A phrase we hear often as writers is “Show, don’t tell.” One way we can do this more effectively is to include descriptions using all five senses. “Sensory words paint vivid pictures that relate to the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. In fiction, non-fiction and poetry, they serve as a type of shorthand to evoke memories or feelings that draw readers into your world.” Some writers find it easy to include sense-related details in their writing. Most of us have to work at it.
What I see
Pretend you are describing something to a person who is blind. Look at the picture below.
Describe what you are seeing by including information on:
- comparison to something
- facial expressions
- body stance
- unusual characteristics
What I hear
In our world of busyness and noise, we often tune out most of what we hear. Take a few minutes to sit and really listen. Close your eyes. What do you hear? Every room or location has sounds that give us clues. Some sounds are more obvious than others. Sometimes the sounds are soothing, like a cat purring. Other times the sounds warn us of danger, like the blare of a horn or the screech of tires. When we use what we hear to describe a setting, we help our reader feel like they are standing beside us. Instead of saying, “I heard water,” give the reader useful information like “the waterfall thundered” or “the sleet beat out a steady rhythm on the window.”
What I smell
What’s your favourite food? When the aroma of freshly-baked bread wafts towards you, does it stir up memories of home? There are all kinds of scents or smells we experience each day. Fragrant lilacs may remind you of spring in the country. What about the stench of manure? Or Chanel No. 5? If you walked into a room that smelled like rotten tennis shoes, where would you be?
Kendra Cherry says, “The actual ability to smell is highly linked to memory. Research has shown that when areas of the brain connected to memory are damaged, the ability to identify smells is actually impaired. In order to identify a scent, you must remember when you have smelled it before and then connect it to visual information that occurred at the same time. According to some research, studying information in the presence of an odor actually increases the vividness and intensity of that remembered information when you smell that odor again.”
What I taste
Let’s think again about the aroma of freshly-baked bread, but this time let’s focus on how it tastes. Doughy? Salty? Yeasty? What about adding melting butter or sweet strawberry jam? Is your mouth watering yet? We taste things every day. Although we associate taste with food, we can also use our sense of taste to describe many other experiences. What about the acrid taste of smoke? Or the tangy aftertaste of iron on your tongue when you’re really scared?
“Taste buds probably play the most important part in helping you enjoy the many flavors of food. Your taste buds can recognize four basic kinds of tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. The salty/sweet taste buds are located near the front of your tongue; the sour taste buds line the sides of your tongue; and the bitter taste buds are found at the very back of your tongue.”
What I feel (touch)
Describing what we feel or touch adds more sensory details to help our reader understand what we are trying to express. Is the wood rough or smooth? Does the wind caress, or whip your hair? Is the bread crust crunchy or soft? These details help paint a clearer picture and set the mood. Our readers are able to experience the story for themselves, which draws them in and keeps them hooked until the last word finally releases them.
Checking for sensory details
Here’s a hint I received many years ago from a fellow writer: After you write your paragraph or story, go back through it, highlighting each sensory word you used. Choose a different colour highlighter for each of the five senses. When all the sensory words are highlighted, you will be able to see which senses you used well and which ones need more attention.
- Check out this handy list of sensory words
- A sensory writing challenge
- Writing exercises on the 5 senses
- A slide-share on describing food
Ruth L. Snyder lives with her husband and five young children on a quarter section north of Glendon, Alberta. Homemaking and serving on the local public school board take up most of her time, but she also enjoys writing, editing, photography, and traveling.