Think back to a recent personal experience that you remember well. As you bring it to mind, notice the sensory details you recall: the things you see and hear; maybe the physical feelings, for some people even tastes and smells.
Most of us are able to recreate our previous experiences in our mind’s eye and it’s these sensory memories that help us bring the event back to life. In just the same way, when we use sensory words in our fiction it helps our readers experience the world we’ve created by evoking their own senses.
In this guide I will explain what sensory language is, how to use it effectively in your storytelling, and provide some useful sensory language examples to get you started.
What Is Sensory Language?
Sensory language in literature refers to words and descriptions that relate to the five senses. A writer uses these descriptors to help the reader:
- See what is happening in their mind’s eye
- Imagine the way speech is delivered and the background sounds
- Understand the physical sensations of texture, touch and movement
- Evoke tastes and smells
In short, sensory language helps our readers experience scenes, events, descriptions or settings in a richer way – to live through the senses. A story with sensory language evokes feelings in our readers and takes them on an emotional journey.
Sensory language is commonly used in creative writing – short fiction, poetry, plays and novels – to invoke mental images and engage readers. However, descriptors of the five senses are also commonly found in a range of texts:
- Advertising and marketing copy – ‘Mouth-watering freshly baked cakes’ (rather than just ‘Cakes’)
- Newspaper/magazine articles and headlines – ‘Shock new probe as PM rips up plans’ (Rather than ‘Investigation as plans change’)
- Emails and business writing – ‘Hope you’re not rushed off your feet’ (vs ‘Hope you’re not too busy’)
- ‘How to’ guides and course descriptions – ‘Wrestle those writing demons to the ground’ (vs ‘Be a more confident writer’)
- Blog posts titles – ‘Play to win and crush the opposition!’ (vs ‘Tips on how to be successful’)
Examples of Sensory Words
To help develop a sensory vocabulary think about the different ways in which you experience the senses. Let’s take each sense in turn and look at contrasts to develop a list of sensory adjectives. Here are examples to get you started:
- Visual – words relating to how we see things. They relate to things like colour, shape, size, angle, and appearance. How will you use them to paint a vivid picture?
- Brightness: Light/bright/shiny/sparkly or dark/dim/dull/tarnished
- Size: Large/enormous/immense/gigantic or tiny/small/miniature/little
- Colour density: Vivid/day-glo/fluorescent or pale/washed-out/sepia
- Auditory – words relating to sounds and how we hear them. You can use these to make your writing shout loudly or whisper a quiet hint.
- Volume: Loud/deafening/booming or quiet/whispering/rustling
- Pitch: Shrill/high-pitched/falsetto/piercing or deep/low-pitched/baritone/bass
- Rhythm: Repetitive/metronome/regular or varying/intermittent/erratic
- Tactile – Words relating to how we experience touch or the feel of things through our skin. You might choose to soothe with a light touch or poke and cajole to action.
- Texture: Downy/soft/feathery or abrasive/coarse/rough
- Pressure: Light/gentle/delicate or heavy/harsh/dense
- Temperature: Burning/scalding/itching or freezing/icy/soothing
- Gustatory – words relating to taste. You might like writing which is crisp and lean or spiced up with crunchy descriptions.
- Sweet vs sour: sugary/saccharine/sickly or tart/unsweetened
- Flavoursome vs bland: meaty/umami/spicy/herby vs mild/bland/tasteless
- Texture: lean/crisp/crusty or oily/greasy/buttery
- Olfactory – words relating to how we experience smells. How about kicking up a stink or perfuming your text with sweet delicate imagery?
- Scent: Floral/aromatic/fragrant or odourless/neutral/unscented
- Strength: Stinky/pungent/over-powering or insipid/weak/airy
- Freshness: Musty/stale/decayed or paint-fresh/clean/hygienic
There are two other types of sensory words we can use:
- Kinaesthetic – words relating to how we move and our internal sensations. Maybe you’re edging into this or leaping in with both feet.
- Still/balanced/steady or fidgeting/precarious/wobbly
- Crawling/sliding/shuffling or jumping/running/rushing
- Fluttering/buzzing/churning or grounded/centred/soothing or stabbing/aching/sharp/tingling
- Emotional – words relating to our mood and the way we feel. Hopefully you feel curious and energised to have a go, even if a little uncertain!
- Confident/brave/assured or ill at ease/dubious/indecisive
- Depressed/low/down or happy/upbeat/jolly or edgy/anxious/restless
- Mellow/chilled/calm or agitated/energised/hyper
The choice of sensory words impacts the reader’s perspective. Consider the contrast in the following three examples:
‘The young woman is both intelligent and kind.’
This is a clear straightforward description but is lacking any colour as it doesn’t engage our senses.
‘The woman is around twenty; her tongue cutting, her brain sharp, her heart hard.’
Here we have more of a sense of the woman; the choice of words paint her in a negative light.
‘She’s an old soul with young eyes, a vintage heart, and a beautiful mind.’Nicole Lyons
This quote from author and poet, Nicole Lyons, is a more poetic description. This time we have a positive impression of the woman.
