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Getting the Sense of Sensory Details

As a novelist, I love sensory details: the red scarf, the crumbling cookie, the scent of coming rain. They’re just words, but they can take us away to other places. The right sensory details allow readers to encounter the writer’s experience as if it were their own.

Using the Five Senses

The different senses are weighted individually, bearing unique effects. Understanding how a particular sense impacts the reader can help the writer create specific effects:

  • Seeing is believing: People trust what they see. That’s why eyewitnesses say, “I saw it with my own eyes!” If you want readers to believe something, show them.

    Jackson marched up the street toward Tawni’s house, the present box clutched in his fingers. Up ahead, her front porch light beamed yellow. He slowed on the sidewalk. He’d have to stand on that porch for the whole block to see, ring the bell, wait, and hope.

    A car cruised slowly past, the driver rubbernecking.

    Jackson turned away and peered at the card on top of the present. It was bent. His thumb had pressed a small crater into the drawing of mistletoe.

    He glanced one last time at the glowing porch, then turned toward the street and crossed it, jamming the card into a garbage can waiting in the gutter.

  • Did you hear that? Hearing is about understanding how a person feels or thinks. To reveal characters, have them speak. Hearing is also about speculation. You hear a footstep. You hear running water. Use sounds to create speculation about what is happening.

    Outside Tawni’s window, a garbage can rattled loudly in the street. An old man shouted a threat, and a young man echoed it. Tawni plucked out her earbuds and tiptoed to the window to peek out.

    No one was there. Rain began to patter in the lengthening shadows.

    Shivering, Tawni drew the sash closed, clicked the lock, and dragged down the fluttering shade.

    “Tawni,” came a muffled voice outside her window, “I’m getting soaked.”

    Her breath caught. “Who’s there?”


    Another voice—Daddy yelling from the basement: “Who you talking to, Tawni-Girl?”

    “Nobody, Daddy. It’s just me—singing to my MP3!”

  • The sweet smell of success: We use our noses to check milk, to notice a fire, or to find the coffee shop. Smell tells us something is good or bad. Use good smells in wholesome situations, and bad smells in unwholesome ones.

    Tawni lifted the sash.

    Jackson gratefully clambered over the sill and spilled, sopping, on the floor. He brought with him the scent of fresh rain and the winds of December. But there was something else: the fragrance of roses?

    Tawni gaped. “What did you bring me?”


    Tawni lifted the sash.

    Jackson gratefully clambered over the sill and spilled, sopping, on the floor. He smelled like a wet dog, with the sharp tang of nervous sweat. But there was something else: the stink of—

    Tawni gaped. “What did you step in?”

  • The best taste: Taste is so powerful and nuanced that we use it to decide the quality of something. The term taste is even used to comment on the quality of art, music, literature, and clothing. In description, use taste to provide fine distinctions of quality.

    Tawni lifted a truffle from the box and took a tentative bite. The dark chocolate shell cleaved gently, releasing sweet caramel. In the center was a cashew—salty and rich. She’d never tasted anything so good.

  • Feeling feelings: The sense of touch is tied directly to emotion. Warm, prickly, rough, soft, cold, brittle, heavy, bubbly—all describe touch sensations and feelings. Use touch sensations to evoke emotion.

    Jackson took Tawni’s hand. His palm was warm, his fingers gentle.

    Tawni glanced at him, wondering what he would say. He said nothing. She squeezed his hand and said nothing as well.

We want to hear from you! How do you teach sensory detail? What are some of your favorite descriptions? Please write your comments below.

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