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.
Jon Jefferson comes to mind when I read this post. His stories come alive with the sensory details he includes.
Cheryl, that’s very true. Jon does a great job of showing vs. telling. His fictional worlds are full of great sensory detail… even when it’s adding to the #bodycount.
Hi Jeri, Dylan Thomas and Jacques Prevost come immediately to mind for the sensory balance of their poetry, then ( for a bit of Canadian content ) Carol Shields and Guy Vanderhaeghe as novelists. I think this must be one of the most difficult areas to edit. If we have already exposed our own mind to a large amount of words conveying sensory detail, it really is a difficult balancing act to clean the slate and assess just how much of it is necessary to get across the essence to a reader who has not. I suppose that is where the passage of time between re-drafts and a bit of editorial help really have value.
Paul, exactly. Too much sensory detail and the draft will start filling up with purple prose. When I write, it’s daunting to just let it rip because I know how much I will cut out in the end.
That was really interesting as I often struggle with the whole ‘show not tell’ thingie. I’m giving myself a real challenge at the moment writing from the perspective of a blind person and that has focussed my mind on exactly the things you were talking about. The sensory chart is very interesting.
Cheryl, to write from a character’s POV when they are lacking one of the senses definitely ups your game. I know you’ll bring it!
Love the chart and think it would serve as a great reminder to bring in all the senses in order to give a reader the full experience. Yet I have seen that fine line:) I remember a particular passage in a novel where the author described a wooden rustic bench to such detail…how her shoulder blades felt on the bench…the way her bum disliked the hard wood of the bench… that at the end of the full paragraph, I hated the damn bench! I was resentful that this bench had taken so much of my time and had nothing to do with the story. I was calling EDITOR at the top of my lungs!
Jacquie, haha 🙂 I know that feeling from both sides of the fence. I’ve been cutting so much bloat from the draft of my novel, but it’s all in the name of making sure what’s on the page keeps the story moving forward. You’ll find no ass-numbing benches in my work!
Thanks for the chart. So simple yet elegant.
Barry Lopez and Brenda Peterson come to mind when I think of masters of incorporating sensory details.
Jagoda, I’d agree on Lopez’s use of sensory detail, but I haven’t read anything by Brenda Peterson. The lit book I used for ninth grade English contained an essay by Lopez where he talks about exploring the woods with children. I can still recall so many of the images he described. Then again, I must have read it at least 20 times.
I think you do an excellent job with the sensory details in your work from what I’ve read. I constantly struggle with finding the right words. Good writing tip! Jan
Jan, I’ve found at times I will ignore details when it’s a place I am overly familiar with which is all the more reason to share drafts and get feedback before they are put out into the big bad world.
This is a great exercise Jeri and something to keep in mind while writing; there are five senses so incorporate all of them to get a full sensory exposure. Great advice. I love the description of the lady falling off her steed. Got me to wear a smile for the first time today.
Tim, the lady who fell off the mule was a truly epic moment in my life. I enjoy your travel posts because you tend to provide a good balance of sensory detail as well as reflection on the personal importance of a given experience.
Love this Jeri! Using your Shakespeare insults this summer:)
Cindy, thanks! It’s great to hear you’re getting some use out of the Shakespearean insult sheet I posted for National Poetry Month.
I liked your sensory skills, they are speaking very clearly. Keats poetry is dense with sensory details. His imagery is very effective in arousing the senses of touch, taste, see and feel. I think all Nature poets have this advantage by referring to the beauty around them.
Rosamunde Pilcher’s poetic prose too possesses that quality.
Balroop, poetry is all about the power of imagery in so many ways. Many who encounter poetry are at first put off by the lean lines. Upon multiple readings, all of that rich imagery reveals itself layer by layer.
I think the chart will come in very handy. I have a tendency sometimes to ignore some of the other sensory details when writing. This is a good exercise and reminder to incorporate more than what we can simply see.
Susan, for each new life story you write you might want to try focusing on a new sense than the time before. If you keep at it that way, it won’t be long before you will be more automatically inclined to include more details beyond the visual.
Hello dear Jeri…
A very eloquent post here… I couldn´t avoid thinking in a couple of well known “sensory writers”.
