Writing for the senses

We’ve all experienced it.

That story that brings you there. You can see everything in detail, you know what it smells like, you can hear the surroundings, you know how the ground feels, how the air feels, you are in tune with the emotion.

Writing that appeals to the senses is the best kind, the kind you can easily lose yourself in.

Module three of my writing class focused a lot on senses. Especially for children, writing for the senses is key to drawing a reader in to the story.

But this has to be done carefully. Long gone are the days of the classics, where a description can be a few pages long. That’s just too much for most readers to handle.

Instead, description should be realistic. What would you notice?

Instead of going into detail about one thing, spend a few short sentences on several things. What did the character see? What did it seems like? Was it windy? Cold? And tie in emotions. How did it feel?

What this does is makes it real and relatable. When I read a Dickens description, I’m not there in the story, I’m looking for where it ends. (But don’t get me wrong, I love me some Dickens.)

These things comprise the setting for the story, and the setting is important. It’s easy to focus on the characters and forget the setting, but readers want to get lost in the story, and they can’t do that if they aren’t sure where exactly they are.

Writing for the senses can also help change the pace of the story, as does word choice and sentence structure.

We notice different things in different situations. In a moment of high intensity and action, do you notice the birds or the rustling leaves? Probably not, unless you’re an Anime character. But you might notice a fierce wind blowing against you or the hot sun on your skin. A fierce wind may help the story move quickly through a fast-paced action sequence, yet be inappropriate for a retro- or introspective moment.

Readers, and people in general, associate specific things with specific emotions or moods. For example, it is generally accepted that sunshine, birds chirping and brightness are associated with happiness, while rain, dripping water and gloom are associated with sadness. While these aren’t universally true for everyone (case in point, myself), we have to tread carefully when breaking the norm. The authors of this course say never to do it. And perhaps for a children’s book, that’s true. But I don’t necessarily agree, I think it just has to be done in the right way. You can create a realistic and relatable character who thrives in the gloom or one who feels sad beneath a cloudless sky, as long as you explain why and juxtapose the emotions against the senses. After all, I’m real, even if I’m not very relatable.

At the end of the day, descriptions and sensory writing come down to practice and identifying how much detail is needed, and what is relevant. 

I’m going to play with it as I write and see how noticing different things changes the mood of my character and the story.

1 thought on “Writing for the senses

  1. Kathy

    I agree with you on the emotions vs. environment issue Leese. You can go outside the box if you do it thoughtfully and carefully. And, I think when you do that you can make a more powerful statement with that emotion/mood. You need to watch Pixar’s Inside Out. It totally goes into the importance of Sad and how it can heighten the Joys in life.


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