Everything we know, we first know through our senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. The mind processes those sensory inputs and draws conclusions. We deduce what time it is or what season by the angle of light in the sky. We understand our partner’s mood by their tone of voice. We recognize danger when the hairs on the back of our neck stand up.
As literary writers and poets, we know that readers seek to have an experience, to immerse themselves in a world not their own. Using sensory description is one of the best ways to provide the reader a rich experience of our work.
I sometimes give students an exercise to go out into the streets and look for something to write about. Once a student came back and reported that he’d seen a man who was depressed. “Whoa,” I said, “How could you tell that? Was it his posture? The state of his clothing? The look in his eyes or the shape of his mouth? Don’t give me the conclusion,” I told him, “Give me the evidence.”
If you only present the reader with the conclusion, they will take in the information and that’s the end of it. If you give the reader the sensory evidence, they will have an experience and will draw the conclusion themselves. Having done so, the reader is actively working with the text to create meaning and is that much more engaged in the work.
There’s an exercise I often give that is designed to heighten your awareness of the senses. It’s as effective with beginners as it is with seasoned writers. You can use it if you’re just getting started writing something or anytime you need help in bringing a moment to life. There are 7 parts; you’ll need about 30 minutes total to do the whole thing.
Write about the celebration of a holiday. It could be a remembered occasion or something made up. It needs to be a specific event (not “the way my family always celebrated my birthday” but “that year Uncle Fred got drunk and put the turkey on his head.”) For each segment below, you can write a list or in paragraph form. Don’t worry too much about the writing, we’re just compiling a pool of data.
- Set a timer and spend 3 minutes writing about the event just from the visual perspective; what can be seen?
- Then, describing the same event, take 3 minutes to write about it from an aural perspective; what can be heard?
- Next, still working on the same event, spend 3 minutes describing it from a tactile perspective; what do we feel with our skin?
- Continuing with this same event, take 3 minutes to describe its smells and tastes. You may have to use associations to describe these senses, since we have fewer words for these two senses (“her neck smelled like the beach on a summer day.”)
- Take an additional 3 minutes and just write the action of the event; what are people doing?
- Then take a few moments to reflect on what you’ve written. Which senses were easy and which were harder? I’ve known students to discover that there are senses they never pay attention to. What was the most surprising thing you wrote?
- Finally, give yourself another 10-15 minutes to go back and write a scene about the event. You don’t need to incorporate every sensory detail you wrote down before, just choose the best ones. You can also add new ones you didn’t think of the first time. Incorporate elements of all five senses with the action, and see what you get.
Working with the senses allows us to go more deeply into our writing; it gets us out of the mind and into the body. And it allows the reader to do the same.
Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada
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