Sensory details are so incredibly important in any story. It’s these details that transport a reader into the story, that make them feel like they’re there, with those characters, seeing and feeling everything your characters do.
Some writers may find that adding the sensory parts of the story takes a little practice.
Every writer has strengths and weaknesses, parts that come easy and parts that don’t.
What Are Sensory Details?
When I talk about sensory details, I’m talking about the descriptions of the five senses; smell, touch, sight, taste and sound.
By describing what your characters are seeing / hearing / smelling / tasting / feeling and touching, your readers not only gets an added glimpse into the character’s mind (we all experience the world differently), but they also get pulled further into the character’s world.
And because these words can bring your reader closer to your character and further into the story, they make your characters and story more memorable.
It’s as if your words become an actual memory in your readers heads, because they’ve experienced it for themselves.
How To Include Them In Your Story
Yes, sensory details are important, but they need to be used correctly.
They are descriptive words, so overuse or poor choice could lead to strange, meandering sentences and prose that just bores your readers (which no one wants).
Now, first, something very important.
I’ve found some posts on ye olde internet that suggest that saying ‘it smelt good,’ for example, is the wrong way to write. That it isn’t descriptive enough and is off-putting.
But what if your character talks like that and it’s from their point of view? What if you put emphasis on the ‘good’?
Then it becomes, ‘Oh, but it smelt good.’
Which, I think you’ll agree, has a lot of impact.
It’s easy, when you’re really into your story, to get caught up in the action and forget about what’s going on around your character by way of sense.
My best advice would be to try and slow your mind down as you write (hard, I know). While the dialogue and the action are taking place, have a think about what your characters are experiencing and see where those descriptions fit in.
I’m not saying ruin a perfectly good rally of dialogue to describe how the rays of sun were warming the side of your character’s face, but maybe give some light relief from all the talking.
‘Did you hear about Joe?’ Claire asked.
‘No, what about Joe?’
‘He ran off.’
‘What? What do you mean?’
‘He just left. With his sister’s best friend.’
Sandra held her face up to the sunshine, letting it warm her skin as she thought this through.
‘You know,’ she mentioned, her eyes closed against the light. ‘I caught them kissing at the party the other night.’
The sensory description can add a break in the action, a moment of pause and reflection, while also helping your reader not only see what’s going on but feel it too.
Try to keep your sensory details relevant and concise while allowing your readers to fully experience what your character is feeling/seeing/hearing/etc.
It can take some practice…
Two Exercises To Try…
If you’re worrying about the quality of your sensory writing or struggling to get the description right, then please don’t spend ages fretting over it.
Here are a couple of exercises to try if you find yourself just staring at the page.
Take your notebook and go and sit somewhere. The park, a coffee shop, your garden, anywhere. Take a moment to look around, listen and feel the weather or the proximity of people, smell the coffee or cake or nearby picnic.
Now, write it all out. What you can see, hear, taste, feel and smell. Describe it.
Try and get into the habit of describing your senses as you’re experiencing them.
(Personally, I’ve managed to get into the habit of using myself as a character, which somehow makes it easier.
‘She sat, breathing in the thick scent of coffee as it wafted up from her cup. Wrapping her hands around the cup, letting the warmth seep through her fingers and up her arms, she relaxed.’)
The best way to learn is to do, the second best way to learn is to learn from others.
Pick up whatever you’re reading right now, and sit back, relax and read. Pay close attention to how the author describes the sensory details.
Do you like their style?
Do all of the descriptions work?
Pick them apart and figure out what you like and don’t like about them. Try picking up a short story and read that to compare. Get inspired!
Try Not To Use Feel/Felt
Okay, I don’t mean never use feel/felt, because sometimes the sentence demands it.
What I mean is, don’t always use feel/felt.
Using ‘she felt cold,’ can be quite lazy. Unless it’s a style choice and you need something short and snappy, try using other ways to explain to your readers what’s going on.
Feel/felt are what’s known as ‘filter’ words, an often repetitive and easy way of explaining something, when actually, if you took the time to think about how else to incorporate those details, you could end up with something much more powerful.
For example, which would you prefer (out of context):
She felt cold.
She shivered, goosebumps rising across her body as the breeze moved through her clothes.
Did the second option make you feel a bit of a chill? Could you imagine just how cold this character was?
That’s what you want for your readers.
How you write sensory details will depend entirely on your unique writing style and the style of your story.
So while there are some things to avoid doing, only you can judge whether those things would actually work for your writing and your story.
As always, write the story that you want to write.
Try not to overthink these things, let them come naturally.
And next time you taste something horrible or amazing, or feel the sun on your face, have a think about what words you would use to describe the experience.