I think that my favorite is Gabriel García Márquez, clear exponent of magical realism. The chant of lonely cricket, the sensory appeal of yellow butterflies and phosphorescent skies…
Just two highly sensorial excerpts from his book “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” (1972).
“Laura Farina sat down on a schoolboy’s stool. Her skin was smooth and firm, with the same color and the same solar density as crude oil, her hair was the mane of a young mare, and her huge eyes were brighter than the light”…
(GGM. “Death Constant Beyond Love”. 1970)
“A tight universe of weaves, of lesser worlds”…
(GGM. “Eyes of a Blue Dog”. 1950)
With regard to his masterpiece “One hundred years of solitude”, I am adding this link for you to read a wonderful excerpt:
Thanks for the great reading here, Jeri… I am wishing you a very nice week ahead.
Aquileana, I can always count on your comments to whet my appetite for further exploration. I’ll be sure to check out the link to his speech.
Being highly visual (sights on your most appreciated chart!) when I do remember to include sensory, I tend to stay in that mode. But I don’t fret about it because so many of us are mostly visual anyway.
This is a great resource – thanks Jeri.
Pat, we do tend to be visually stimulated creatures, don’t we? Yet the other senses when focused on appropriately (and not as overkill) can be quite powerful in conjuring associations in a way that visual description will never be able to.
This is a good exercise. I like the chart I think I’m going to put it to some good use and see if I can tap into something good.
Niekka, something useful always comes out of exercises like this. I use writing exercises a lot to get my brain into the right mode.
I think I’ve already gone on about The Book Thief on your blog before, but I’ll use it again as an example of incorporating all the senses into the details, and doing it with such interesting imagery and metaphors to boot.
Laura, I’m glad you mentioned The Book Thief again. That just means I need to get around to reading it STAT!
Hi Jeri, this was really interesting to read. I’d say editing your own novel must be really tough at times! I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head, but seeing Laura mention The Book Thief really reminds me of how great that book is. 🙂
Christine, editing my own work really is the best part of writing because I come by editing much more naturally than I do telling a tale. I self-edit as I draft, which causes a lot of grief when I know I should be saving that for the end process.
As the old line is, Where were you when I was writing my novel? I love that sensory chart; I will use it next time I write.
William, haha 😉 I hope you’ll dig around and take a look at some of the other writing exercises I’ve posted.
I don’t limit myself to certain authors. I do like Dan Brown, Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” and just read an interesting book called “Pope Joan” by Donna Woolfolk Cross. I really don’t think of books as invoking my senses.
Arleen, I really enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha as well, but I have a hard time with getting into books like Dan Brown’s. At least there’s a movie version right? It’s interesting that you don’t think of books invoking your senses. It’s more of a subconscious thing on the reader’s behalf, so that makes complete sense.
***It looked like a carefully choreographed ballet sequence except her size was that of three ballerinas.***
LOVE that sentence! x
Kim, why thank you 🙂 It’s amazing how some events like the mule incident will stick with a person for years. It’s like a movie that plays through my mind. I guess that’s part of why I seek out national park vacations. They just suit my preferred sensory mode.
I love using graphic organizers like this one when I teach creative writing. These are especially useful for memoir and poetry lessons. Great idea!
Hi Jeri; as a blind reader the more visual descriptions I get the better I like it. I rarely ever criticize an author for including too much detail. I sometimes think that steven king and tom clansey could use an editor that would prune back some of their words, but that’s the advantage of being a star. I also wonder if the influence of digital books is effecting the way books are being written and edited. I’m sure different decisions would be made if every book still involved the printing on actual paper. I would say my favorites for over all description based on sensory responses would be stephanie laurens, john sand ford and nora roberts either as herself or as j d robb. thanks for sharing your technique with us. Best of luck with your writing, max
Max, I’ve thought the same thing often while reading works by Stephen King. If he were a lesser known, unproven writer, editors would pare his works down quite a bit. Because of his name, he can get away with more meandering side stories and descriptions than many other writers. One what they writing for electronic screens has changed my writing comes across in how I write shorter paragraphs than I used to. It can be daunting if paragraph after paragraph fills the entire screen of someone’s Kindle. Paragraph length becomes even more of a concern when reading on SmartPhones, but I try to steer clear of needing to do that if at all possible.
great tips, Jeri! And I loved the dancing analogy, that was perfect.
