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How to Write Description that Will Delight Your Readers’ Senses

This guest post is by Marianne Richmond. Marianne is the author of If I Could Keep You Little and more than fifteen other children’s books. Her books have sold more than two million copies and have been translated into six languages. Check out Marianne’s blog and follow her on Twitter (@M_Richmond21).

NY Times Bestselling Author Nicholas Sparks writes to delight our senses.

delight senses

Photo by Mecandes

In his book, Safe Haven, he writes, “While pockets of mist rose from the ground, rolling clouds drifted past the moon, bringing light and shadow in equal measures.”

Two or three sentences later, Sparks appeals to our sense of hearing as he writes, “Her mother would sing to herself, melodies from childhood, some of them in Polish.”

Another favorite? “There was a time when she’d been as thin as a heated strand of blown glass.”

Three Tips for Improving your Multi-Sensory Writing

Many writers say they struggle most with appealing to one’s sense of smell, yet studies say our strongest memories are linked to specific scents.

The most beloved and engaging books are descriptive-rich, engaging all our senses as we move through the story.  As writers, we usually have our favorite sense, finding it easy to paint compelling visuals while potentially ignoring, for example, the kinesthetics among us.

To create a full, engaging experience for our readers, however, we must write to delight all five of the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.  Neglect one or several senses and a story becomes flat, one-dimensional and sadly cast aside.

If you’d like to better write to all five senses, here are my three tips:

1.  Create a Resource List of Sensory-Rich Words

Spend some time brainstorming a list of descriptive words that you can refer to when needing inspiration. Continually add to your list, expanding your categories as they evolve.  Your list could look like this:

Sound Words:  drone, buzz, bark, rumble, rustle, gurgle, quiet as midnight

Touch (feeling) Words:  spongy, dizzying warmth, gritty, jagged

Romantic Words:  bewitching, enchanting, cherished

2.  Expand your Vocabulary

Seriously.  To make your writing more complex and interesting, we need to know more complex and interesting words.

Make it a point to look up words you don’t recognize.  Read other author’s works, writing down words and phrasing that speak to you.  Visit sites like this.  Make the thesaurus your good friend.  Download a “word of the day” app.  Buy a “new word a day” daily calendar.  Be creative in finding new words and use them daily. 

3.  Be More Present to Your Life

We are consistently surrounded by rich sensory experiences—IF we take the time to notice them.  The first day of school after a lazy summer.  Camping under the midnight sky.  The sounds of a Little League ball game.  A visit to the one-building department store in rural Wisconsin.  The elderly woman inching her way across the street.

Become a keen observer and recorder of the sensory intricacies of life.  Make it a habit to jot down your observances in a journal.  Quick snippets like “her hair was the color of a butterscotch candy” or “elderly lady bent over like a comma” can jumpstart your creative thinking when you need it.

What tips do you have to write to all five senses?

PRACTICE

Using the picture above as your jumping off point (or another imaginary scene of your choosing), choose one or two “senses” through which you wish to engage your reader.  Choose one that is usually difficult for or neglected by you.

Write for fifteen minutes, tapping your imagination for descriptive-rich writing that goes beyond the tiresome clichés! (i.e., his eyes were as blue as the sky!) Add your writing to the comments section and encourage others with your feedback.

About Marianne Richmond

I'm Marianne Richmond—writer, artist and inspirationalist. My words have touched millions over the past two decades through my children's books and gift products. Basically I put love into words and help you connect with the people + moments that matter. You can find me on my website, Facebook, and Twitter (@M_Richmond21).

  • themagicviolinist

    This was so much fun! 😀 I tried to focus on taste and sound at first, but then I got ahead of myself and dabbled with all of the sense. (Sorry for the weird formatting).

    The
    air tasted like summer, hot and sticky, but sweet somehow. I stuck my tongue
    out to catch some of the flavor. I tried to savor it, but at the moment the
    boat rocked and I was jerked from my daydream.

