Happy Monday…and happy birthday to me!!

My family and I celebrated my birthday last night. My oldest son (13) thought he could get away with making fun of my age by getting me a card that went on and on about my birthday cake: how it’s blazing in flames, super huge to accommodate all the candles, etc. In describing the cake, the writer hit on all of the senses in order to help me visualize and experience exactly what it would look, feel, smell, taste, and even sound like (the boom from the eventual explosion!).

The description reminded me of an excerpt from a workshop I recently taught on how to engage your reader by using all of the senses throughout your writing. This is one of the best ways to involve your readers in what you write and help them experience your characters, settings, and action. Often, we don’t include enough of it in our writing, or we’re off-balance with the type and amount of sensory description we do use.

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, including the five senses can go a long way to help bring your writing to life. Let’s look at some specific ways to incorporate each sense:

1. Sight–This is perhaps the easiest sense to use and, for that reason, probably the one most frequently added by writers. One great way to add sight sensory detail is by describing colors, especially specific color hues. Instead of calling something “red,” for instance, you could say “tomato red” instead. And, describing the brightness or darkness of aspects of a setting will change the entire mood of a scene.

Giving visual details about a character–either how that person looks or the clothes he wears–will bring him to life in your reader’s mind. If you mention that your character has a sword tattooed on his shoulder, your reader will see that every time he is pictured. Another way to add sight details is to compare the way something looks to something else, either with metaphors or similes. You can also visually describe objects using shapes, patterns, or the flow of lines. Think specifically and concretely when describing things you can see. It’s much easier to picture a skinny, gray and black-striped kitten than a cat.

2. Sound–We don’t often think much about all the sounds around us, but there are many. A great exercise to jump start our sound perception is to find a quiet spot indoors and get still. It may take a few minutes, but I guarantee you’ll begin to hear sounds–the quiet ticking of a clock in another room, the annoying dripping of a faucet, the buzz of a fly. Now go outside and do the same thing. If it’s noisy outside, try to focus on one sound at a time and really “hear” it. Try to describe the sound of a motorcycle rambling down your street, or a child crying, or the wind rustling the leaves. Think of all the specific verbs you can to accurately describe the sounds you hear.

I remember writing a children’s story a while back, and I had re-created a scene from my childhood to use as a fictional scene. In this scene, my friends and I were playing baseball in August in the Midwest. The temperature was in the 90s and so was the humidity. As I wrote the story, all the sensory details from one particular day came back to my mind. I remembered playing second base. It was so hot and still on the field, I could literally hear the ground sizzle as I stood in the field waiting for the batter to hit the ball. That’s hot! It was just the sensory detail my story needed to show, not tell, how hot and humid it was on that playing field. And, thinking about it made me really glad I now live in Colorado!

Just like sight, including sensory details for sound will bring your reader into your story. And there are so many wonderful and fun sounds we can use in our writing. Make a list of sounds you hear throughout the day (You do keep a notepad and pen with you at all times, right?), and use that list to help you choose just the perfect sound when it’s  time to write. Think of sounds like “whistle,” “ping,” “thunder,” “bubble,” or “smack.” Sounds can be metallic, soft, irritating, or melodic, just to name a few. Have fun choosing from all the amazing sounds around you to create the perfect image for your reader!

Come back next week when I’ll finish the discussion on sensory detail by talking about touch, taste, and smell!