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Saturday, 12 September 2015

Bringing your writing to life, part 2 - sensory language by Andrew J Chamberlain

A couple of months ago I started a short series looking at ways to bring colour and vibrancy to your writing. In this, the second part in that series, I want to show you how you can use sensory language to draw your reader into a scene, and invigorate your characters.
By way of example, consider these two pairs of sentences:


        She boiled the water.

        She watched the bubbles perk and dance in the saucepan as the room filled with the third movement of Beethovens Eroica.

        She is eating an orange.

        As she puts the first segment to her mouth the air fills with a tangy zest; she licks her lips to catch all of the juice.

I’ve tried to emphasise the point, especially in the first example, but I hope you will agree that there is much colour and life in each second sentence than there is in the first. One of the reasons for this is because I have packed each of those second sentences with sensory cues.


In the first one I’ve focused on visual and auditory images. The visual image of the bubbles is enhanced by the activity suggested by the verbs ‘perk’ and ‘dance’, whilst the auditory cue comes from a reference to a piece of classical music. In this particular case, the reader might know the third movement of Beethoven’s Eroica, in which case this audible ‘image’ should work particularly well. But even if you the reader doesn’t know the piece, provided they know enough about Beethoven, or even just classical music in general, the effect should work.

The second example, by contrast uses the senses of smell and taste. When you are using sensory
language you could be forgiven for thinking that the most powerful sense is what you see. But actually the most powerful sensory cue, if you can get it right, is the sense of smell. By ‘if you can get it right’ I mean that the reader needs to know the smell that you are referring to. If they do, this technique is particularly powerful as a way of placing the reader in your setting, in time or location. So for example if you wanted to use Chinatown in London as a setting for a scene in your story, successfully conjuring up the aromas of Chinese cooking will help to place your reader in that setting. Or if your story required a scene in a biscuit factory, the warm sweet smell of baking biscuits would help to place your reader there.

Invoking the senses is a powerful strategy to help you define your characters and create your setting, and it will help you to escape from the kind of bland, passive reportage that bores readers.


Andrew J Chamberlain is a writer, speaker, and creative writing tutor. He will be speaking, along with freelance editor and columnist Emma Newrick, and Christian Historian and author Nick Page at the First Page course in the Lake District from 9th to 13th November, details of that course can be accessed here.

Andrew is the presenter of The Creative Writer'sToolbelt a podcast that offers practical, accessible advice on the craft. He has worked on a number of ghost-writing collaborations for Authentic Media, including the bestselling, 'Once an Addict' with Barry Woodward. He has also self-published a number of science fiction short stories. Andrew will be speaking at the First Page Writing Course this November.

4 comments:

  1. Helpful advice for all of us. I can see the way sensory language will enliven and enhance my poetry writing too, so this isn't necessarily restricted to the fiction writers among us. Thanks, Andrew!

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  2. Thanks Joy, and you are right of course, this advice is certainly not restricted to fiction, and in fact writers of prose can learn from some of the poets (Keats for example) about the use of the senses.

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  3. I do agree with you, Andrew: though there's also a warning to be remembered. People often end up with either a (sometimes extended) cliche ('she poured the hot chestnut-coloured liquid' rather than simply leaving out about how the tea got into the mugs). Or, they pull out long something which doesn't add anything to the story, and slows it down. That can make reading tedious. The trick here is always to decide positively and consciously whether or not an action needs to be described or simply referred to, and to vary your narration. (You will know that of course!)

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  4. Hi Mari, yes you are right. There's a very important difference between using this kind of sensory language and going overboard with the adjectives! I find that a lot of the best of this kind of writing actually results in a reduction in word count rather than an increase!

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