How do you play with sensory descriptions?
Connecting With Sensory Explanations
As writers, we’re told to always use as many senses in a description of a scene as we can. The problem is that if we use all five senses in every single paragraph, the true message of the story gets lost in the set-up.
It’s good to immerse the reader in the scene with as much information as possible, but not so much that it feels like reading someone’s journal entry from elementary school. “I smelled this… It looked like this… We heard this…” You get the picture, right?
If you’re struggling to find the balance of how many senses you should use in each paragraph and how frequently, read through my tips. I’m going to rate each sense from most important to least important and explain a little about where I think is the best place to use them. Hopefully this will help you while you’re developing your own writing style.
Sight is probably the most important sensory descriptor you can have. You have to let your readers know what the characters are seeing. If you only offer instances of smell and touch, there’s not much context. Now, if there’s a specific reason you want to offer these senses first for suspense or maybe the character is blind, then obviously those senses are more important for that scene.
Sight is the groundwork for the setting. Transport your reader to a specific place and add the minor details and senses later. Usually, people use their imagination to fill in the blanks themselves and then add your details in as they come along. If you start by saying that someone is in a forest, you would assume the person is already picturing trees and maybe a few woodland creatures.
Rule of Thumb
Of course, the rule of thumb is show don’t tell, so you wouldn’t say “I’m in a forest” unless that creates the certain vibe you’re going for. Start by describing the tree’s height and color. If the leaves are yellow, you can assume it’s autumn without saying it outright. If the trees are tall, that means they’re old. Describe the type of leaves and pine needles and you can figure out what type of tree. Describe the climate by discussing the moss on the trees or types of creatures living in it.
There are so many ways to use sight for colour, shapes, body movement, etc. to describe a scene and help the reader settle into the world you’ve created. You don’t have to use other senses yet, and you’ve already told a lot about the setting in a few sentences. Remember: SHOW, don’t tell.
Pro tip: always use specifics for things you see. Instead of saying, I saw a bunch of animals in the forest, go with something more active. Ex. “The deer leaped across my line of view, startling me. Squirrels scurried up the trees and rabbits hopped along the dirt path.”
Sound is number two, because like sight there’s so many instances where you can describe it. If you’re in a forest, you’d want to describe things like the animal noises you hear, water rippling, the tranquility. This helps create the atmosphere and mood, evoking emotions from the reader.
On the flip side, if there’s a wildfire in the forest you wouldn’t describe a sense of peace. You would focus on the roaring fire and billowing smoke. Your word choices will be much stronger and harsh than in a Disney movie forest with serenity. The urgency and danger should come out, so I can’t stress enough how important word choice is when creating a particular atmosphere with a specific emotion in mind.
Other places where you would describe sound is in a city, a home, a concert, and any other place where a sound is affecting the character. Is the city busy or quiet? Are there people talking in the home? Has the concert started yet? What sounds are surrounding the character and how are they connected to the story? Are they trying to be quiet and suddenly make a sound? These instances create a mood and emotion that your reader can connect with.
Touch and Smell
I’m putting these sensory pieces together because I think they should be tied for third place on my importance scale. These senses shouldn’t be focused on too much in a sentence or paragraph, but they should come up when relevant.
With touch, an important description may be an itchy sweater that grandma knitted for the character. A soft blanket the character doesn’t want to get out from underneath. The gentle touch of a loved one, or the heat of the sun on their skin. Touch is a sense that should be described in passing and with instances that have an emotional connection with the character.
If you’re telling the reader about how itchy a character is and they keep scratching themselves for no reason, the reader will get bored. However, if you say they’re itching because they’re getting hives from having to talk to an unpleasant relative, then the reader might relate. The more emotion you connect with one of the senses, the more impact your description will have.
The same goes for smell. You don’t need to tell the reader what the character’s home smells like every time the character walks in, unless it’s connected to purpose or an emotion. For example, if they walk into the kitchen and smell cinnamon buns being baked by their friend, that could be a pleasant experience for the reader. Other good smells could be connected to candles that relax the character, or sunscreen on the beach. Again, these are said in passing, and not the main focus of the story. This just adds a little flavour to the explanation, and really draws the reader further into the scene.
You can also describe foul smells, like a burnt pizza or garbage wafting from the trash can. If you’re in a kitchen scene, you can describe these horrible smells, but give it some purpose. Turn it into a fight between spouses or a burst of anger in general. Give your reader a reason for provoking that thought in them.
Finally, there is taste. Obviously, this only relates to things the characters are eating. It’s the least important to me, because it’s not always relevant. You don’t have to describe the food every time someone has lunch or goes for ice cream. Save this sense for the moments when a chef is creating a masterpiece, or a couple is taste testing cakes for their wedding. Give it purpose and connect the sense to an emotion or an experience.
If you’re going to talk about food, have a scene where someone is binging in various snacks and you want to show their emotions with the way they’re eating and the amount of food. Most people know what chips or salad tastes like, so you don’t need to go into extensive detail unless there’s an emotional reason or an experience attached to it.
Have a Sensory Reason
As I’ve said (multiple times), give every sensory description you use a reason for being there. Know when it’s the right time to introduce a sense and when it’s not that important. Everything your reader reads in the story must move the plot forward and carry the reader on a journey of emotion. No one needs to read a whole paragraph about what a bird looks like or how horrible the bathroom smells. Not unless the description has purpose and meaning to the character and helps create a stronger scene throughout the journey of the story. Find the balance of senses that works best for your intended purpose.
Thanks for reading this! How do you create your sensory explanations? Respond in the comments below.
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