    “Are you trying to catch a snowflake
    or something?” Luke said, grinning at me. His smile was pure sunshine trapped
    into rows of perfect teeth. “Because I hate to break it to you, but it’s not
    snowing.”

    “No,” I sighed. “Just trying to enjoy
    the last bits of summer.”

    The trees looked like the last sparks of
    fireworks fading into the sky, though I knew the colors were only beginning to
    appear. I stuck my hand into the freezing water and watched the water trail
    behind me. For a second, I completely lost myself in my imagination. The trails
    of water were really trails of magic. The magic turned into music. The frogs
    adding to the bass of the song and the cicadas a steady string ensemble. The
    water was a harp, carrying out a melody that rang in my ears. The sun above us
    was a spotlight shining on a stage.

    “You look happy.” The corners of
    Luke’s mouth twitched upwards. “What’s making you smile like that?”

    “I don’t know.” I shook my head and
    stared at the cloudless sky, an endless sea of baby blue. “Just—nature, I
    guess. The world’s amazing, isn’t it?”

    Luke nodded and looked at our
    surroundings.

    “It is,” he said.

    I closed my eyes and tried to focus on
    the sounds I heard: The steady rhythym of the oars dipping into the lake, the
    soft splash of the water as he lifted them back up. A gentle mist of water hit
    my face like a drizzle of rain, even though there wasn’t a cloud in sight. I
    inhaled the scent of dirt and warm grass. The air was thick and heavy, but the
    explosions of colors and sounds made up for the uncomfortable heat. I put my
    hand in the water again. The sudden cold sent shivers up my body. When I pulled
    my hand out, my fingers were a rosy pink. Droplets of crystalline water dripped
    from my fingertips and onto the boat. I watched the water race each other down
    the metal side, leaving trails behind them. They evaporated by the time they
    reached the bottom. I watched the memories of their existence disappear along
    with them.

    “Our time’s up.” Luke glanced at his
    watch and I jolted awake, for it seemed as if I had been dreaming this whole
    time. “Let’s return the boat.”

    I
    said a silent goodbye in my head as we got out of the boat and walked away from
    the lake.

    • Missaralee

      Heya MV, great practice. I really liked this middle section because you seemed to have gotten into a natural flow of feeling the scene. The descriptions weren’t strained and they took me back to summer mornings in the canoe with my dad.
      “The steady rhythym of the oars dipping into the lake, the soft splash of the water as he lifted them back up. A gentle mist of water hit my face like a drizzle of rain…I inhaled the scent of dirt and warm grass…I put my hand in the water again…When I pulled my hand out, my fingers were a rosy pink. Droplets of crystalline water dripped from my fingertips.”

      I think maybe when you were writing that part you were more caught up in your senses than in thinking of lovely words and expressions you could use. Whatever you were doing, keep bringing yourself back to that space because the descriptions you drew from there were truly alive.

      • themagicviolinist

        Thank you! 😀 I think that part was my favorite, too. I sort of wasn’t paying attention to what I was writing. I just wrote.

    • Marianne Richmond

      This is absolutely wonderful! My favorite? “His smile was pure sunshine trapped into rows of perfect teeth.” That is EXACTLY the kind of guy who belongs with summer! And summer air you can taste? Beautiful.

      • themagicviolinist

        Thanks! 😀 I was pretty proud of myself when I wrote that line.

    • Giulia Esposito

      Ooh, lovely piece you have here.

      • themagicviolinist

        Thanks! 😀

    • Simply delightful. I like the different senses you managed to engage: sight, sound, taste and touch. Epic.

      • themagicviolinist

        Thank you. 🙂

    • Ayan Pal

      This one is just brilliant! Loved it 🙂 Great job indeed!

