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PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER: Playing with the Senses
So far, we have covered all the senses individually. However, when using them in your writing, you will most often be combining them in various ways. Here are some general tips for adding the senses without overwhelming the reader.
SPRINKLE THEM IN
Long passages of plain description slow the pacing and can be boring for a reader. Most readers skip over any descriptions longer than a paragraph no matter how beautifully written.
In genre writing consider spreading the sense mentions throughout a scene rather than gathering them all together in one spot. When adding a sense description keep the length to one sentence unless those sensory actions are a main focus of the scene. For example, sex scenes because of their sensual nature will have a much higher density than an action scene.
Most simply a sensory element can be added as a:
Noun with perhaps an adjective or two
Verb – an active one like crinkle or rattle
Phrase – sharp and bitter on the tongue
Metaphor – like a gossamer bridal veil
Alternatively, make that sensory description work for you to move the plot forward.
Add any of these Sensory Description Enhancers.
- a plot point
- a plot twist
- the POV character’s emotions
- suspense, conflict or tension
- a character’s memories or backstory
The car sped along the road, the tires thrumming on the hot asphalt, the new-car smell heavy in the heat. Tall saguaro cacti dotted the landscape. In the distance, purple mountain peaks rose into the clouds. Henry rolled up his sleeves and then took a swallow of his icy cold soda. The cheap store brand tasted overly sweet. He put the can back in holder with a clank, flicked up the air conditioning, and rested his hands on the steering wheel.
This is a perfectly fine description that includes sight, sound, temperature, taste, touch, and kinesthetic motion. But it doesn’t hint at what Henry thinks about all these sensory stimuli or why this drive across what appears to be a desert is important to the plot. There’s no conflict or tension or foreshadowing. In fact, it is rather boring.
Rewrite. [Note it is not necessary to add all seven enhancers to one little description. I think I managed to squeeze in some backstory, foreshadowing, emotion, and tension with losing any of the sensory elements.]
Henry stepped on the gas, and his bright red Porsche sped up, the new tires thrumming on the hot asphalt. He loved driving a new car. The scent of warm plastic and chrome and leather mixed with whatever the dealer had sprayed the interior. It always reminded him of the car his dad had bought when he was seven—the one that…. He shook his head to chase the memory away and stared at the purple mountains rising above the grotesquely twisted cacti and dry desert sand racing by the windows. Four more hours and he wouldn’t have to worry about that memory anymore.
He picked up the off-brand coke he’d bought at the last gas station stop and took a sip. Icy cold syrupy liquid poured down his throat and settled like a rock in his stomach. Gah. It wasn’t something sweet he needed right now. He clanked the can back in the holder so hard the metal dented. He glanced at the mountains again, then turned up the air-conditioning. The sooner he got there the better.
One thing to notice is that writing rich sensory description takes more words than plain writing. Here is an example from Uprooted by Naomi Novak.
We turned our horses and went north, picking our way through brambles and the ruins of small poor houses, sagging on their beams, thatched roofs fallen in. I tried not to look at the ground. Moss and fine grass covered it thickly, and tall young trees were stretching up for sun, already spreading out overhead and breaking the sunlight into moving, shifting dapples. But there were shapes still half-buried beneath the moss, here and there a hand of bones breaking the sod, white fingertips poking through the soft carpeting green that caught the light and gleamed cold. Above the houses, if I looked towards where the village square would have stood, a vast shining silver canopy spread, and I could hear the far-off rustling whisper of the leaves of a heart-tree.
AVOID SENSE WORDS THAT DISTANCE THE READER
Heard, saw, felt and similar sense verbs can be distancing for a reader. While it is fine in a first draft to write: She heard the bird sing. This can be written much more immediate and in deeper POV by just describing the sound the character heard. The bird sang. By focusing on the sensory stimuli, it is easier to avoid using the words hear, see, feel, touch and taste.
When revising always do a quick word find for these words, also called filtering words, and replace as many as you can.
Felt (feel) – as touch
Sounded like (sounds like)
Taste and smell are less distancing, but should not be overused either.
Here is more on distancing words:
See PDF for link
Choosing the Sense to Focus on.
Start by listing all five senses for your character. What do they see, hear, smell, taste and touch in this scene? You don’t have to use all five senses, but choose the most important to the character ones, or the one or two which contribute the most to your plot. Remember that whatever you choose to describe will become more important to the reader.
Expand a Description
Choose an object you want to emphasize and pull the sensory information from it.
Questions to Ask
- What is its origin or source?
- What is its color?
- What is its shape and/or form?
- What is its texture?
- Does it have a taste or smell or sound?
- What does it contrast with?
- How does it move?
- What is its effect on the space around it?
- What relation does it have to other objects in scene?
