activates all your senses. Ears, eyes, nose, fingers, even your taste buds! These four concrete, specific examples will show you how to use senses and sensory details in your writing.
“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. In his book, 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.
And that is one of the biggest ways to improve any type of writing: use a variety of creative writing, fiction and literary techniques to bring the reader’s senses alive. Another tip is to use illustrations and sensory words that most readers can relate to, such as the smell, feel and taste of hot bread fresh out of the oven.
Don’t be too timid or squeamish about your writing – or about using sensory details! Put in too much color, too many sounds, too much drama, too many adjectives and adverbs. Use all five senses in your writing. You can always edit them out later. In fact, revising and editing will make you a much better writer. This is especially helpful if you don’t feel good enough to be a writer.
How to Use Sensory Details in Your Writing
One of my readers said, “It’s so easy to forget the sensory details. I usually add mine in the second or third draft. That’s when I throw myself fully into my character. I become him or her…and that’s when I realize they would hear, smell, sense, taste and see more than I put in the story.”
That’s an excellent practical tip for using the five senses in your writing. Instead of trying to make your writing better by using elaborate words and colorful descriptions, put yourself in the character’s shoes. How does it feel to knead bread with flour and water? When do you first start to smell the bread baking? What noise does bread make when it’s been consumed by a hungry dog or a rich lady at a posh dinner?
1. Use specific sensory words and details
“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.”
If you’re just beginning to use sensory details in your writing, don’t judge yourself by the first example. It’s too elaborate, to descriptive. Look at the second example. What are four things does this description tells you about the woman? Are all your senses engaged? The writer shows (not tells) what the character looks and smells and sounds like. The writer is also hinting about this woman’s personality, character, style.
2. Share what you taste, both yummy and gross
“She spoke of fruit that tasted the way sapphires look…” writes Toni Morrison in Paradise.
Descriptions of taste are often given in terms of other senses or in comparisons: “heavy, slow taste of blood,” wine tastes like liquid sunlight,” hot dog tasting like manna.” Metaphors – especially ones familiar to the reader – bring the words alive. Metaphors and sensory words to bring details alive in your 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 every physical sensation you 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.”
Isn’t that great? That example of sensory writing is from Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club. What do the words tell readers about the characters? Also, look at Karr’s use of “settling over me” and “weight tilting our mattress.”
By the way, one of Stephen King’s secrets to good writing is in the sensory words and details he uses to describe his characters, setting, and events.
4. Share what you smell (the most powerful sensory detail in 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 smell is timeless, isn’t it? Hall encourages writers to use specific (not abstract or vague) sensory details and words when describing smells, scents, odors.
Two valuable tips for using all five senses in your writing:
- Sensory details are used best in conjunction. 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. “To, this ain’t Oxford, where word bunglers fear towel whippings and social snubs. Stick your thumb into that thesaurus and pull out a plum. If now and then you end up with a prune, you’ll have learned something – and both you and English will survive.”
Need more examples of using sensory details in writing?
The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Places by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The character’s setting can build mood, convey meaning, drive the plot, and trigger emotions. This books includes a list of the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds for over 100 settings revolving around school, home, and nature
Spunk and Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style by Arthur Plotnik – a fantastic resource for writers who need to use more sensory details in their books, blog posts, and articles. Plotnik’s examples of sensory details and words are fun to read! He cites the “throck” and “sploosh” of graphic novelist Mike Allred, and quotes humor writer James Thurber, whose tires “booped and whooshed.”
If you need to include more sensory words in your writing, read 51 Over-Used Adverbs, Nouns, and Clichés in Writing.