  • I begin my novel with this sentence, which I hope gives a strong feeling about pending doom: “He drives her home through streets strewn with autumn leaves so tinder dry it’s a wonder the entire city hasn’t exploded.” But if I think it’s so great, why hasn’t a publisher bought this novel? Maybe it has something to do with the other 80,000 words. I don`t know. Perhaps it needs more sensual detail. It`s highly possible.

    • Giulia Esposito

      The tinder dry leaves is very good image. Perhaps they should ignite a fire?

    • oddznns

      It’s the He drives her home. Just start with “The streets, strewn with autumn leaves, are tinder dry.” And yes, as Giulia says, then have them Explode!

    • It could be any number of things. Keep shopping it around, and if a publisher won’t buy it, self publish on Amazon, or Smashwords.

  • Very good post. I tell the Creative Writing class at our high school much the same things when I give a presentation. Especially about the sense of smell.

  • Brianna Worlds

    My eyes may be shut to the vision that sprawled before me, but my other senses keenly picked up the pace, flooding my with detail. My breath hitched as the smell of cedar, pine, decomposing leaves, and hot, sticky sunlit air hit me, memories washing through my mind in disjointed flashing. My sister sweetly singing through the night, her voice as smooth and beautiful as pearls, a free, full-bodied laugh cutting through the ripples that traversed across the water. Cicadas sang, their music swelling and falling, fading into nonexistence for only a moment before it is swiftly picked up again. The whole, innocent swoon of a mourning dove weaved through the air, taking presence over the quieter, more erratic vibrations that permeate the air around me from the flight of a hummingbird. A sudden breeze picks up, lifting up my hair so that it fanned around my ears and sending it in a tangle of every direction. The forlorn, searching call of a loon, lonely and aching and hopeful all at once, rand through the air, and died. I gasped and opened my eyes, shining with happiness and a deep, wishing sorrow awoken with in me. I opened my eyes, and the vision completed the holes in my memory.
    “Home,” I whispered, my voice wavering and cracking. I was finally home.
    ~~~
    Wow. I am really not proud of that : Oh well. Practice is practice, I suppose.

    • Marianne Richmond

      Oh – do not discount it so quickly! There are some lovely snippets
      in there — “…fanned around my ears, sending it in a tangle of every
      direction.” I loved “wishing sorrow” as well. One paragraph and so
      much emotion within! Well done!

      • Brianna Worlds

        Thank you! 🙂 It means a lot to me.

    • How can you not be? This is amazing. I love how you wove the words together.

      • Brianna Worlds

        Thanks! I thought it was quite choppy, but it could be worse 😛

  • catmorrell

    The door creaks swinging softly back and forth in the breeze. Her eyes shut as she listens to the tinkle of the wind chimes and the swoosh blowing through green summer leaves. Her skin prickles in the heat as a fly buzzes nearby, but that does not stop her from listening, from feeling, from smelling. Only she can’t smell. She lost her sense of smell 20 years earlier. But she can remember. She can remember the sounds of splashing and shrieking at the swimming pool on days just like this. She remembers the smell of chlorine in her hair, the sting of it lingering in her nose. She remembers the feel of a a scratchy beach towel protecting her skin from the rough concrete as she bakes under the summer glow without a fear in her mind.

    Opening her eyes, she marvels at her spotted and wrinkled skin, reminding herself that each age has its own gifts and she is lucky she has the gift of remembering the bright tang of her childhood.

    • oddznns

      Cat… the bright tang of childhood. My, that brings back memories of waking up in the morning as a child. What an evocative phrase.

      • catmorrell

        Thank you for the kind words and encouragement.

    • Very nice. I’m curious: How did she lose her sense of smell? Was it age, or something else?

      • catmorrell

        Thank you. It was just a bridge between today’s senses and going into memories of senses. But I and a co-worker lost our sense of smell to a flu about 10 years ago. So when I can smell anything, I am super appreciative. I love reading about smells. Nothing better than cinnamon roll smells wafting out of an oven.

