We experience every element of life and the world around us through our five senses. It just makes sense, then, that these five senses are crucial to crafting fully immersive stories that draw your readers in. However, using descriptive language that appeals to the senses isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Here’s everything you need to know about creating beautiful language that appeals to all the senses.
What is sensory language?
Sensory language is language that uses the senses of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste to invoke mental images and sensations in the reader. By using sensory imagery to engage the reader’s senses, the writer can give them a deeper connection to the story’s setting, characters, and plot.
Using sensory words makes a huge difference in your prose, turning a “just fine” story into a masterful, memorable one.
How sensory language makes a difference in your prose
Among all the other literary devices, sensory language matters to such a large degree because sensory language helps you, as a writer, do a few key things.
1. Sensory language makes your words more “real” to the reader
Using sensory language helps your readers imagine and more thoroughly visualize the fictional world you’ve crafted.
The right vocabulary, adjectives, and sensory details can ensure your reader actually “sees” your setting in their mind’s eye. The best imagery includes depictions of not just your story’s visual elements, but also your story’s sounds, smells, tastes, and textures.
2. Sensory language helps your reader connect with your characters
If you’re working on a story that includes a first-person narrator or deep point-of-view in which it’s crucial that the reader really feel as if they’re in the narrator’s shoes, sensory language can help. If you describe what your main character is experiencing through all five of their senses—sight, sound, etc.—your reader will be able to connect with the main character’s emotions more thoroughly.
3. Sensory details create emotion
Beyond connecting your reader to your characters’ emotions, sensory language is fantastic for inspiring a genuine emotional response within your reader themselves. Certain sensory details are intrinsically connected with certain emotions (for most individuals, at least).
For example, when you write a scene describing a character waking up in a pitch-black room with the smell of blood in the air and a metallic taste in the character’s mouth, and the sounds of moaning in the distance, you’re likely to inspire fear or dread within your reader—never mind what your character feels!
7 different types of sensory imagery (with some examples from literature)
Here’s a closer look at the different senses you can use to bring your story to life, with some tips on how to go about actually adding these powerful descriptions and sensory details into your writing—and some examples of sensory imagery in popular works to get you started.
Tactile imagery refers to descriptions of anything that your character is feeling against their skin. As such, don’t limit yourself to tactile descriptions only when your character is actively putting out their hand and touching something. Tactile description options are nearly limitless.
Just think about how many things you’re likely touching or being touched by right now—your clothing, your phone screen or laptop keys, the breeze from the air conditioner, and on and on. These are the types of details you can describe in your prose, using sensory words to tap into your reader’s imagination.
As is the case with any sensory language, pick tactile words that are as specific and descriptive as possible. Don’t rely on generic sensory words. Here’s an example from from Plays Well with Others, by Allan Gurganus:
The tree feels splintery, nasty to my touch; it feels Floridian, more reptile than vegetable, more stucco than stone. I do loathe this state, they’re Elba.
In this passage, the narrator could have simply said “the tree feels rough,” but that would have hardly had the same sensory experience effect as “more reptile than vegetable.”
While kinesthesis isn’t technically one of the five senses, it is a handy tool to have in your writer’s toolkit. It refers to the sense of movement.
If a sensation is kinesthetic, it’s something that you feel or experience in relation to your own body—your muscles clenching when you’re nervous, a pain in your joints when you get up, etcetera.
Some also use “kinesthetic imagery” to refer to any imagery that invokes a full-body sensation that occurs on multiple levels—not just a sensation that you feel within yourself. So, if a motion or force affects your character across their entire body, then this imagery could be considered kinesthetic.
Examples of this might be your character’s entire body being jostled as they ride on horseback, or their entire body being swept away in a swift tide.
Because this type of sensory experience is internal, it won’t work for every story (for example, if you’re writing in objective point of view, which employs a narrator who does not know what is going on inside the characters’ heads and/or bodies).
However, for first-person narratives or those that employ deep point-of-view, kinesthetic imagery can come in very handy in helping you put your reader in your character’s shoes.
Here is an excellent example of how Ian McEwan uses kinesthetic imagery in his novel Atonement.
She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge.
In this passage, nothing necessarily Earth-shattering occurs. However, the character is paying attention to the sensations occurring within her own body as it operates, and describing them—and relating that to a greater feeling as a result.
Auditory words describe the things your character can hear.
When choosing your auditory words, try to be as specific as possible in order to create the most impact. The character didn’t just yell; they screamed, shrieked, squealed, or howled. The character didn’t just whisper; they stage-whispered, hissed, mumbled, or muttered. Use some great onomatopoeic adjectives.
Additionally, when describing the sense of hearing, remember just how many things around you create sounds—from passing traffic to your own heartbeat.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” makes excellent use of auditory imagery, as the whole story (spoiler!) hinges on the sound (real or imagined) of a murdered man’s heart coming up through the floorboards.
Check out this example.
There came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.
Olfactory imagery is imagery that relates to the sense of smell.
As smell is strongly linked to memory and emotions, you can use the sense of smell in your stories to inspire these memories and emotions in your readers—both positive and negative.
Describing the rich, buttery smell of baking cookies wafting among the pine-y scent of a fresh Christmas tree might bring up a readers’ fond memories of holidays past. Describing the metallic smells of blood and antiseptic ointment, alongside the faint rubbery smell of a bandage, might bring up memories of a past injury.
Here’s an example from Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter:
The flower shop was here and it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provencal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen all mixed up with the headachey smell of bitter chocolate.