How to Use Sensory Words in Your Writing
Let’s take a simple scene and consider how we can enliven it with sensory language examples. Imagine a woman is about to enter a restaurant to meet a friend.
- She’s outside the restaurant looking in through a glass panel in the door. What does she see? Tell us what type of establishment is it? What does the restaurant look like? How is it decorated? What fabrics, furnishing, wallpaper, colours? How many tables, diners and staff?
- She steps forward into the room. Take us there so we experience what she hears. Is it noisy or quiet? Can she hear snatches of conversations, if so, what is said and how? What background noises can she hear?
- She spots her friend across the room. What does she feel? What sensation does she feel inside and where does she feel it? What is her emotional reaction? How does she move as she walks across the room?
- The two friends hug. Does she smell anything? Is her friend wearing perfume? What does the room smell of and does she like it or not? Can she smell the food served to other diners?
- Seated at the table they eat their food. What does she taste? What are the flavours? What texture does the food have?
If we strip out all the sensory language, we have something akin to stage directions:
‘A woman is about to enter a restaurant to meet her friend. She’s outside the restaurant looking in through a glass panel in the door. She steps forward into the room. She spots her friend across the room. The two friends hug. Seated at the table they eat their food.’
This would be described as ‘under written’: there is nothing to help us imagine the scene in our mind’s eye, all we have are a series of actions.
However, if we include every minute detail in our sensory language the passage becomes clogged. It becomes too busy and we long for something to happen. This is referred to as ‘overwritten’. The key is to help the reader to use sensory language to notice and experience what the character(s) would see, hear, feel etc.
This will depend on what you are trying to convey in the scene.
If the woman is anxious about the meeting she may focus on different things to if she is excited about seeing her friend again. For example, she may notice what people are wearing and feel underdressed or overdressed, which would heighten her anxiety; you may want to describe how she loathes the type of food on the menu, how the smells make her feel sick, and the churning in her stomach when she can’t see her friend in the crowded room.
However, if she is excited, her focus may only be on her friend. She may ignore the other people and the restaurant setting as she rushes across the room to join them.
Play around with the same scene by using different sensory examples to convey the character’s state of mind in each writing example, then note how it changes the story each time.
Examples of Sensory Writing
A great way to learn about sensory imagery is to examine sensory language examples from literature. These first two are from Victorian literature.
‘I heard the rain still beating continuously on the staircase window, and the wind howling in the grove behind the hall; I grew by degrees cold as a stone, and then my courage sank.’Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
Bronte’s use of sound (beating continuously, howling), and temperature (cold as a stone) help us to feel the character’s dark emotional mood.
‘Facing the window, in the chair of dignity, sat a man about forty years of age; of heavy frame, large features and a commanding voice; his general build being rather coarse and compact… When he indulged in an occasional loud laugh at some remark among the guests his mouth parted so far back as to show the rays of the chandelier a full score or more of the two-and-thirty sound white teeth that he obviously still could boast of.’
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (1902)
Hardy’s description paints a vivid picture of the man and his character. His confidence and presence are clearly conveyed (heavy, large, commanding, loud) so we can both hear and see him in our mind’s eye.
Here are three modern examples of sensory writing which include simile and metaphor:
‘…a helicopter bladed the sky in the hills outside Hebron. He had never seen a machine quite like it before. The soldiers, when they leapt out, looked to him like green insects, crouching and running up the hillside, fabulous with fear. His mother ran down from their home in the hillside caved, grabbed his sleeve, shooed him home along the rocky path.’
Apeirogon by Colum McCann (2020)
McCann conveys the awe of the child as he watches the way the soldiers move up the hillside (like green insects, crouching and running, fabulous with fear). Then his mother’s urgency conveyed by the way she runs down, grabs and shoos him. We are there, feeling the tension of the mother and soldiers and the wonder of the child watching.
‘I lift the corners of the first sheet; dust and the smell of camphor the papers have absorbed over the years swirl up and taunt my nose.’
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (2012)
Eng uses the word ‘taunt’ in an unusual way to highlight the unpleasantness of the dust and camphor smells.
‘…in my dreams I see Dharsi’s beautiful face and some other unknown one next to it. A frog, not transforming into a prince but shape-shifting into something frightening. The metallic taste of these dreams tinges my mornings like a flavor stirred into my coffee.’
What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera
Munaweera gives her dreams a ‘metallic taste’ that lasts into the next day, the person lying next to Dharsi is seen as a shape-shifting frog. Her descriptions apply both sensory language and metaphor to rich effect.
Make Sense of Your Writing
Look out for examples of good sensory language as you’re reading and consider where the author has focused the reader’s attention and how they’ve enriched their descriptions.
What impact does this have on your engagement with the text? What helps draw you into the passage and when is the sensory description too much ‘clutter’?
Notice the different styles in books you enjoy versus those you set aside. So settle down comfortably, wrap up warm, keep your eyes and ears open as you sniff out those examples and get a taste for what rings your bell, lights your fire, and gets your metaphorical taste buds tingling!