Just Write

Sensory Detail

Readers want to see the action and feel emotions. Readers want to be transported into other worlds. In a way, we want magical things to happen when we read: to be carried away, transformed. Writers can achieve these seemingly wondrous events by using sensory detail in writing.

When including sensory detail, think of body parts: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and some add a sixth sense: mind.

Verbs that describe the senses: see/sight, hear/sound/auditory, smell, taste, feel/touch, intuit.

The sixth sense can be described as telepathy, intuition, perception, imagination. . . those traits that use the mind to create and understand. Some people believe the sixth sense is the ability to problem solve; using our minds to read and interpret signals, to pick up or sense energy.

You can access any of these sensory details in your writers tool kit to create vivid and memorable writing.

For the next few weeks, we will explore sensory detail on The Write Spot Blog.

Sight. . . Seeing . . . is perhaps the most common sensory detail to write about. It’s easy to describe physical details: blue eyes, brown hair. So, how about going a little deeper? Perhaps more specific, or unusual. . . something the reader isn’t expecting, but believable. Something to make the reader sit up and take notice:

She had bright auburn hair, pink cheeks, and wore crimson fingernail polish. She also wore high-heeled pumps and a red-and-white-striped dress. She looked and smelled like a peppermint drop. —To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

You can use simile to create memorable details, like Sandra Cisneros does in Caramelo:

Doubt begins like a thin crack in a porcelain plate. Very fine, like a strand of hair, almost not there. Wedged in between the pages of the sports section, in the satin puckered side-pocket of his valise, next to a crumpled bag of pumpkin seeds, a sepia-colored photo pasted on thick cardboard crudely cut down the center.

 Do you see the crack in the plate?

There is also texture in this excerpt: porcelain, the fine strand of hair.

With the mention of “sports section”. . . can you see the newsprint and feel the weight of the newspaper?

The puckered side-pocket invites a visual image as well as texture. Can you “see” (imagine) the color of the satin side-pocket even though it’s not mentioned?

Being specific with details adds to the ability of the reader to see the activity/action (scene).

Cisneros could have written “a crumpled bag of chips,” but that’s vague. I bet you can feel that crumpled bag and maybe you can hear it. You can probably see the pumpkin seeds. Perhaps you salivate at the thought of what the pumpkin seeds taste like.

Even if you have never seen a sepia-colored photo pasted on thick cardboard, you can imagine it. You can see this specific color (sepia) and feel the texture of the cardboard. In your mind’s eye, you might even imagine who is in the photo.

Cisneros covered all the senses: sight, sound, taste, feel, and if you are extraordinarily sensitive, you might smell the salt in the seeds, or you might smell the musty valise, you might even imagine/smell the paste that was used to stick the photo onto the cardboard. I think she includes the intuitive sense with the word “doubt” and “wedged” (what does this hint or say to you?) and the cut cardboard (perhaps cutting someone out of the photo?).

Simile — A simile is a figure of speech that compares unlike things by using the words like or as:

Doubt begins like a thin crack in a porcelain plate. Very fine, like a strand of hair . . .

Your turn: Notice sensory detail in what you are reading. Post your findings here, on The Write Spot Blog.  And try using sensory detail in your writing.  Just Write!

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8 comments

  1. justinefos

    August 2, 2015:

    Mt. Morris, Wautoma, WI
    4:27pm

    A ‘911 reverse call’ from the State Emergency Weather Forecasting Service warned of “Severe Thunderstorms in the area of Wautoma. Expect gusts of seventy mile an hour winds.”

    The call information was not ‘news’ to us, winds had already started, and the rain began at 4:20 pm. We had been watching the large thunderheads, and hearing the thunder. Oh, yes, we were expecting rain…it had already started!

    The rains began in huge raindrops pounding down from the clouds, immediately soaking the driveway. Tall grasses in the center of the circular driveway began to be beaten down by the force of the huge drops, falling harder AND FASTER than the usual summer rain. I checked to see where my husband, David, was. No worries. He had opened the garage door and set up some camping chairs, and was sitting down and watching the show. He grew up with these kinds of storms. He and his Dad used to watch all the Lightening Shows, and listen to the thunder from just inside the open garage door where he lived as a kid. Usually from that place, we were well sheltered. Today the size of the drops caused splashing and splattering led to us moving our chairs away from the door.

    Hail started falling at 4:25…quickly becoming golf ball size. The house sounded as if it was being pelted by large rocks. The wind was whipping the trees violently. David had done a walk around before the rain started, to just check out the trees as they were then. After the onslaught of rain hail and wind, all of our trees seem to have held up.

    The temperature, which was at 85 degrees when the storm hit, had fallen to 58 degrees within 10 minutes.

    Now, at 4:35 pm, the stillness is profound. The rain stopped, and the fury of that particular cell of the storm has moved on. Due to the large number of golf ball sized hail laying on ground, the yard took on the look of a far end of a golfer’s driving range. Golf ball sized hail stones lay everywhere.

    Redwing black birds could be heard chirping at each other, as if taking roll call. It appeared they had spent the heaviest part of the storm down on the ground in the meadow just a few yards from the birdfeeders.

    The first birds back at the feeders were two hummingbirds behaving as if they were dogfighting like aircraft in a war. They did not get to the feeder, but buzzed off continuing their fight. Quickly, (don’t they do everything quickly?) one of them returned taking several long sips from the feeder. They were both a beautiful, smaller than the adults, their backs an iridescent green, which might lead one to conclude they were siblings, which in-turn helps explain why they were fighting. Siblings of all kinds get into scraps, even hummingbirds. Scientifically, it probably has something to do with who was the Alpha Male—it’s hard to tell from a window view, and I love to anthropomorphize. No matter, I love to see them because it brings up memories of spending time at my mother’s place in San Felipe, Mexico.

