Reading good writing is like visiting a new country.
You walk through a busy plaza with the characters. A vendor is shredding sugar cane. When the protagonist buys a glass of cloudy green juice, it’s your tongue that tingles at the raw sweetness.
The breathy tones of an amateur flautist drift through an archway towards you.
Further down, the scent of chargrilled onions reaches your nose.
The characters arrive at a souvenir shop. But it’s your fingers that feel the rough warmth of llama wool between them.
You can give your readers the same experience by appealing to different senses when you write.
When I first start writing, I mainly relied on sight. I knew it was important for readers to see the world through the eyes of the characters. I forgot that real people experience life through a range of senses.
You don’t need to bombard your readers with all five senses in every scene.
But moving beyond sight can strengthen and enrich your writing.
Why use sensory details?
Sensory details create a connection between the reader and the writer. When authors convey their characters’ emotions this way, we’re able to identify with their plights.
An example of this is the point of no return in the first half of The Kite Runner. 12-year-old Amir, hidden in a dark alley, witnesses the rape of his friend Hassan.
“I stopped watching, turned away from the alley. Something warm was running down my wrist. I blinked, saw I was still biting down on my fist, hard enough to draw blood from the knuckles.”
– Chapter 7, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Hosseini doesn’t need to tell us that Amir is horrified by what he’s seen. We feel his fear and shame at not intervening. It makes him human. Although we want him to jump out and stop the attackers, we understand why he doesn’t. We don’t give up on him. And we read on to see if he will find redemption.
Sensory details also play a part in establishing a sense of place in a reader’s mind. This is crucial if you’re writing about a time or a location that your audience is not familiar with.
Take Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander for instance. Her protagonist Claire Randell visits a Scottish stone circle and is transported from 1946 to 1743. Gabaldon paints a vivid picture of eighteenth century life through small sensory details scattered throughout the novel. This helps us suspend belief and travel back in time with Claire.
In Chapter 8, Claire attends festivities in the great hall of Castle Leoch. She describes the large log fire burning on the hearth, the Laird’s carved chair and bell-shaped wine decanter. But it’s only when she combines these visual details with her other impressions that the scene really comes to life. We taste “each sip of nectar” when Claire tries Callum’s French wine. We listen to the minstrel plucking at his harp. And we hear the “pine torches crackling all along the walls.”
Finally, sensory details are vital for evoking a particular feeling or atmosphere in stories. Just look at the terrible sense of foreboding that’s built up throughout The Hound of the Baskervilles.
“As if in answer to his words there rose suddenly out of the vast gloom of the moor that strange cry which I had already heard upon the borders of the great Grimpen Mire. It came with the wind through the silence of the night, a long, deep mutter, then a rising howl, and the sad moan in which it died away. Again and again it sounded, the whole air throbbing with it, strident, wild and menacing.”
– Chapter 9, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Imagine if Holmes and Watson had glimpsed the Hound in this scene instead of hearing it? The story would have lost its impact. As we read on, the Hound grows even more terrifying and mysterious, but only because we don’t get to see it.
So how can you include more sensory details in your writing?
It’s hardly surprising that we focus on visual details in our writing. We spend so much time looking at the world through a screen. Computers at work, selfies on holiday and smartphones on public transport.
Overuse of technology is numbing our senses.
If you want to include more sensory details in your writing, start growing your awareness of your other senses in everyday life. This is something I started doing after I missed my stop one day because I was too busy looking at my phone!
Instead of spending every train trip on your phone, use some of your journeys to observe what’s going on around you. What can you hear? Tinny music escaping earbuds? Rustling newspapers? A dry, scratchy cough from the guy in the seat behind? What about smells? Damp clothing? Burnt coffee beans? What can you feel? Scratchy polyamide seats rubbing against your thighs? The centre pole digging into your rib cage?
Go for a walk in your lunch break and try the same task. If you can’t get away from your workplace, do this activity in your staff kitchen or cafeteria.
Sharpening your senses is all about noticing your surroundings and being fully present in the activity that you’re doing. That could be anything from driving on the freeway to brushing your teeth. It’s something you can try at anytime. I’ve recently taken up pilates and here are a few sensory notes I made after one of my classes.
As we finish the last set, I feel the warmth in my scalp as the sweat trickles between my hair roots. My legs shake with the aftershock. The instructor passes us wet wipes to clean down the equipment for the next class. A passing odour of sweat mingled with disinfectant. Then I’m out in reception. Cheerful voices. The creaking and banging of locker doors. We cluster around the glass jugs of camomile tea resting on oil burners, stiff fingers clasping paper cups. I take a sip, savoring the flowery aftertaste that rolls over my parched tongue.
When I’m reading, I also try to pay attention to how writers incorporate different senses into their work.
Don’t restrict yourself to books. TV series are also great places for picking up sensory language. Watch cooking programmes, interior design series, talent shows and advertisements. What language do they use to describe the tastes, smells, sounds and textures they come across?
So many of us are drawn to writing because we feel like we’re only skimming the surface if we don’t pick up a pen and dive in. Creative writing gives us the medium to go deeper and really immerse ourselves in life.
Natalie Goldberg sums this up perfectly in her book, Writing Down the Bones.
“Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there’s another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and details.”
– Living Twice, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
Listen to the world.
Smell it, taste it, touch it.
Engage your senses in everything you do.
That way you’ll get to live both your lives to their fullest potential.
by Linda Alley
Writer and teacher