An exercise to help you learn to write with sensory details.

Photo by Solstice Hannan on Unsplash

Sensory writing involves (surprise, surprise) bringing all five of your senses into your descriptions. It’s an important part of drawing your reader in, no matter what it is you’re producing.

Well done sensory detail grabs your readers by the . . . nose. Or eyes. Or ears. Or tongue. Or their whole body. It drags them into the story (fiction or nonfiction) and puts them into it.

Pretty much every type of writing depends on the writer being able to call on the readers five senses. In other words, it’s far less about your senses and more about theirs.

This is where writers sometimes struggle, because the touch, taste, smell, sound, sight of the thing is already in their head. Getting it out of our heads and onto the page, so that it can get into our readers heads? That’s the thing.

But to engage their senses, you need to engage yours.

So, today we’re going to walk through a set of exercises that will help you to be a more sensory writer. I’m going to complete these exercises for you, here in this blog post so that you have a good idea of what I’m talking about.

If you’d like to complete it yourself, get a fillable worksheet. It will have a whole new set of photos that you can practice with. That means you can do this whole thing twice!

Exercise One: Bread

Photo by Jude Infantini on Unsplash

The photo above is a nice loaf of homemade wheat bread. Fresh out of the oven. I love to use this example, because fresh bread is such a sensory experience.

You can do this with any picture, though. Choose a noun. Any noun. Then Google up a photo of that thing. Here are some ideas: doll, mountain, car, dog, friend, house. It really doesn’t matter. Just pick a word, Google it, then pick a photo.

My suggestion is to choose a photo that is clear and relatively uncluttered. mostly, just that thing. The noun.

So, take a few minutes and put each of your senses to work on this photo, one at a time. Here’s what I came up with.

What do you smell?

I smell melting butter, even though I don’t see it. I smell home. And Christmas, since the only time my mother ever baked bread was at Christmas. I smell soup, too, or maybe stew. What I might eat with fresh bread. The smell of fresh bread hits me mid-chest for some reason. It makes me breathe in deep and expand my lungs fully.

What do you taste?

Richness — because I would definitely put real butter on this bread. Butter isn’t in the picture, but it’s what comes to mind anyway. And maybe the sharp tang of a tart jam that hits me just behind my jaw. The taste of fresh bread is slow. Something to savor, not rush through.

What do you see?

A crisp crust, embedded with grains of wheat like freckles. Clean, uneven cuts that didn’t squash the soft insides of the loaf. A good knife must have been used. A deep color that brings to mind autumn and cooling weather. The smooth, warn surface of the cutting board. But also, my imagination kids in and I see my mother’s blue and white dishes and the big red pot I make soup in.

What do you hear?

The long, serrated knife breaking through the crust. The low hum that is impossible to stop the first bite. A knuckle knocking on the loaf to listen for hollowness. The seal on the oven door breaking. The rap of a hand against the cooled pan bottom, to release the bread onto the cutting board. The sharp inhale when the room fills with those smells after the first cut.

What do you feel?

A burnt tongue, when it’s impossible to wait for the first bite. Soft butter spreading over the soft insides of the bread, the knife just gliding over it. The crispness of the crust against my teeth.

Exercise Two: Just Words

Next, I just want you to look at each of the following five pictures and list words that relate both to it and to just one of your senses. Think of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Sight

Photo by Justin Snyder Photo on Unsplash Imagine that you’re in a restaurant and this is a table across the room. What do you see?

Nouns: Cell phone. Soup bowl. Girl. Boy. Artificial lights. Hand. Wood paneling. Fear. Concern. Worry. Surprise. Joy. Disinterest. Night. Late. Polka dots. Dark hair. Dressed nice. Girl next door.

Verbs: Gasping. Reading. Eating. Crying. Processing.

Adjectives: Pretty. Young.

Taste

Photo by Manuel Meurisse on Unsplash Imagine that you’re sitting by a fire on the beach, alone with one other person. What do you taste?

Nouns: Sand. Smoke. Marshmallows. Remembered kisses. Salt. Beer. Sunblock. Fish.

Verbs: Swallow. Slide.

Adjectives: Dry. Sweet. Yeasty. Intense. Nostalgic. Slow.

Sound

Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash Imagine that you’re on the Maid of the Mist, floating this close to Niagra Falls. What do you hear?

Nouns: Roar. Joy. Fear. Engine. An tour guide. History. Children. Tourists. Wonder.

Verbs: Screaming. Talking. Laughing. Vomiting (that would be me and my seasick self.) Engulfing. Surrounding.

Adjectives: Fast. Powerful. Wet. Scary. Intense.

Smell

Photo by Marcos Nieto on Unsplash Imagine that you’re standing on the street in Las Vegas at sunset just after a short instense burst of rain. What does it smell like?

I chose this picture because I want you to see how your own experiences influence your sensory writing. I grew up in Las Vegas. My experiences of the smells there might be very different from yours, especially if you’re mostly using your imagination.

