Using Sensory Details to Enhance Fiction

Smell the Napalm.jpgWhen people read our stories we want them to feel like they are part of it.  One method of accomplishing this is hitting them with sensory details (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste).  Right now, as you read this, all of your senses are hard at work.  If you would, take a moment to really consider this.

For me, I feel the weight of my body resting against my computer chair.  My fingertips feel the smoothness of my keyboard keys and my forearms are kind of sticking to my computer desk.  My eyes are straining a little as I just woke up a bit ago and the monitor is still too bright.  I’m listening to music, but the cooling fans of my computer are also buzzing away.  The writing cave (my office) smells like hot pockets, energy drinks, and my cat Niblet.  There is an unnatural minty freshness lingering in my mouth because I brushed my teeth a few minutes ago.

In that hastily written example, I offered some very basic examples of sensory description.  While it’s a giant block of information, it highlights some of the elements many writers forget when they tackle their manuscripts.  Again, these elements are sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.

The trick is figuring out when, and how, to best utilize sensory information.  If you do it too much, it will bog down your writing and slow your pacing significantly.  If you don’t do it at all, your reader may feel slightly disconnected from aspects of your story.  However, there are a couple basic guidelines you can consider when applying sensory detail to bolster your writing.

Showing Versus Telling

Show vs Tell.   There’s a ton of great articles out there about showing versus telling.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept, you can check out one I wrote right here.  When you are moving into showing territory, utilizing some sensory details will help your reader sink into the scene you are creating.

Opening a Chapter.  I’ve talked in the past about anchoring your reader in setting early in your chapters.  This is especially important if a reader has put your book down and came back to it.  You need to quickly pull them back into the story world.  Sensory elements will help the reader sink back into the story and the POVs of the characters within.

looking.jpgChange of Location.  My office smells a lot differently than the bathroom at a gas station (or so I like to think).  When we move our readers from one place to the next, it’s good practice to help them transition by using sensory details.  If you find ways to repeat this information throughout the story, sensory cues by themselves can act to quickly prompt the reader to a change in location or character.

Enhancing Emotion.  We’ve talked briefly about writing emotion in the past. Sensory details can enhance emotion.  My wife and I bought some basic macaroni and cheese to try to feed Thor.  He’s starting to experiment with different kinds of “grown up” food now.  As a kid, this was a quick and easy thing my mom would make for me.  After we made it for Thor, the smell and taste immediately began to make me feel an extreme sense of nostalgia.  Pairing that with the idea that this was the first time Thor was eating it (or trying to at least) enhanced this feeling.

You likely have some sensory experiences that are highly personal to you as well.  These are great fodder to build more realistic stories.  After that experience with Thor, I jotted a brief notation of it down in one of my journals; maybe it will end up in a story one day.  When you are wandering through life, take note to open your senses up and pull information from your surroundings.  Not only should this enrich your life, it should enrich your writing as well.

gladiator fallen.jpgSensory detail to reveal motivation, or as a metaphor.  In the movie Gladiator, we see Maximus Decimus Meridius reach down and pick up a handful of sand before he enters the arena.  He does this every single time.  He grinds the sand into his palms and we can almost feel the grit.  He also smells it.

Even before he becomes a slave and is a Roman general, he is shown reaching down, picking up soil, and smelling it before he rubs it into his palms.  At first you could make the assumption he does this to enhance his grip of the weapon.  However, as we learn more about the character that simple action takes on a deeper meaning.

We learn that he is a farmer and just wants to return home to his crops and his family.  The act of smelling and feeling the soil almost becomes a metaphor for his desire to return to something he lost.  This sensory element is repeated throughout the entire movie and is a constant reminder of his internal motivations.  Without going into spoilerland, this use of sensory driven action serves other facets in the movie as well.  Especially as a contrast in the end where he is walking through a field and feeling the swaying stalks of wheat with his fingers.