Need help imagining a sensory experience? Here is another technique to borrow from actors. In the Method approach to acting, the actors must believe what they are pretending is real so that the audience believes it is real. For example, the script has the actor huddling between two rocks freezing to death while the hot stage lights glare down on him.
The actor could merely pretend to shiver and shake. Or the method actor could use sense memory and imagine a time when they were cold. They could remember their ears turning cold and cupping them with their hands to keep them warm, Then their nose turns cold and the fingers numb. The actor scoots their hands between their thighs to warm them and so on. To accomplish this, the actor has to practice it over and over until that moment of freezing becomes real and instantly recoverable. This method turns ordinary acting into great acting. You can do the same for your writing.
If you are interested, here are directions for sensory recreation practice
see PDF for link
USE SENSORY DESCRIPTIONS IN THE MOST APPROPIATE PLACES
Although there are no hard and fast rules, and creativity is always the writer’s prerogative, when inserting a sensory description, consider its use in the scene.
Sense as Stimulus. Is it a stimulus that sets the character in motion? Place the sensory element at the start of the paragraph followed by the character’s reaction.
The acrid scent of burning wood drifted over them. “The cabin’s on fire,” Hank shouted. He took off at a run.
A bright light flashed in his eyes. Gus turned his head away.
Sensory Reaction. Is it a physical reaction to a “Trigger” or stimulus. Place the character’s reaction after the stimulus.
The dead body had been exposed to the hot sun. Daniel held his breath against the gut-wrenching stench and moved closer.
The ship rolled with the waves. Frankie grabbed onto the mast and fought to retain her balance.
Setting Enhancer. Does the sensory element(s) add to the setting? Place the sensory element at the start or near the start of the scene.
I’d been at the dig site since dawn, heart pounding as I watched a big yellow backhoe roar into life and begin eating away layers of modern concrete until it exposed the makeshift grave. By noon, the August heat beating down on the hot asphalt of the Leicester City Council car park had rivers of sweat trickling down my back and armpits. My face must have been crimson, because one of the archeology students I met in the pub last night had mercy on me and handed me an old hat and a damp rag to tie around my neck. Lacy, Anne-Marie. The Medievalist (p. 3).
Character Development. Are you using a sensory element to identify a particular character? Try to weave that sensory image into the character description given by another character.
“They lowered onto adjacent metal folding chairs, and Zach’s clean, sandalwood scent momentarily scattered her thoughts. The guy always smelled amazing.” Jump, Shirley. Summer Love: Take Two (Paradise Key Book 1)
Or do you have a character who sees the world through one particular sense? Try to weave that sense into everything the character notices and reacts to. For example, an artist who is sensitive to colors or a chef who is sensitive to smells.
In Laura Florand’s novel The Chocolate Touch, the hero is a Parisian chocolatier. There are over 280 references to chocolate and 22 references by the main character to the taste of things. That’s more than one per chapter.
Their warmth and texture shivered from the sensitive skin of her lips all through her, as his chocolate hit all the taste sensors in her mouth, from a touch of fleur de sel to bitter to sweet, and started melting on her tongue. Florand, Laura. The Chocolate Touch (Amour et Chocolat Book 4) (p. 68).
Melding Character and Setting. Create an emotional-sensory arc by having the character sense what is close, and then widen their focus slowly identifying sensory and setting elements until a picture immerges of the setting for the reader. Think of this as if you are opening a door and slowly taking in what you see and sense.
Here is an example where the character opens a box:
“Liv Hylton cracked open a box of books, uncovering glossy paperback covers. The smell of new
books never ceased to hit her brain right in the pleasure center.” Curtis, Melinda. Her Lawman Protector
USING SENSORY EVENTS TO DEEPEN POV
Most romances are written in deep POV. Sensory events are perfect for doing this.
STEP 1 Describe a sensory stimulus, input or event – a heard sound, a weird texture underfoot, a horrible smell, a delicious taste. This could be one word or a paragraph or more.
STEP 2 Describe the character’s reaction to that occurrence in this order which mirrors how we naturally react. Each of these can be a sentence or a paragraph or more.
- REFLEX: Uncontrolled reflex reaction or physical movement like when you jump when you hear an explosion. It can also be an expression like Ouch or Uh or No. And it can be both.
- BODY: The character’s visceral reaction (this a bodily reaction – how the character’s head, heart, stomach, pulse feel based on the emotional reaction to the event. This could be a sour stomach, a racing heartbeat, a pounding head, etc.
- THOUGHT: The character’s inner thought about the event.
- SPEECH: What the character says out loud.
- DECISION: What the character does as a result. This can take many forms. It could be a movement. It could be more inner thoughts. It could be dialogue.
Now you don’t need to include every one of these reactions and usually you won’t, but in the beginning, it is a good idea to write them all out. Later you can cut or meld these together. Here is an example with each sentence labeled. Following this order is also helpful when you experience a writing block.
