Sensory Imagery: Writing That Sells

sensory imagerySensory imagery draws on our senses of touch, taste, smell sight and sound to create a vivid and evocative picture in the mind of the reader. It is the hallmark of successful writers and poets, and it has been for centuries. If you can master these techniques, your writing will stand out from the rest of the slush pile. If you’re looking to take your writing to the next level, consider this Novel Writing Workshop. In the meantime, learn the ins and outs of using sensory imagery to make your manuscript the best it can be.

To understand how well sensory imagery can work, consider the difference between these two statements:

  • He was hairy.
  • His pelt of charcoal woolen hairs brimmed out of his crisp starched lab coat.

Obviously, the second phrase renders the character in more vivid detail. In novel writing, vividness is primary. Readers have a much more difficult time connecting to a character whom they are unable to visualize. Once you have a visual for your character, imagine what they would be hearing, smelling, tasting or touching. If he’s a scientist in a laboratory, notice how the scent of the room changes your perception of that space and that man:

  • His nose registered the scent of the anti-microbial cleanser—a scent to which he was normally immune.
  • The piercingly sweet odor of urine wafted through his nostrils.
  • The humid stench of sulfur made his eyes water.

Knowing the smell dictates whether the setting is in a doctor’s office, a veterinary hospital, or a chemistry lab. It reveals much more than if we had just described “white, sterile walls.”

Finding Inspiration

If you’re unsure of how to employ sensory imagery well, go to your favorite novel and highlight how your favorite author uses the senses to dictate the mood. Here’s William Golding in Lord of the Flies: “A bird, a vision of red and yellow, flashed upwards with a witch-like cry; and this cry was echoed by another.” Phew! That’s how it’s done. The first page of his book will teach you all you need to know about picking active, unique verbs and unconventional parallels to make your work sing. Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and Shelley were also masters of sensory imagery. Learn how to tap into these sensory imagery skills with Understanding Romantic Poetry. For more practical advice for how to hone your writing skills, check out these Writer’s Tips.

Choosing the Right Words

Of course, it’s not enough just to describe your setting and characters in vivid detail. Whenever possible, you want to choose adjectives, metaphors and similes that complement the mood of your story. In A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin describes his character with this phrase: “slender as a knife.” Of course, he could have said any number of things to describe his character: “slender as a toothpick,” “skinny as a stray cat,” or “slim as a stick.” But he didn’t. He chose an item that was relevant and pertinent to his setting—a knife. In doing so, he subtly reminds us that the fantasy world he has created is a dangerous one. When you’re choosing between adjectives and metaphors, choose one that reinforces the mood and tone of your story.

Metaphor and Simile

A good metaphor or simile is half the reason people read. It’s your chance to give the audience an insight into the human experience—an analogy or connection they wouldn’t otherwise have made. Most people think of depression as dark and debilitating. Can you invert it or make it ironic? In what way is depression like a sunny day? Can you exaggerate it? Can you make it new? Can you bring some new perspective to the way we think about the mundane? That’s your goal. Metaphors and similes make your depictions precise: “She wiggled rather than walked, as if she’d been learning from the ducks at the park.”

Consider the difference between:

  • “He was truly unremarkable.”
  • “He went through life unnoticed—like the blood coursing in our veins.”

What does that suggest? Might you spend a moment to think about the blood in your body? Here we’re employing the sensation of touch (and the lightness of it) to create a deeper meaning of taking things for granted. The next time you’re feeling stuck, see if you can tap into one of the senses to make your writing stand out. If you need help just getting the words down, check out this course on how to Bust Writer’s Block.

Beyond Adjectives

Check any list of editor’s tips for new writers, and you’ll find one of the hallmarks of a novice writer is to add superfluous adjectives. A “cloudy blue sky” doesn’t tell us much about the sky that we don’t already know. There’s a difference between “he was very proud” and “his heart brimmed with pride.” To be effective with your use of sensory imagery, it’s important to limit your use of adjectives and instead attempt to employ exactly the right verb and exactly the right noun. Again let’s look at the masters like William Golding: “The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon…his hair was plastered to his forehead.” See how effective it is to use words like ‘pick’ and ‘plastered’ instead of something like ‘he walked cautiously’ and ‘it was very hot?’

The Toolkit

When working with sensory imagery, it can help to employ the time tested rhetorical tropes that have been used for centuries to help create memorable prose. Here are a few of the most common and most powerful strategies for enhancing your point.

  • Anaphora—The use of repetition to emphasize a point: “He knew they never offered to help with the medical bills. He knew they had plenty of money. He knew it only made him angry to think about it.”
  • Hyperbole—The use exaggeration to bring home a point. “The groceries weighed a ton.”
  • Understatement—Deliberately treating something of critical importance with little emphasis. “The birth was rather uncomfortable.”
  • Idioms—A common expression or turn of phrase. [While most writers shun the use of idioms or cliché (i.e. the elephant in the room), there’s nothing wrong with subbing out one part of a familiar idiom to make a new idea. “Stop and smell the elephant in the room.”]
  • Personification—Giving an inanimate object the qualities of something human. “The lamp breathed life into the parlor.”
  • Synesthesia—Describing one sensory experience in terms of another. “The mood was orange,” “His voice was red with rage.”
  • Syllepsis/Zeugma—Using the verb of a phrase to apply to two distinct components of that phrase even though it only logically applies to one: “He switched off the light and his love for Erica.”
  • Metonymy—Describing a whole by only a part (i.e. using a finger to represent the body.)

If you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, consider this course on Advanced Writing Strategies for Immediate Improvement.

When to Use What

It’s important to consider which sense will be more fitting for describing a given element in your scene. Sometimes you might like to conjure up all the senses, sometimes just one. When you’re trying to convey setting, the sense of smell is actually our first perception of a new locale. It can also be relevant if we’re in close quarters with another character. Scent is a good way to introduce a place or person, precisely because it’s the sense most closely related to memory. As we get further in, we might experience touch, but it’s unlikely that touch would be our first connection with either a person or a place. Sound determines whether we perceive a dark alley as foreboding or intriguingly full of nightlife. Taste can determine cultural attitudes or intimacy. Does a rich person experience a raw oyster in a different way than someone who’s poor? If so, that difference in taste can reinforce differences in opportunities, values, etc. Clarity is what counts. If you’re ideas are being held back by shoddy grammar, consider this Grammar Booster or just get the kick in the pants you need to finish your book once and for all.

By employing strong sensory imagery, your work will naturally begin to show rather than tell. We experience life through our senses, so your writing must also invoke the senses to come alive. Once you’ve successfully learned how to do that, you’re ready to move on and Write the Book You Have Inside You.

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