Great descriptive writing combines all of the senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound. It transports your readers to a place where they can feel the place and see the characters. The key to doing this, and doing it well, is to combine a variety of sensory imagery in your writing. Generally, we’re pretty good at using the sense of sight, and we tend to rely on visual descriptions, so think about how you might include the other senses.
You don’t necessarily need to include each of the sense every time you go to describe something, but it’s fun to practice playing with each of these descriptive writing prompts and viewing the world through the very vivid lens of your senses. You can also check out this post that has more examples and explanations to help you with your descriptive writing.
Sense of Smell
One of the best passages that relies on the sense of smell comes from the YA novel, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. A murderer has killed a family and is searching for the last survivor, a baby, through his sense of smell.
“The man Jack sniffed the air. He ignored the scents that had come into the room with him, dismissed the scents that he could safely ignore, honed in on the smell of the thing he had come to find. He could smell the child: a milky smell, like chocolate chip cookies, and the sour tang of a wet, disposable, nighttime diaper. He could smell the baby shampoo in its hair, and something small and rubbery – a toy, he thought, and then, no, something to suck – that the child had been carrying” (9).
To practice using the sense of smell, make a list of smells that conjure up strong memories or images. Jot a few notes or descriptions of the smell.
Then choose one memory and describe it starting with the sense of smell. Try to use the other senses but begin with smell.
Sense of Taste
Take your character(s) out to dinner. Perhaps they visit their favorite restaurant where the food is creamy, mouth watering and luscious. Or perhaps they’re at some unfamiliar ethnic restaurant where the special of the evening is crispy pickled llama brains. As you write, describe the textures and tastes of the food as well as their responses to it through their dialogue and internal monologues.
Sense of Sound
We can often identify where we are by the sounds we hear. For example, right now, I can hear the hum of my computer, a family member shuffling through the house and opening the fridge, a bird sitting in the tree outside chirping, and crickets singing though it’s morning.
These are the sounds that I hear often but don’t always pay attention to. As a writer, using these small sounds add detail and a realistic touch to any setting.
To practice using sound, close your eyes and listen. Note all of the sounds that you are hearing. What do those sounds say about your location?
To practice writing with sound, put your character in a dark place. Perhaps their elevator stopped and the power went out, they fell down a man-hole, or they’re locked in a closet. Or, perhaps they’re laying in bed in the dark, listening to the sounds and conversations of their house and housemates.
Write the scene with a focus on sounds. What do they hear? How do they respond to the noises? What does it all mean?
Combining the Senses – Showing vs. Telling
This is a fun exercise to play with regularly. A “telling” statement is one in which you tell your readers something, but they can’t really picture it. For example, if I write, “She was a snob,” every one of my readers would picture their own version of a snobby character. I want them to envision my version.
To do that, I need to show this snobby girl. What does she look like? What does she smell like as in her perfume? How does she move? What does she say? How does she say it?
For this exercise, choose one of the “telling” statements below and expand it with descriptive detail into a showing paragraph. Incorporate as many of the senses as you can.
Try NOT to use the original sentence in your piece.
1) The pizza tasted good.
2) Her/his/my room was a mess.
3) She was embarrassed.
4) He drove too fast.
Next, go through your current work in progress. Underline or circle any “telling” statements you have. One way to find them is to look for “to be” verbs: is, was, were, am, are, be, been, or being. Often, you can expand those sentences with details.
I’ve used this final exercise with students many times, and I’m always surprised at the details they choose to focus on. It’s similar to expanding “telling” sentences but it creates more of a story.
To do it, take the following kernel sentences and expand them using as much detail as you can. Be creative and have fun with this story.
1. Jack’s phone rang.
2. It was 2:00 in the morning.
3. Jack got out of bed.
4. He got dressed.
5. He lit a cigarette and left his room.
6. A cab waited for him in the street.
Choosing Which Details to Use
When we’re describing a setting or a character, we could go on for pages and pages including every possible sensory detail, but that would bore our readers (and ourselves) to tears. So how do we choose what details to include?
Choose the details the details that are significant and revelatory. Each detail should reveal something about the character or the situation.
For example, if you read the passage I quoted above from The Graveyard Book, we know that the man who can differentiate the smells is special somehow. He isn’t a normal murderer because normal people can’t smell the pacifier and baby shampoo on a child who isn’t sitting on their lap. Those details reveal that this guy has some unusual skills, and the world in which he and the child live might be more magical than our world.
Because Neil Gaiman alludes to this magical world through such details, when the child does make it to the graveyard where he finds ghosts who want to raise him, we believe it because we know that weird things happen in this place. The great thing about the book is that Gaiman never outright says, “The baby lives in a world where he can see ghosts who can also hide him in their tombs.” Instead, he shares details that show this world.
As you write, think about those details that will best reveal character, setting, or situation in that moment. Then, be as specific as you can to really show your reader what you want them to see in their mind’s eye.
You might even put a post-it or note near where you write to remind you to include key sensory details.
Leave a comment below and let me know if you tried any of the exercises. Which one did you like best? Which one did you find most helpful in terms of developing your descriptive writing skills?