Utilizing all of the senses when writing

kerrymichaelwood By kerrymichaelwood, 24th Oct 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Tips

How to enliven writing by involving all five senses.

Tips for adding sensory impressions to your writing

Anyone who has read a book about writing, or just taken English in school, has heard that a writer's audience should be able to see, hear, taste, smell and feel what is being described or narrated. The techniques for appealing to the senses are the same, whether you are writing descriptions of people, places, and objects, telling about an actual event, or writing fiction.

Writing a travel article? Notice and relate the details. Whether you are riding in a land rover in an African game park, taking a New York subway, strolling city streets or exploring a pueblo in Arizona, let your reader feel the scorching heat or the chill night breezes; hear the roar of lions, the screech of brakes, the chime of church bells, or the crashing of waves.

Do your feet feel the unevenness of ancient cobblestones, the movement of a ship's deck, or the warmth of a sandy beach. Do you smell food frying, cedar trees, salt sea air, or the odor of dumpsters?

Along with the sights, sounds and smells, have you tasted new cuisine or sampled wines or teas, or other beverages associated with your locale?

Employ elements of figurative language: simile, metaphor, personification - to name a few. In more artistic prose or poetry, consider repetition, symbol, allusion, and irony.

What's all that technical terminology? Let's look at passages from the works of a famous 20th century author. Thomas Wolfe, best known for Look Homeward, Angel, had an incredible ability for detailed recall of sensory impressions experienced in childhood. Observe how Wolfe incorporated sensory impressions in describing his central character.

Yes, and in that month when Proserpine comes back, and Ceres' dead heart rekindles, when all the woods are a tender smoky blur, and birds no bigger than a budding leaf dart through the singing trees, and when odorous tar comes spongy in the streets, and boys roll balls of it upon their tongues, and they are lumpy with tops and agated marbles; and there is blasting thunder in the night, and the soaking millionfooted rain, and one looks out at morning on a stormy sky, a broken wrack of cloud; and when the mountain boy brings water to his kinsmen laying fence, and as the wind snakes through the grasses hears far in the valley below the long wail of the whistle, and the faint clangor of a bell; and the blue great cup of the hills seems closer, nearer, for he had heard an inarticulate promise: he has been pierced by Spring, that sharp knife.

Such a long sentence might not be advisable today, but note how it energizes the senses. The classical allusion to Proserpine and Ceres enriches what would be a mere naming of the season, at least for readers knowledgeable in mythology or willing to consult a reference book.

Birds are compared to leaves in a simile, and the trees have voices. Streets smell of tar and we feel and taste it on the tongues of boys. We hear blasting thunder and feel millionfooted rain in a richly compressed metaphor. Wind does not blow but snakes through grasses. Spring becomes a knife, and we feel its penetration as we hear its promise.

This is writing at a high level of artistry - not the commonplace reportage of a travel writer or news reporter.

Now let's observe Wolfe using repetition, allusion, and other figurative devices in his short story "The Child by Tiger."

Dick Prosser, a black man, has gone on a murderous rampage. It ends with him removing his shoes and standing at attention to be riddled by bullets of a pursuing mob of Southern whites. Among that mob are decent people opposed to lynch law and vicious drunkards. Victims of Prosser's berserk outburst were black as well as white. In his madness he kills indiscriminately.

The tiger of Wolfe's title alludes to William Blake's famous poem wherein that animal symbolizes the evil and violence - usually hidden - sometimes emerging in humans. The story's narrator sums up the event with graphic imagery and repetition that is both effective and affective.

He came from darkness. He came out of the heart of darkness, from the dark heart of the secret and undiscovered South. He came by night, just as he passed by night. He was night's child and partner, a token of the other side of man's dark soul, a symbol of those things that pass by darkness and that still remain, a symbol of man's evil innocence, and the token of his mystery, a projection of his own unfathomed quality, a friend, a brother and a mortal enemy, an unknown demon, two worlds together - a tiger and a child.

To conclude, I add to the previous mix of imagistic devices the employment of apostrophe (addressing a person who is absent or dead, or a creature incapable of verbal response) rhetorical questions, paradox, and ambiguity, all conveyed with rhyme and a crashing metrical regularity, like a blacksmith's hammer beating an anvil. William Blake's poem, alluded to in Wolfe's story, probes the nature of the universe and its creator. The opening image is perhaps the most vivid in English poetry. But let the beast speak for itself.

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat.
What dread hand forged thy dread feat?

What the hammer? What te chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the starts threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


Hearing, Senses, Sight, Smell, Sound, Touch, Writing Skills

Meet the author

author avatar kerrymichaelwood

I am a graduate of Yale University with a Master's degree in English.
I can be reached at kerrywood007@comcast.net Additional info at www.kerrymichaelwood.com

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author avatar La Verne
25th Oct 2010 (#)

This is true...and very true for me... using the senses could make an alive and wonderful piece...

Thanks for sharing:)

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author avatar Denise O
27th Oct 2010 (#)

Wonderful article.
Thank you for sharing.:)

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