SENSORY INPUT The broken edge of glass cut through her skin. Blood welled.
REFLEX She brought her finger to her lips and licked it
BODY (VISCERAL) Warm blood trickled down her throat.
INNER THOUGHT It tasted horrible.
DECISION She spit it into the dirt. Nothing tasted worse than blood.
Here is the same event and reaction with the sentences woven together a little more creatively.
Slice. The broken edge of glass cut through her skin. Blood welled. Cary slapped the finger into her mouth and caught the dripping blood on her tongue. “Yuck” She spit into the dirt. Nothing tasted worse than blood.
- SENSORY INPUT
- REFLEX I jumped up and looked over my shoulder.
- BODY My heart raced.
- THOUGHT Was someone in the house with me?
- SPEECH “Hello,” I called.
- DECISION I took a step toward the door.
Crash. I jumped up and looked over my shoulder, my heart racing. Was there someone in the house with me?
“Hello?” I called. I took a step toward the door.
EDITING FOR THE SENSES
Incorporating these seven senses in every scene may seem like a challenge. But once a writer is aware of the need to do so, it becomes a simple matter of reading through the scene and noting the presence or absence of sense terms. Here are some suggestions for a sensory edit.
Circle or underline or highlight every sensory element in the scene. I like to use different color markers for each of the senses if I am working on a printout. If I am working on the computer, I use the highlighter tool.
Search and Insert
If I have already incorporated all the relevant sensory elements, I quickly move on to the next. If I haven’t, I need to find the perfect spot to insert that sensory description. To determine the best location, I have made myself seven index cards on which I have noted places those senses work best or carry the most weight. I have attached those cards for your use.
WRITING ORIGINAL SENSORY IMAGES
Stuck for a description? When I am writing a sensory description, I try as much as possible to actually experience that sensation. I taste the food item. I search out an aroma. I even balance on one foot or walk on different surfaces. It is actually one of the parts of writing I really enjoy.
Can’t think of a new way to say something? Don’t use the first thing you think of. Brainstorm at least 6 to 10 ways to describe the sense or come up with a creative comparison by asking these questions:
What is the origin of the sensation?
What does it look, smell, taste, sound, or feel like?
What is its opposite?
What is its texture or composition?
What can it cause or affect?
How does it change?
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
What does it look like when all these elements come together? Successful integration of sensory information in your writing is more than just naming a smell or a taste. It is weaving that sensory element into your plot and characters.
Here is an example of a sensory-rich, but character-developing setting description from Sylvia Day’s Bared to You. I love that she starts the scene with the words sensory input.
The sensory input was astonishing–the smell of vehicle exhaust mixed with food from vendor carts, the shouts of hawkers blended with music from street entertainers, the awe-inspiring range of faces and styles and accents, the gorgeous architectural wonders . . . And the cars. Jesus Christ. The frenetic flow of tightly packed cars was unlike anything I’d ever seen anywhere.
There was always an ambulance, patrol car, or fire engine trying to part the flood of yellow taxis with the electronic wail of earsplitting sirens. I was in awe of the lumbering garbage trucks that navigated tiny one-way streets and the package delivery drivers who braved the bumper-to-bumper traffic while facing rigid deadlines.
Real New Yorkers cruised right through it all, their love for the city as comfortable and familiar as a favorite pair of shoes. They didn’t view the steam billowing from potholes and vents in the sidewalks with romantic delight. They didn’t blink an eye when the ground vibrated beneath their feet as the subway roared by below, while I grinned like an idiot and flexed my toes. New York was a brand-new love affair for me. I was starry-eyed and it showed.
- Can you imagine yourself in this scene?
- What do you learn about the character’s background?
- What do you learn about how the character is feeling emotionally?
- Is there a widening of focus through an emotional-sensory arc?
- How does the author keep all this sensory information in the character’s POV?
- What has the author managed to make you feel about the character and setting through this description?
Now ask these same questions about your own sensory setting descriptions, and you will be on your way to being a sensory maven.
RESOURCES ON SENSORY WRITING
See PDF for Links
How to Arouse the Magic of Sensory Words. Although intended for business writing, this article makes some great points and has a clever visual for you.
Imagery Here are some sensory examples from literary classics.
Descriptive and Sensory Detail This example shows how all the senses can be combined to create mood and character.
The following lists combine all the senses.
Sensory Word List
This is our last lesson.
- So please ask me any questions you have on the material I have presented.
- Submit any exercises you want feedback on.
- And don’t forget to email me your chapter or 2000 words*. I will accept these for a sensory critique until November 5<sup>th ,2021</sup>. Please allow at least a two week turn around. The email to use is zarawestworkshops@ gmail.com (no space)
*Please include your name and email in the header.