By Amy McElroy
Every writer seeks the ability to hook readers and reel them right into the tale. Sensory description is what lures readers and sinks them into the character’s shoes.
Just as a Preamble: The Basic Definition of Sensory Description
Sensory description uses the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) to describe thoughts, feelings, or actions of a character.
Done successfully, readers feel as if they are actually experiencing the events along with the characters.
- Tom was sad after Wendy called and broke up with him.
- After Wendy called and told Tom, “I want to see other people,” he sat on the couch and pulled at his cuticles in silence.
Which sentence causes the reader to identify more with Tom’s feelings and want to find out what happens? (Maybe neither, yet, but the first one bores me to tears).
The second sentence substitutes sensory description (touch, sound) for the simple adjective, “sad.”
The emotional portion of Wendy’s action, “broke up”—a euphemism for ending a relationship—is also replaced with dialogue, which creates more of a sensory image because dialogue is heard.
Most adverbs are best replaced in the same way.
- Mary walked away from the van slowly.
- Mary shuffled her feet in the dirt as she moved away from the van.
The second sentence substitutes sensory description (sound, sight, touch) for the adverb, “slowly.”
In both sets of examples with adjectives and adverbs, above, the latter choice gave the reader more information about what the character thought or felt, thus putting the reader more in touch with that character’s feelings and situation.
How to make sensory description work for you? Use your own experiences.
Dig down deep into your own emotions. Think about your internal experiences, and use them—from exploding symphonic moments to black, oozing ones. Even if your sensory responses stemmed from situations vastly different than those the characters are experiencing in your story, visceral human emotions are universal.
For anxiety, fear, anger, shame, try to access memories of any childhood trauma, bullying, feelings of exclusion, or violence. They don’t even have to be extreme examples. We all experienced one of these things on some level. And these types of experiences produce feelings of hostility, fight or flight, pain, which we can use to write.
For positive feelings like joy, happiness, and contentment, think of falling in love, romance, bliss with your newborn, safe feelings as a child. Again, even if you’ve had a difficult life, blips of these kinds of positive moments can create enough of a reference to use as a “research” tool.
Then ask yourself these questions:
How did your body feel when you were scared, angry, anxious, or hurt?
Explore all five senses and how each might be affected.
It helps me to close my eyes and try to put myself in that space again.
Here are some basic suggestions to help you understand the concept. You can probably think of more original ones. Avoid the clichéd and overused examples.
- Where and how do you feel anxiety? Depending on the context, maybe with anxiety your eye-teeth scrape back and forth, a cawing of crows echoes in your ear, the crowd circles and stifles your air.
- Where and how do you feel pain/shame? Do you feel a blow to the gut, hollowed-out, emptied, a metallic taste on your tongue?
- Where and how do you feel scared? Perhaps your ribs collapse on themselves, your pulse races in your fingertips, your toes tingle.
- Where and how do you feel happiness or joy? Does the world expand or go white, or do you smell your grandmother’s baklava?
Don’t rely on just one response to each of these questions. Make a running list if it’s helpful. As you move through experiences—both personal and vicarious, including descriptions by others, books, and other media—pay attention to sensory manifestations of feelings, and document them.
Continue to stretch your own vocabulary for new ways to express these and other emotions, even the less extreme ones, with new metaphors and phrases. Use a thesaurus, but not as a place you should expect to find just the right sensory image as a whole. Instead, when you can’t find just the right verb, the right noun to piece together in an entire phrase, use a thesaurus to help build that excellent sensory description.
Keep in mind certain contexts will trigger brand new ideas you’ve never thought about before. Think about how you or your character’s childhood may birth a particular expression of a feeling. Maybe a ghostly whiff of your father’s Old Spice cologne becomes the metaphor for anxiety. A sense of security could provoke a character to begin singing a song the mother sang to him as a child.
Use Strong Action Verbs to Frame the Images.
Like sensory description, strong action verbs work to create images; they “show” rather than tell. After creating the imagery for the feeling, eliminate weak verbs like “feel,” “realize,” “seem,” “appear,” forms of the verb “to be,” etc. Find unique, juicy action verbs for your images to help readers directly identify with the character’s experiences.
- After he called me “Nothing,” I felt a slap on my face.
- After he called me “Nothing,” my face stung raw from a five-fingered slap.
The second example, while elaborated, employs a strong verb rather than “felt” to frame the metaphor for pain or shame.
Sometimes, the sensory description flows like poetry. Other times, filling in the images during revision requires a disciplined, steady hand. But used well, the tool of sensory description will pay off. Dig deep, and pull in your readers one line at a time.