A word of caution.  I mentioned it above, but it’s worth restating, you can absolutely overuse sensory details.  As with most things in writing, there is a balance one must try to achieve.  Mary Buckham, in her book, A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting, said it best: “Not every setting needs all five senses described in detail—that approach is overkill and can have a major impact on your story pacing, not to mention overwhelming the reader with information” (p. 52).

question-markThat’s it for today.  This was a basic introduction to the concept.  In the future, we will break this down and explain some of the components more in-depth.  As always, I’m curious about how you all manage to weave sensory information into your projects.  Do you actively find yourself smelling and feeling things in an attempt to write about them realistically? Do you just close your eyes and think about them?  I’d love to hear about your process.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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37 responses

  1. You asked how we weave sensory information into our projects. A few years ago a friend introduced me to Diamond-Heart Inquiry by A. H. Almaas. It is practicing awareness of the self at all levels of being. For me, this is an effective strategy when I want to write about the senses. I hope you find this information useful. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I will look into this for sure, Sharon. Thanks for pointing it out to me, as I’ve not heard of this before. I’m always looking for new ways to improve my abilities 😀

      I appreciate you stopping in today, reading, and leaving a tip. Happy writing 🙂


    • One of my goals as I continuously build and improve the page is to increase the depth of information available. My other goal is to write shorter and more concise posts by being able to reference past ones to broaden the content. Slowly, this is becoming something I can do 🙂

      My secondary goal is to revise and embed older posts (on the weekends) with newer content. Kind of like last weekend where I was able to update one of my blog posts with helpful information you offered in a comment months before. In this way, I hope to improve and keep my content fresh and current. We’ll see how it goes 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read somewhere that scent is the longest lasting of the senses. You may see a place after a number of years and not remember having been there. However, when you SMELL it, the memory will flood back instantly. I rarely use that sense in my writing and I think it’s time I changed that. Thank you for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve also heard this, Fred. It’s something I often fail to include in my writing as well. Which is slightly ironic because I think I used at least three examples of it in this post.

      One thing I try to do is write down areas of weakness in my own writing on Post It notes. So when I revise, I have a visual checklist to reference (I do this for clients as well). Mine say things like: senses, anchoring, description, dialogue attribution, beats, and tense. These tend to be areas I glaze over while I am writing and often need “beefed up” afterwards.

      Thanks for swinging by today and taking the time to both read and comment. Best of luck with your writing 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Personally, I find myself closing my eyes and imagining the senses, but if that feels wrong then I actively seek out the sense I’m going for, or the closest thing to it that I can get.
    It’s all good fun though, seeking out that sensory information to store. I do have one issue and that’s my very poor sense of smell. So smells are definitely made up for the most part.
    Keep it up Corey!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have the same issue! Explaining scents is tough. And I have one character in my current WIP (Shoch) who has an extra-keen sense of smell. I’m failing on playing that up, so i’ll have to find ways to weave it more into the story once it’s time for final edits.

      Liked by 2 people

    • “I need to understand what blood tastes like…punch me in the face as hard as you can.”

      This is where my mind went! Hah! I just woke up and am riding the caffeine dragon of glory right now, though. It’s interesting to hear you have to largely make up smell information. I wonder if this would be the same as someone who is visually impaired attempting to write description? This is something I might research a little because I’m suddenly very curious.

      Thanks for reading and leaving some thoughts today, Andrew. You rock 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thankfully, being a stupidly clumsy person, I’ve never had to have someone punch me in the face to know the slightly sweet, coppery tang of blood.
        Ahhh, the caffeine dragon. He’s a good friend.
        I’m not sure how visual impairment would affect description. Perhaps it differs a lot depending on whether the person has always had it or whether its the result of trauma or an illness?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve read that Homer (if he actually existed and wasn’t actually a bunch of poets and writers working together) was blind. I found some articles on how to make blogs easier for the blind to navigate, and a few places that offered creative writing classes for the blind, but didn’t find any articles addressing the question completely. I’ll have to look more into this.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I feel you on this. I notice in my own writing (and other peoples) that our mind can fixate on a single sense. Given many people write in chunks, I’ll notice on one day the author is fixating on smell and the next on taste. As you suggested, and rightly so, knowing is half the battle 🙂

      Thanks for stopping in and leaving some thoughts today. It’s always appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting to hear you say this because so many authors tend to do it the opposite way. Often leaving out sensory information, and descriptive elements, because they plan to come back through and beef this up later. This is what I do and if I opened up my current WiP you would find brackets with things like, [describe this more in RW], [improve the anchoring in this chapter], and [double check this dialogue].

