Sensory Language Makes Your Writing Come Alive

a woman touching wild lavender

One way to make an impact on your readers is to invite them into the room with you. Bring them in close by crafting scenes fueled by sensory language.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

I live in Missouri, known as the “Show-Me State.” When I first heard that slogan, I didn’t understand it. Show me what? After doing a bit of research, I discovered the slogan was derived from a speech made by Willard Duncan Vandiver, a Missouri Congressman, in 1899. Vandiver said:

I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.

In other words, the people of Missouri are not gullible. If you want us to believe, don’t just tell us — you need to show us the truth through facts and evidence.

Table of Contents:
What is sensory language?
Sensory language is the detail in your writing
Sensory language and your writing

It’s funny, my adopted state’s slogan reminds me of one of the most basic directives in creative writing: “Show, don’t tell!” You’ve heard that phrase before, but today I want to dive in and explore how to achieve it using descriptive details in your writing.

What is sensory language?

Sensory language captures the essence of our five senses: touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste. It brings expression to our words and paints a colorful picture in the reader’s mind. When you use sensory language, you describe what you see, feel, hear, taste, and smell. You don’t write, “I was sad when my girlfriend left me.” You write,

I saw a smile flicker on Sarah’s lip when she whispered the words, “I’m leaving you.” My throat clamped tight. I blinked hard so I wouldn’t cry, but one hot tear fell and salted my upper lip.

This short passage incorporates four of the five senses: hearing (“she told me”), touch/feeling (“one hot tear”), sight (“I saw a smile”), hearing (“she whispered”), taste (“salted my upper lip”). You can see how sensory language livens up your writing, engages the reader, and helps your reader visualize the scene through descriptive words so they can better experience it.

Sensory language is the detail in your writing

When you add specific detail to your creative writing, you are painting with figurative language, and you can use all the colors!

Descriptive writing is a skill that takes time to develop, and you should also consider the pacing in your writing, along with the setting of your story. Seek out resources to help — my favorite is the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. This is  regarded as a classic among writers and is well worth having on your bookshelf.

Lamott encourages writers to view their world in small sections, as small as a one-inch picture frame. That limited focus can help you really home in on the specific detail. When you’re frenzied about how much you need to write, step back and look through that one-inch picture frame.

All I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. All we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry.

That’s it. Construct the details of your book scene by scene, moment by moment, by looking through these small windows. When you look through small windows, you see a lot more minutiae – the curved crack etched in the sidewalk, the one green pea that rolled under the table, the rim of grease under the fingernail of the doctor. Details make the difference, so show them to your readers!

Sensory language and your writing

Human beings are wired to relate to things that have an emotional impact, which is why we tend to remember good stories. Even in nonfiction, you can increase the impact of your narrative by affecting your reader on an emotional level so they will better remember and relate to what you’ve written. When you employ sensory words, you use detail to describe what you smell, feel, taste, hear, and see.

5 Steps GuideSensory language enhances your creative writing skills and immerses your reader in the scene. It helps the reader to visualize, hear, and imagine the scenario, so they can experience it rather than just digest the information you’re trying to convey.

Take a look at the two passages below, and notice how sensory words makes a difference.

Before

Barbara called, she wanted to talk. She said something terrible had happened. I asked her to meet me at the grill, the one on the ground floor of my office building. It was lunchtime, and I was hungry, so I suggested she come and we could get something to eat.

After

“Six policemen just barged into my home,” Barbara wailed. “It was pouring outside, but they didn’t even bother to wipe their feet. They tracked grass and mud all over my white carpets. It’s like they used my rug as a door mat.”

A piece of golden hair – darkened by the rain – fell in front of her eyes, and she slicked it back behind her ear without a thought. My watch beeped, but she yammered on, oblivious. Twelve o’clock. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. The scent of grilling onions made my stomach lurch.

“Jeez,” I said. “That’s terrible. Do you want something to eat? Maybe that’ll make you feel better. I could use a bite, myself”

She hiccupped massive sobs as her head slammed onto the table. “What am I, twelve?” she sputtered. “A snack isn’t going to make this all better!”

Sensory language is easy to incorporate into your fiction or nonfiction narrative. Describe what your different senses are telling you — and try to engage your readers’ minds and senses with your descriptive language!

And once you’ve crafted a world full of descriptive images and intrigue, BookBaby’s Complete Self-Publishing packages will help you put your immersive masterpiece into the hands of your readers.

This post first appeared on The Book Professor Blog. Reposted with permission.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. This is insightful and stimulating. It has helped me understand why certain books have impacted and inspired me more than others. Thank you for giving me a way to improve my writing.

  2. Technically saying “I saw a smile flicker” is telling, not showing. “A smile flickered on Sarah’s lips” is showing and it still has the sensory description because it’s evident that it was seen.

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