    Her ‘Casa’ was in a mobile home park with small, mature trees, Hummingbirds in great numbers came each year to build their tiny nests in the smaller trees. Being a tall person, I was able to peek into some of the nests to see their tiny eggs. The parents did not seem to mind us, as if we had become just part of the landscape. My mother always loved hummers, and always made sure they had a supply of fresh sugar water in their feeders. During one of my visits there, I found a tiny bristly looking baby hummer on the ground. I hesitated to touch it because I had always been told that the parents will not care for a baby bird if it smells like a human has touched it. I went to find something, anything to use as a scoop for a baby bird. New pieces of typing paper folded into a scoop work beautifully. Later in the afternoon I went back to see if the parent was caring for the baby. It doesn’t take much to make me happy.

    The flock of Redwings came back to the pine tree in the middle of the front yard. Blue Jays have flown in to check if the multiple birdfeeders were still intact, and a ‘Hairy Woodpecker’ was digging into the bottom of a feeder of wild-bird seed, tossing seeds everywhere, as if he just hasn’t seen what he wants.

    More and more birds are flying into the front yard. A young Oriole has just arrived on the Oriole feeder. Being a non-Wisconsinite, I didn’t know that Orioles liked to feed on the same kind of sweet solution that hummingbirds do. Occasionally an Oriole will land on the Hummingbird feeder and attempt to get its beak inside, to no avail. The Oriole feeder has a large clear plastic bottle on top of an orange colored base that had the look of a flying saucer. Around the base of the orange feeder are bird perches; enough for 4 birds, or more if they are ‘into’ cuddling. It is amazing to me to see how human-like the bird’s behaviors, especially with the younger birds. One bird will land on a feeder intended for four birds. If another chooses to land on the same feeder, bird number one will peck at the new comer with the intent of chasing the second bird away. This can become quite a battle ending with both of them flying away. Occasionally both birds will decide it’s OK to have a lunch/snacking companion, and even a third will show up without any fussing. It is so like young humans. One of the very young Orioles is afraid of the big orange Oriole feeder. The orange is a color that attracts a young female Oriole yesterday and today. She has made multiple missed approaches and instead, landed in one of the bushes instead.

    Meanwhile, back to the storm evaluation: Our front yard is now bathed in sunlight again, though loud thunder is still sounding from very dark Thunderheads nearby that are displaying cloud-to-cloud lightening and thunder. The sound is much like a large number of Taiko Drummers all drumming in waves of crescendos all across the sky. A young female cardinal has ventured onto the same seed feeder on which the woodpecker was ‘shopping.’ House finches have shown up on the smaller feeders. Sir Cardinal is hunting for his sunflower seeds that were scattered on the pile of wood chunks. Bird life is back to normal. All the bird families are out at the same time as if throwing a celebration of surviving the violent and dangerous storm, including Sir and Lady Cardinal, and their young female. The squirrels appear last, as if waiting to make sure the birds would be OK, That being so, then so would they.

    All that, in 45 minutes.
    © M. Justine Foster
    August 3, 2015

    1. mcullen Post author

      Great writing with sensory detail, Justine. My favorite line,probably because of the humor and being picturesque, “the yard took on the look of a far end of a golfer’s driving range.” I enjoyed your very descriptive writing.

  2. Ke11y

    My neighbor dropped by to ask if I had baking powder, as she had forgotten to replenish her own when last in town. It’s a ruse, I know.

    Last week another neighbor knocked asking if I had pruning shears. It’s been this way for almost a year. Grace had all the time in the world for most people, but especially our neighbors. So each week, sometimes twice a week, there’s a knock at the door. I search the cupboard for baking powder while the neighbor admired the paintings on the kitchen wall and asked, “Did you paint them yourself?” I suppose it’s just a kindness to take an interest in my old, dusty art. My drawings, for they all stem from drawings, are a legacy of the long and colorful life I’ve led.

    I do believe I’ve become my neighbors’ sweet but broken, old man. Strange as I never had that much to do with any of them, preferring to be in the garden and not gossip over a cup of tea. Of course, yes, things have changed. I do wonder sometimes if they are secretly disgusted by the array of cobwebs they must pass on the way to my kitchen, the hallway bereft of flowers. I suppose most people get rid of cobwebs as soon as they notice them, but when my neighbors have left, I look at them and wonder if she will come back to clear them away. I let them spin on the ceiling and between my plants, thirsting for water, and even against the portrait I’ve placed on my desk. I can see the attraction. The lucky woman will be sixty-eight forever.

    After the neighbor had left, I went through to play my piano. I do it to remember her. It’s how I reach her so that she understands where I am and that I’m still alive. There’s a sparkle on the lid of the Steinway like it was polished there, and it grows brighter and even hums a little when I play. I know it’s her. It’s her heart. It’s the one object in the house I do not allow the spiders to touch.

    Well, it was just a sudden pain, fleeting. Everything was fine for a while. Then the pain altered in length or width, but that is to be expected. I remember sitting at the piano and suddenly falling forward, my head resting on the lid. Then I heard her speak, “I’m really happy you have nothing more to do than rest on top of the piano, Frank.” She said. The pain had gone. Grace, this time stayed with me.

    1. mcullen Post author

      Some people have a knack, a gift, for writing. That’s you, Kelly. You grace these pages with your writing that grabs our attention and doesn’t let go until the very end. Your writing is complete with colorful scenes, interesting characters. . . a trouble, a problem and often a surprise ending. Please. . . please . . .keep writing, posting and submitting!

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