I don’t know if you’ve read Leah Raeder, but her writing BALOWS MY MIND. Her descriptions are amazing. I read her description of hers once about spending an evening at a county fair…..six months later and I can still *feel*, *see* and *hear* everything. Extraordinary.
Beth, yeah the mule accident still remains seared into my mind all these years later. I’ve not read Leah Raeder, but I’ll head over to Amazon now to look her up and put one of her books on my TBR list. That way, I’ll at least have a reminder waiting for me at some point to explore her work.
I really love the word “scrunch.” (in case you went looking for it, it is in your first sample section) It is one of those words that is a bit like a sound as well as a feeling. The British use a word “squelchy” that has a similar effect (sound and feeling). Something about words like that is quite fun to play around with.
I am reminded of an episode of Tabletop (Will Wheaton show on youtube). Basic idea: Will Wheaton and guests play various board games (it’s a geek thing). Anyway, in one episode they were playing a role playing game and one of the players ended up with super smell as an added ability for his character.
Background done this is where it gets interesting: So we normally only visualize the world around us. Sure we have other senses but they don’t play as important a role, as you noted. Hearing comes close but like the distance of a football field relatively speaking.
So in the game the player was doing extra checks with his sense of smell as well as visually. This in turn gained information that would not be as readily available otherwise. As a study of how we observe the world around us and share the sensations with others, it is interesting to see how it all plays out.
Granted we won’t be tasting rocks on a regular basis or anything like that or even smelling them. But ya know, my grand daughter loves to taste the rocks that ring our pool whenever she is outside.
Jon, “scrunching” is indeed a good word. I remember being a kid and loving that sound when walking on tiny gravel pebbles along the road. If you give rocks to high school students to describe in a writing exercise, a few of them eventually ends up giving them a lick or two…
Your use of visual and aural imagery brought your writing to life. I could hear the clop, clop, clop and see the plump mother dangling from the stirrup.
Jeannette, many of my best sensory experiences revolve around horses in some shape or form. Pity that’s it’s been far too long since I’ve been able to any horseback riding.
Many people forget to utilize the five senses when writing. This posts serves a good reminder. Thanks, Jeri. 🙂
Lorraine, thanks. I find that when I’m writing about a place I know well, I really have a tendency to leave specific details out because I can already see the place in my mind. Revision always finds me adding so many details.
Sensory details are definitely essential. The reader needs to feel what the charachter in the book is experiencing. Not just see it but smell, hear and feel like the charachter. If not, it’s difficult to get captivated by what’s going on.
Catarina, great word to describe the experience and importance of getting drawn into a good read. The last truly captivating novel I read was The Virgin Suicides.
Hi Jeri – I never thought about incorporating the five senses. I’ve printed off the PDF version and will play around with it. Interesting exercise.
Lenie, good luck with giving the exercise a try. No matter how many times I’ve tried it, I always find surprising observations come from it.
Thanks for the vivid reminder of how to make descriptions more VIVID!!!
Candy, your writing is definitely vivid. You make great use of sensory detail in your Candy’s Monsters novellas.
Love the chart! Very helpful for bloggers who are not professional writers!
Laurie, all writers benefit from these types of exercises since they can jog the brain into making an observation it might not make otherwise when in the throes of typing paragraph after paragraph. Granted, over time many of the habits developed by this type of practice do become more ingrained.
Jeri, good exercise. I looked up the rock one too and it is good to make your mind focus on one object. I read Stephen King’s book on writing and he said make sure to describe details but to not over do it. He also said cut everything down to the bones. I can relate to you because I always need to draft my work a few times because I will put too many fluff words in what I am writing. =)
Crystal, my drafts can be so bloated as I try to find my way to the “real” story the characters want to tell. On the flip side, I also tend to hold back as I draft and self-edit. It can make drafting rough at times, but I’m not shy about admitting my process is far from a streamlined one 😉
I usually flop from one side to the other, too detailed or not enough. I’m terrible with setting (hardly any detail), but good with action. But then, I get too caught up in the action, and forget the other details. I forget touch a lot of the time. What does it feel like?
