Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, there is a time and place for incorporating sensory details. Even writing of a more technical nature can benefit from such efforts when appropriate. Public speaking can also be kicked up a notch and your audience will better connect with your stories if you can create a scenario rich in sensory details. There isn’t a magical formula for the right balance. Too often we let our descriptions dwell in the visual realm and ignore the other four senses at our disposal.
The chart pictured below can be used to brainstorm sensory details associated with a given topic. I highly value completing such exercises because they often help the writer unearth details that might not otherwise surface when writing a draft. I’ve also included a downloadable pdf of the Sensory Chart to use as you see fit. If you’re in the mood for more writing exercises, you might also like Sensory Details: Writing and Chocolate or Breaking Habits of Seeing.
As much as I love to craft great sentences, I’m a horribly lazy drafter who often leaves about detailed descriptions in my early drafts. At other times, I will incorporate a ton of unnecessary detail and end up cutting many words away. In any case, a few power words that really pack a punch can bring writing to life.
In “The Two Yosemites” lots of great sensory details that involved sound and texture could be applied to the half-day mule ride my husband and I went on:
Up, up, and away. We fell in line. The Clark Point Trail turned out to be yet another asphalt path. The clop, clop, clop of metal horseshoes rang out on the surface rather than the gritty scrunch hooves would make on dirt and gravel. The steep switchbacks became even more dangerous because the trail also functioned as a hiker path. YIELD to livestock seemed too much to ask of the humans who shared the woefully narrow path. Most other parks I know of generally don’t use stock on pedestrian trails, except for the Grand Canyon, but that’s understandable on sheer stone paths cut into a canyon wall.
Later on, I needed to convey the visual aspects of the accident that occurred on the trail ride:
Before anyone realized how out of control things were, the plump mother slid from her saddle and hung upside down for a moment in her stirrup. Her dangling leg soon disentangled, and her body flew outward onto the dusty ground. It looked like a carefully choreographed ballet sequence except her size was that of three ballerinas. Thankfully, a helmet protected her head. Once the mule knew she no longer hung from its side, it stopped and instantly went back to looking sleepy.
I resorted to comparing the incident to a dance sequence, but in a way that figurative comparison takes some of the pressure off my duty as a writer to fully render the scene. One of the reasons I most love to write about the time I spent living and working in national parks is because my senses came alive in those days in a way they have not done before or since.
What authors do you read who do a great job of balancing sensory detail? Do you have a memory that invokes all of your senses?
Permission must be granted by JeriWB to use the images in this post.