    • themagicviolinist

      “The bright tang of her childhood.” “Tang” is a great word for that. 🙂 I loved this!

      • catmorrell

        Thank you. It is exciting rubbing elbows with those of you who are bloggers and published.

  • Victoria James

    This writing practice is for my current novel, rather than the scene above – quite a different picture!!!
    _______
    Sophie stopped in the middle of the street, the horror of the scene before her collapsing her to her knees. The quiet was deafening – it settled on her ears like a thick blanket, disconnecting her from the surrounding terror and making her acutely aware of her own thudding heartbeat. Ash drifted around her like grimy snowflakes, leaving lines of filth where it stuck to the tear tracts on her cheeks. The air tasted gritty, souvenirs of the people and life that filled this city not long ago.
    Broken buildings lurched along the sides of the street, spilling their twisted metal and shattered concrete guts onto the sidewalk. Sophie knew this street but felt a wave of vertigo pass over her as she tried to reconcile the image of the city she had spent most of her adult life in with what she saw before her. The footpaths were streaked with black tar, intermingled with the gray of the ash and the thick maroon ribbons of congealing blood.
    A pall of smoke hung in the air but it could not erase the stench of decay that invaded Sophie’s nose. She felt her stomach lurch and gritted her teeth together to hold it down. It lurched again and an anguished wail escaped her mouth, her tears rolling down her cheeks afresh.
    Dylan squeezed her shoulder. “You couldn’t have saved them.” he whispered.

    • Cool. Was it a volcano, or a forest fire? I liked in particular the lines “Ash drifted around her like grimy snowflakes, leaving lines of filth where it stuck to the tear tracts on her cheeks. The air tasted gritty, souvenirs of the people and life that filled this city not long ago.” Excellent.

      • Victoria James

        Neither, and worse 😀 You’ll have to read my book when it comes out!!!

        Thanks for the feedback 🙂

        • Trying to think what fire based event that could be worse than a volcano…I’ve got nothing. Where can I subscribe to learn the name & release date?

          • Victoria James

            You’ll probably have to wait a good year, I’ve been reasonably slack recently to be honest. Thinking about setting up a Facebook page or blog to help shove me along and keep people informed.

    • themagicviolinist

      You really painted a picture with this! Everything was so clear and vivid. I’m also curious as to what caused this mess. 😉

      • Victoria James

        Thanks for the feedback!

    • catmorrell

      This felt a bit like reading some of the 911 stories. You brought so much emotion out with just the description. I too want to know when you get this published.

      • Victoria James

        Thanks so much, that’s great feedback as it’s THAT kind of horror that I wanted to engender (different situation but similar devastation and feelings). Glad to know I’m creating a bit of anticipation – I better get to writing!!!

  • oddznns

    Thanks Marianne. I took a walk last night and listened, really listened.
    Car’s hummed on the flat streets but growled going up hill. The air-conditioners whirred and whined. Then there were the crickets, whose chirrups stuttered to a stop as my feet crunched on the gravel, and then swelled again as I walked away.

    • Marianne Richmond

      Isn’t it amazing the rich content that is found in our everyday-ness? We so quickly discount it as we wait for the “big stuff” whatever THAT is! I have been working hard to live more in the moment.

  • Hope this works:

    “Mordecai said I’m immune to the magic of this world.”

    Angriz snorted, “Lord Mordecai isn’t aware of everything, powerful as he is. A Weirdling lives a few days from here. She does not deal with rakshasha or wizards. She only deals with those of dragon blood. Also, she may be able to tell us where Lady Orwen might be.”

    “Alright,” I said. “I suppose we should return to the castle and let everyone know we’re leaving.”

    “That wouldn’t be good. None ever came back from the Bloodtaste before. You must understand, they’d kill me without hesitation.”

    “Fair point. Let’s go then.”

