A Sensory World, Part 2


This fact is like wallpaper: easy to ignore because it’s everywhere. But I’ll say it again. Recognizing the value of sensory experience can make a huge difference in your writing–the same difference, for instance, as there is between these two sentences:

I bought some popcorn and found a seat, then waited eagerly for the movie to start.

I sank into the velvet-upholstered seat and crunched a handful of buttery popcorn.

You read about anticipation in the first sentence; in the second, you can taste it. Which is better? Last month I mentioned that we gather information through the senses. But we can also communicate information by making smart use of sensory impressions. “Velvet upholstery” and “buttery popcorn” are like windows opened between my experience and yours. If you’ve ever entered a movie theater, stopped by the snack bar for some of that intense over-salted yellow popcorn, and dropped into one of those squeaky cushiony seats in front of a wide gray screen, you’re right there with me.

Compare these two descriptive paragraphs:

The gym at Franklin Pierce Middle School looks like a lot of gyms, I guess: a big multi-purpose room with a stage at one end and a cafeteria kitchen at the other. Collapsible risers are along each side. Even though they try to keep the floor polished, there are usually some scuff marks on it. Painted over the basketball hoop on the west side is the school slogan: “Go, Pierce Pirates!!” Middle school is mostly a big blur for me, but I’ll always remember that hoop, because it’s where I scored my first-ever three-point shot.

A late-afternoon sun slants over the gym floor at Franklin Pierce Middle School. It’s quiet now, but if I listen hard I can hear the squeak of Nikes and Air Jordans, skidding and swiveling and leaving black scuff marks on the polished floor. Coach Mankin’s whistle shrieks, just before he calls a penalty. He’s a lot tougher on us during practice than he is during games. When play resumes, Steve passes the ball to me. I dash to the right, as the hollow-sounding smack of the ball seems to echo behind me. Two guys are on my tail. The minute I stop I’m surrounded by arms shiny with sweat, and a sharp smell of perspiration. “Careful, Baxter!” Coach yells at me. Suddenly I turn and break for the center, so fast I leave the smell behind. I glance at the hoop–it’s clear! Now or never: air rushes into my lungs as I rise to my toes. As the ball leaves my fingertips it seems to float, and somehow I know it’s going to make it!

The first paragraph contains some sharp details, and that’s good. But the second puts a reader right in the gym, with the squeaks, thumps, and sweat. And maybe a little of the thrill, too. A paragraph like that may be more work to write, but (strangely) it’s often more fun to write as well.

Think about a place that’s special to you. Try to picture it at a particular time of day, or a certain season of the year, and then imagine what you would be seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, even tasting. Write down some of these details, and then combine them into a coherent paragraph that communicates the “feel” of the place. Try to avoid telling your reader about it, with sentences that begin with “I hear . . . ” “I see . . . ” etc. Instead, think of ways to show what you’re seeing, hearing, and smelling, and feeling. There are all kinds of ways to do this–such as

Gray-green waves topped with foam sparkle on the ocean.
Over my head, seagulls cry and shriek.
Wet, grainy sand squishes up between my toes.
The cherry Popsicle I bought from the ice cream wagon melts on my tongue.

Finally, communicate how you feel in this place without saying “I feel . . .”

As you can tell, sensory detail adds a lot to descriptive writing, but it’s also great for adding zip to a story and making a fantasy setting seem real. And while you’re sniffing, listening, smelling and feeling for details, take time to appreciate them in your own life!