Loni, sometimes it amazes me that any final draft ever makes it to publication with all writers need to try to incorporate.
I like the sensory chart to help brainstorm descriptions. Often we stick to visual descriptions and forget the power of the including the other senses. Thinking of the right phrases without sounding contrived can be a challenge.
Donna, exactly. Even though I can re-work other’s sentences quite well when I’m in editor mode, my own often come across as a bit contrived even though I’ve read them over and over and over. It’s great when critique partners can point out some of our awkward sentences for us to help speed up the process.
Jeri, you are a genius and I love so much for this!! I just printed it out and can’t wait to start using it. Dang, I’m going to go print out about dozen blank copies actually. I’ve wanted a gift like this for years!! Hugs!! 🙂
My biggest challenge with your posts like this is that I find them so distracting. I read, then I start to play around with the ideas and tools you provide, two days pass and I realize I never left a comment. 🙂
It took me a while to think of a memory that pulled it all together, but then camping came to mind, actually painting at our campsite in the woods. Hours and people could roll by without me noticing. What I remember is the bird song, the colours of green, the occasional whiff of campfire, the feel of the brush in my hand and playing chipmunks. Apparently if you get absorbed enough and still enough, they forget you are there.
Debra, I guess it’s good to have posts that are distracting in such a good way. I have tons of great sensory memories that involve camping. I think the times we are most happy and most at peace sear a special place in our brains.
I am bad at remembering things like that but I just read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and he included some lovely things like “shivvering snow.” Thank you for the Sensory Chart.
Beth, I really must get around to reading The Book Thief one of these days!
A very good idea having a chart to enable one to include all the 5 senses. very similar to a chef who needs to include the basic but essential spices in their recipes.
Mina, I like the comparison you draw with how a chef operates. Alas, I am only a chef when it comes to sentences, not food preparation 😉
A wonderful use senses in the description and of the sensory details brainstorming sheet. Excellent idea! One of my favorite authors, scratch that, my all-time favorite author is the late John O’Donohue. His way with words sears an image into the brain and even more deeply into the heart. I think very vivid words paint a more intricately beautiful picture. Thanks for another delightful post!
Bill, for an author to work their way deeply into readers heart is perhaps on of the best rewards there can ever be.
That is an interesting chart. I may need to use it to help when I write things.
Jason, thanks for thinking about giving the sensory chart a try.
Great suggestions and tips, Jeri. I just read a book called “The Tiger’s Wife” with beautiful, lyrical sensory descriptions. Often found myself reading sentences and paragraphs over and over, because they were so evocative. Your tip sheet is a super idea! I think it takes self-discipline to get in touch with emotions, and communicating them effectively. It’s like an artist will sketch a feature over and over again, until they get it right. Same thing applies to writing. It’s a skill that takes dedication and development.
Krystyna, I think that’s what I most love about reading when I come across passages I want to read over and over again. I keep aiming for the day when some of my own passages can do the same 😉
Jeri, I love the chart and will embrace that as I continue to formulate better posts about the food I love to cook. And what better area to practice sensory detailing than with food? I too often overlook the way a bright red berry reflects light or the unmistakeable sound of popcorn popping on the stove-top. When I draft my next post, I will try to include more sensory details for sure.
Pamela, writing that focus on food is so ripe for the application of all of the five senses. After all, eating is one of the few experiences that truly involves every sense.
Thank you for the great chart and reminder to use all our senses in writing. I can imagine how the experiences during your time as a ranger influences your writing.
Christina, the chart can be a good reminder, but I’m afraid I wasn’t a park ranger…
Sensory details are difficult to naturally work into prose as we forget how many senses we use on a daily basis. Smell is one I tend to miss, and rely far too heavily on sight. Sorry for such a late comment Jeri. excellent chart BTW Thankyou.
A.K., smell is definitely the sense I tend to overlook as well. Maybe it’s because I have a horrible sense of smell!
Sensory details are very important to give the reader a complete experience. Very good suggestions, will keep them in mind!
Ilaria, thanks for stopping by. Your travel posts often contain plenty of great sensory details in addition to the many great pictures you include with the posts.
I must say the sensory chart is very useful and is helping with the editing of my book.
Thank s for that.
Gerry, that’s great to hear. I hope your revisions are going well 🙂