Engage the Senses in your Writing

Over and over again, writers are told that in order to enrich their writing, they should strive to engage as many of the senses as possible in a descriptive passage.

The easiest, of course, is visual. We tend to stick with that one, because it’s the most obvious and most overwhelmingly present. Readers always want to know how something looks. But how much more vivid would our descriptions be if we used several of the senses, all at once?

While reading Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue, I came across a paragraph that absolutely embodied this:
“Giddon yanked the papers from her hands and threw them across the room. Jumping at the unexpectedness of this, Bitterblue saw him clearly as she hadn’t before, saw him towering over her, mouth hard, eyes flashing, and realized he was furious. Her vision came into focus and the room filled itself in around her. She heard the fire crackling, the silence of Bann and Helda, at the table, watching, tense, unhappy. The room smelled like wood fires. She pulled a blanket around herself. She was not alone.”

Take a closer look. Obviously the visual is present and dominant. But in the background, Bitterblue hears the fire crackling, notices the silence of the others. She smells the wood fire. Pulling the blanket around herself is tactile. The only sense missing is taste. But something else is going on here as well. We learn how she’s feeling.

Not only does the use of the senses capture our attention, it serves to heighten the tension and drama of what is actually happening in this scene. Something elemental passes between Giddon and Bitterblue. The power of his anger proves how much he cares about her, as does the “tense, unhappy silence” of the others. The sensory details are what drives these emotions home to the reader, what makes the passage  so visceral. The ending of the paragraph is powerful: “She was not alone.”

Sensory detail doesn’t have to be perfect in the early drafts of your work. You can fill it in as you revise. But don’t leave it out, and don’t be satisfied with the visual only. Do remember that the senses connect to your characters’ emotions and feelings. It’s their perception, not yours.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Cashore’s work, start with Graceling. Fire is her second book, and is a companion to Graceling and Bitterblue, which is her third book. (You can read my review of Bitterblue on GoodReads.)

Do you have a favorite writer who is particularly good at drawing us in by meticulous and judicious use of sensory detail? Any books or passages you’d like to share?



4 comments on “Engage the Senses in your Writing

  1. Nice blog, Pam. I always try to draw on all of the senses in my writing, and find it both challenging and invigorating. It not only puts the reader in the setting, it puts me as the author right there, too, bringing out both my characters and my story. It needs to be front and center on your mind, though, or you’re right, you tend to rely only on visual. And I might add, you did a wonderful job of this in Kissing Shakespeare!

  2. Thanks, Ceil! I think that paragraph from BITTERBLUE really drove home the fact that the senses also elicit emotion, tension, and action. Thanks for reading!

  3. The writing in Bitterblue is autblosely gorgeous. That has always been one of my favorite things about her books – her beautiful prose and her detailed world. The world that was established in Graceling has been built upon, and I just loved it. It’s a world that I could happily read book after book in, and never tire of it. The concept of it Graces just fascinates me.Bitterblue was a character that I liked in Graceling, and I loved seeing how she’d changed since we last saw her. Bitterblue was strong, had spunk, and an curiosity that couldn’t be smothered. I loved the other characters met in Graceling who make appearances in Bitterblue have really grown as well. My biggest issue with Graceling was some characteristics about Katsa, but by this point in the story, she has matured and moved on. Kristin Cashore always has an amazing boy in her books, and while I don’t know if Saf has quite lived up to my love for Brigan and Po, he comes pretty darn close. Saf was such a complex character and he was not going to let anyone tell him what to do.Bitterblue weaves a tale that was so complicated and intense. There was this constant sense of intrigue as I was reading. The plot was ever-building, and the different storylines of the book began to intersect. I never knew what Kristin Cashore was going to throw at readers next. Yet, there were also so many moments when I had to step back and just admire the little things going on, like the compassion between characters. The relationships between the characters are all so deep and learning all their back was one of the best parts of the book. The ending was phenomenal – the thought had crossed my mind at several points throughout the book, but I was not sure what Cashore would do about that event. I loved how she tied up the story, it was perfect: full of hope.

  4. Thanks for writing, Samir. I agree with you 100% on everything! I really hope Cashore tells us more about Bitterblue and Giddon, as I felt that part of the story was left unfinished.


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