Minimum length: a paragraph
Sensory detail (those details that come to you through your senses) makes description come alive. They make the situation being described more vivid and immediate, as if the reader were experiencing it along with you, the author who created it in writing for them. You cannot always include all five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell) in every piece of descriptive writing, but you should always try to. As Monica Wood says in her book, Description, “Sensory details invite readers to take your character’s side, to understand what is happening to him, to empathize with his every hope and fear. These details bring breadth and depth to character and setting, informing your readers in ways that are surprising, revealing, and a pleasure to read” (13).
Sight: dappled shadows of sun-filtered leaves; lichen-speckled bark; emerald-green sprouts of new grass
Sound: the cheeky scolding of a squirrel; a boy’s soft whistle as he cut through a yard; the sultry call of a cardinal to its mate
Smell: the odor of ammonia from a hot compost pile; fresh corn, newly husked; the crisp aroma of line-dried sheets
Touch: the prickle of a lawn in drought beneath your feet; the silky smoothness of a rabbit’s fur; the foot-scorching heat of asphalt in August
Taste: the cool pucker of lemonade; sweet cherry tomatoes plucked from the vine; the bitterness of lettuce gone by
The task of the writer of descriptive prose is not to tell the reader about these details, but to make him or her see them by slipping bits and pieces of them into the writing through the careful use of adjectives and figurative language (similes & metaphors). As with any device of writing, there is a fine line between effectiveness and overkill, so don’t rely too heavily on this or any other technique of writing but do keep sensory details in mind as you attempt descriptive writing.
Write a scene:
- Choose an experience that took fifteen minutes or less.
- Write down only what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt (as in touched).
- Write at least one page.
A scene can be any type of experience, whether sad, funny, or scary; it can be significant or commonplace.
Bernays, Anne & Pamela Painter. What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.