Hampl uses olfactory imagery to such success in these few sentences that little other imagery is necessary in order to set a tone and mood.
Gustatory imagery is any imagery related to taste.
Often writers think that, in order to use gustatory imagery, their characters need to be actively eating something, but that’s not always the case.
Your character might taste the remnants of their late-night snack for the day before still stuck in their teeth. They might taste the ghost of a mint that they popped right before an important meeting.
Have you ever smelled something so strong you could taste it? Whether it’s a harsh chemical or a sea breeze, your characters can, too—so write it!
Rick Riordan uses gustatory imagery effectively to describe how food and emotions are interconnected, in Percy Jackson and The Lightening Thief.
I recoiled at the taste, because I was expecting apple juice. It wasn’t that at all. It was chocolate-chip cookies. Liquid cookies. And not just any cookies—my mom’s homemade blue chocolate-chip cookies, buttery and hot, with the chips still melting.
A gustatory imagery example from A Room with a View by E.M. Forster likewise shows layers of taste within a single item, inspiring emotion and not just a mere sensory observation.
The hour was approaching at which the continental breakfast begins, or rather ceases, to tell, and the ladies bought some hot chestnut paste out of a little shop, because it looked so typical. It tasted partly of the paper in which it was wrapped, partly of hair oil, partly of the great unknown.
Last, but certainly not least, visual imagery is the most common form of sensory imagery that you’ll find throughout just about any work, including your own.
Visual imagery engages your reader’s imagination. Visual descriptions are necessary in order to paint your characters’ surroundings. Even if you don’t describe a single taste or smell, chances are good you’ve used your fair share of visual imagery in your writing.
But to use visual imagery effectively, it needs to be lifelike and vivid.
Here’s an example from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window… Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass… On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it.
This excerpt only uses the sense of visual imagery and, yet, it’s so effective, descriptive, and vivid that you can just about feel the damp mist settling into your skin.
Another equally effective example of visual imagery can be found in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
While readers will eventually come to associate the yellow wallpaper in this story with its negative representations, this first description sets the tone for the rest of the story.
You can easily combine multiple senses to form one image. This is called composite imagery. It’s a little trickier to pull off, but when used correctly, can be both very effective and beautiful.
The easiest way to think about composite imagery?
Whatever sense you want to use, just say “XYZ tasted/smelled/felt/sounded/looked like [insert something you cannot possibly taste/smell/feel/sound/look].”
Her hair smelled like sunshine. The ice water tasted like his mother’s voice calling him in from a day of play in the hot summer. The cologne smelled of rough stubble and rippling muscles.
Sensory language pitfalls to watch out for
Feel like you’re ready to start adding that five senses-powered, vivid imagery into your story? For best results, watch out for these sensory language pitfalls as you write.
Describing all five senses at once
Sensory language is a powerful tool. That said, you have to use this type of language with a little bit of finesse.
Just like you wouldn’t describe a character from head to toe, detailing every little bit of their physical attributes in one paragraph as soon as you introduce them (as it would interrupt the reader experience and feel jarring or awkward), you don’t want to launch into a long paragraph of full-body sensations.
Instead, use your sensory language with care, sprinkling in taste and smell, sight and sound, and tactile imagery as it feels natural.
If you’re not quite sure you’re accomplishing this, ask another writer to read your work and provide feedback on the sensory imagery. Also, pay special note to how your favorite authors use sensory descriptions.
Using generic sensory words
The more specific and descriptive your sensory language can be, the more powerful it will be. Don’t rely on generic words and descriptions. Instead, what imagery will best serve both your writing and your readers?
For example, in our excerpt from Plays Well with Others above, Allan Gurganus could have just said “The tree feels rough.” But that would have hardly been as impactful as what he went with instead: “The tree feels splintery, nasty to my touch; it feels Floridian, more reptile than vegetable, more stucco than stone.”
Similarly, put some thought into which sensory words are best suited to your work. See if you can find fresh new images that no one else has thought of. (Having trouble with finding the best words for your sensory imagery? A thesaurus is your friend!)
Remember: Just as you don’t want to over-describe your characters’ physical appearances, or constantly re-describe the same settings over and over again, you likewise don’t want to overdo it with your sensory language.
Use sensory language sparingly and effectively, rather than abundantly. If you find that sensory descriptions will not really add anything to your scene, leave them out.
Sticking to the literal
All forms of literary imagery can be either literal or figurative—so don’t feel as if you’re stuck describing things in a literal sense only. That can make for some pretty boring passages.
Literal imagery refers to descriptions that describe only what is actually happening, while figurative imagery incorporates similes and metaphors to paint a broader (and sometimes more effective) picture for your reader.
For example, you could say that a character’s voice “bounced off the trees with a great echo”—which would be literal, as echoes bounce and it’s entirely possible for a voice to echo—or you could go the figurative route and say that a character’s voice “crashed through the trees with the clanging force of a thousand crashing symbols.”
Is it dramatic? Yes. Is it figurative? Absolutely, as it’s not possible for a voice to do so. However, it creates a certain image in the reader’s mind.
Both literal and figurative imagery have their place.
Practice is the best way to learn to write language that appeals to the senses
As is the case with mastering any literary device, learning how to use sensory language takes practice. You may not perfect using the right sensory words in every story right away. You might find that you have trouble striking the right balance between too many sensory descriptions and too few.
Just remember to keep sensory descriptions as part of your writer’s toolkit—and continuously practice using them—and you’ll be well on your way to crafting richly vivid stories, scenes, and characters that stick in readers’ imaginations for years to come.