      For me, I slow down tremendously sometimes when my brain switches from “get the story written mode,” to, “describe this scene very clearly mode.” It just goes to show no two authors are the same and there isn’t a “cookie cutter” approach to the writing process.

      Thanks for sharing your process with me, JR. I’m tremendously enjoying my first read-through of, The Legion Awakes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • M.L.S. Weech, who is my spirit writing animal/long-time friend, talks about burning through the first draft with haste. You simply write to get the main elements of the story down and don’t really take much time to address the fluff. Instead of a first draft, he calls it his discovery draft.

        I’ve tried to adopt that method, but tend to slow down to develop scenes and areas that really are interesting me at the time. In areas where I wasn’t really feeling it, I quickly toss in a bracket to remind myself to address it and move forward. Because of this, my initial manuscript ebbs and flows. So for me, I don’t really end up with a discovery draft or a first draft; it’s some sort of bizarre half-breed.

        Because of this inconsistency, and because I do my first read through on paper, all of my comments are handwritten. This prevents me from stopping the read through and losing the sense of flow and pacing. As I bust through I stop just for a few seconds to jot down notes. Then once that’s done I bust open the Word document and begin the actual process of rewriting.

        I wrote a post a month or so ago about the importance of editing before you wordprocess, which really breaks this down (and saves me from writing a novel-sized comment reply). 🙂

        I’m not saying this is the process for everyone, it’s just what I do. I hope this sort of answers your question, Dillon. Thanks for asking it!


  4. Loving the post! It is also needed, because when I write non poetry, I have issues with this. I typically get too into a scene and I “Drop a mountain of sensory overdrive on them” (that’s putting it modestly).

    I like the advice you gave to balance these things out. I also noticed your teaching with past posts is teaching me even better than I thought! I was reading this and was like oh yeah, I remember when he talked about this, and the information came flooding back like I was going to use it on a test in school!

    Also, I liked that these past examples you gave us on different subjects all came together to teach us something we knew about without even realizing it! EUREKA!

    I’m excited to say the least. Off topic: I feel silly. I was racking my brain the other day wondering if I ever used a herald proper in Black Winter…then I remembered not too long ago…DOY! The lady proclaiming the Aguryu’s coming. Xp

    I know wrong post but it bothers me when I don’t correct an error, however trivial.

    Cheers! ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I see people self-diagnose their problems it always makes me smile, because that (in my opinion) is a sign of a mature writer who is always looking to improve.

      I’m glad my references to past posts are helping. One of my goals was to begin laying and adding depth to my content. Hopefully I can start generating more concise posts and use past posts to add extra dimension and depth. This will be especially helpful to folks who are stopping by for the first time.

      As for you off topic point, how can we forget:



      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha! I try to improve my writing game where I can. I know I have a lot to learn yet. Poetry might be my A game but there is always room for improvement and in terms of non poetry, that is where I could def improve.

        I can tell a hell of a story outside of poetry but, I get too lost in it (it’s possible believe me) and often mess up. I’m aware that is what editing is for. Still, there is room to improve that game as well. I try my best to present the best possible story, with as few to no errors as possible, but I still mess up quite a bit. I’m working on that in the non poetry department.

        I’m rambling…oh yeah, and that crazy lady, I think I might have drank wine to forget about her, and it worked (for a time)…

        Cheers! ^_^


    • You’re welcome! And thank you for stopping in and reading today. Just remember (and you already know this), there is a balance when it comes to “show, don’t tell.” I linked an article by North of Andover into that original blog post and he does an excellent (and humorous) job of emphasizing balance.

      Thanks again for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I generally fail at anything but the most basic sensory input. (And, like Idiot in Tin Foil, I have very little sense of smell, so that one is especially tough.) This post is a great reminder for me to keep layering in that sensory input come final edits . . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Most of it ended up on the floor, but it was still fun. He tried eating some spiral veggie pasta today. It was a mess…

      Thanks for swinging in today 😀


  6. Sensory details can be massive headaches, especially when you consider that they usually leave your perception as easily as they come. It’s like you have to achieve some weird balance between purple and beige prose, a concise description that gives a vivid image at the same time.

    And this is why Writer’s Block is a thing…


  7. Pingback: A Setting Writing Checklist « Quintessential Editor

  8. Pingback: What is Deep POV? (Spoiler: It’s “Show Don’t Tell”) « Quintessential Editor

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