    I can’t say why I chose to trust and follow him at that juncture. Maybe because he gave me the hope of being able to see again. Maybe it was a way to piss off Mordecai for tearing me from my home. Petty? Good chance of that. I didn’t care, though. His choice caused me to be blind.

    Without further words, Angriz took me by the wrist and led me into the woods. I sensed the transition from bright, warm sunlight to cool shade as we passed under the forest canopy. I perceived the soft swish of grass; I smelled the musty, damp scent of trees—pines, cedars and soon, willows. Life in the woodland became accustomed to our presence and resumed their usual activities: the thrum of the woodpecker as he hunted his dinner and the skitter of clawed toes as squirrels chased each other through the trees. In the distance, beavers chewed on trunks of pines as they built their dams. I both smelled and heard the brook as it meandered by the path, a small splash as a fish leaped into the air and fell back. I was delighted and amazed at all I was able to distinguish. For a city boy like me, it was wonderful, because I’d never spent much time outdoors. The adage about losing one of your senses and having another sharpen seemed to be true.

    After hours of travel, we stopped for the night. Angriz gathered wood, explaining that he would build a fire once he finished getting camp set up. I didn’t want to be a burden, nor to feel helpless, so I began to gather the deadfall into a pile for the blaze. My fingers became host to many splinters, and I cursed each that punctured me.

    • catmorrell

      Ahhh….this is a treat to my nose. The second to last paragraph in particular took me back to my childhood in the country.

      • Your nose? lol. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

        • catmorrell

          LOL, yes, since the sense of smell is mostly gone, I love having stories jog my memories, in this case of our tree farm and the creek. I was blessed with having a fairy land to grow up in.

          • That sounds wonderful. Do you find that that comes out in your writing?

    • Victoria James

      A treat to my nose too! That musty damn scent of the trees – that took me there instantly.

      • So, I guess this means I succeeded in “painting a picture” for you?

        • Victoria James

          Most definitely! With scratch and sniff paints, I think 🙂

          • lol. Good. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I got the sensations right. 🙂

  • Yvette Carol

    Fabulous post, Marianne.

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  • We will learn more about myself

  • Katie Hamer

    Across the road and at the top of another hill, I enter farmland. As the hill slopes away from me, I encounter the steep edge of an ancient quarry. I’m surprised to see a herd of cows lying down near the steep muddy edge, basking in the sunshine. One has its head stretched back, its tongue lolling out as it licks its neck. Another cow is flicking its ears rapidly, watching me lazily. Another is still as a statue, a tuft of hair on the crown of its head, silhouetted against the skyline. Another watches me, chewing, jaw moving clumsily from side to side, like a sullen youth chewing gum.

    I see cyclists at the gate I recently passed through and feel mildly embarrassed to be taking notes in front of cows, as if I was a mad person interviewing them for a story, or about to issue them with a parking ticket.

    • Katie Hamer

      Written from real life observation, while I went for a walk on Caerphilly Mountain (only a mountain in the loosest sense of the word 😉 )

  • William Monette

    The sky above was
    cloudless and the sun was baking upon Aimes’ aging forehead. He could feel it
    bronzing his skin and in the distance he could see the vapor of heat on the
    desert floor. The hard soil was completely without nutrients or moisture now
    and even the cacti that they passed looked brown and ragged like a corpse of
    their old selves. The round sun rose over the southern of the two peaks before
    them, rising from behind the bicep of that stone summit like a lidless eye.

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  • David

    Oy, this stuff is so aggravating when you hate overly flowery garbage amd personally always skip it. But that’s what most readers want. Thank you for the lesson.

  • Shawn Spjut

    One of my favorite reads, ‘The River Runs Through It’, by Norman Maclean, has some of the best descriptive prose I’ve ever read. Even though I personally have never been fly fishing, I finished the book feeling as though I’d spent hours standing hip deep in that same river, stared at whirlpools of sunlight, and felt every tug, snag and sway of every cast the main character made. It made me want to run out and buy a fly rod of my own.

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