Nouns: People. Cars. Good food. Alcohol. Slightly metallic. Surprisingly clean. Sage, even on the Strip. Petrichor. Occassional sharp, bad odor from another person. Occasional nice smell of another person. Desperation (cheap beer, unwashed body, buffet food.) Humanity.

Verbs: Enticing. Exciting. Promising. Inviting.

Adjectives: Fresh. Clean. Dry. Surprising. Fleeting (for the rain smell.)

Touch

Photo by Anastasia Vityukova on Unsplash Imagine this hug. What does it physically feel like?

Nouns: Comfort. Home. Friendship. Family. Safe. Love.

Verbs: Letting go. Relaxing. Absorbing. Shoring up.

Adjectives: Protective. Sweet. Sure. Tired. Secure.

Exercise Three: Get Some Practice

Now, go back to the five photos I posted here and work on Exercise One for all of them. Just write, in sentence form, what you see, smell, taste, hear, and feel. Let yourself go deep into the photo. Imagine what’s beyond the frame. What might be coming next. What already happened.

Those photos are snapshots and a snapshot is just a scene. Imagine a character somewhere in the vacinity — either experiencing what’s happening or observing it from the outside.

I’m not going to do that for each of these five photos, because this post is already crazy long. But go back and look at the bread exercise and you’ll see what I mean.

What do you smell? What do you see? What do you hear? What do you taste? What do you feel? For each photo.

Exercise Four: Put it All Together

Now, just take a look one more time at each photo. Use all the sensory input you came up with in exercises two and three, and write a paragraph. Bring in all five senses.

I wrote these on the fly. This doesn’t have to be complicated or perfect. Just get what you’re sensing out on the page.

Photo #1

Photo by Justin Snyder Photo on Unsplash

This restaurant definitely does not make homemade soup. I taste the can my dinner came out of. It was probably processed in 2002. Everything in this diner smells overcooked. Everything and every body. It’s two in the morning and the tables around me are ringing with the remnants of a good night. Except hers. She’s dressed more conservatively than any other woman in the place. I’m not even sure if she is a woman, she looks so young with her waterfall of dark hair and the easy way she holds her cell phone. Maybe she’s a girl. It’s her gasp that draws my attention. Something’s happened. I don’t know her and I have no reason to respond to her fear. The boy — definitely, he’s a boy — sitting across from her doesn’t seem to notice. But it’s everything I can do to keep it from propelling me to my feet.

Photo #2

Photo by Manuel Meurisse on Unsplash

I smell the memory of burned, sweet scent of toasted marshmallows and the very real, yeasty tang of my third beer. My head swims a little, which fits because I’m water logged and tired. There’s nostalgia in the taste of the salty air. I smell him — sweaty, but healthy and clean, too. I taste our last kiss and I wish he’d kiss me again, so this fight will end. But I hear the last hurtful thing he said ringing in my ears, still. And the crackle of the fire keeps me on my side of the sand. Close because it’s cold and I want to be warm. Not because he’s on the other side of it. He watches the ship out on the lake like he wishes he were on it, instead of here with me.

Photo #3

Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

My stomach protests as we get closer to the falls. The sheer volume of mist rising from the bottom is astonishing. Almost as stunning as the wide, rushing roar of water falling from above us. I barely register the beauty though, because the boat bumps and rolls as the water gets choppier the closer the captain brings us and my whole body protests. All around me children laugh and scream and their adults gasp in wonder. I tuck myself as tight into a corner of the open boat as I possibly can and look over the edge at the water. It’s clear and even though it’s August, I know that if I fell in the cold would sting my skin. Someone speaks into a mircophone, their voice loud and tinny, and I register some history of the falls. Bile burns the back of my throat and I tilt my face up to the cool mist. The droplets soothe me a little.

Photo #4

Photo by Marcos Nieto on Unsplash

The street fills, like magic, as the sun starts to set. Hot, dry air blows away the last of a surprise rain storm. The whole thing only lasted ten minutes, but it’s left the streets clean and glimmery and the delicious earthy smell of rain that falls so rarely, it’s like magic when it happens. The air is always clean here, but it’s clearer now. The sky is impossibly big, wide open — the exact opposite of what the open casino doors promise. Music, people, the promise of luck, the scent of food from a thousand places, all poor through those broad doors.

Photo #5

Photo by Anastasia Vityukova on Unsplash

Her heart is broken and the best I can do is open my arms and offer some kind of comfort. I know her well enough to know that human touch will ground her and bring her back to herself. You’ll get through this, I whisper. The breeze steals my words and I’m not sure she hears them, but I hope she feels them anyway. She smells like a long day. There’s a rawness to her voice that breaks my heart. A little louder this time: it’s okay. You’ll be okay. I’m here.

That’s it!

Hopefully, this exercise got you into the practice of engaging your own senses. But also? It was designed to make you see how important it is to write those details in such a way that they engage your readers senses, which is so much more important.

If you enjoyed this exericse, don’t forget you can download a worksheet here.