Everything we know about this world, we learn through our five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Consequently, if fiction writers want to recreate the experience of the real world for their readers, they must include concrete and specific sense imagery in their writing. Their job is to create word pictures that appeal to one or more of the five senses–a black hawk soaring over a canyon, the smoky sizzle of frying bacon, the blare of a car horn, the limp handshake of the president of the Rotary Club, the lip-puckering tartness of a fresh lime, or the heartbreaking scent of my ex-girlfriend’s Final Net hairspray (Did I say that last one out loud? Sorry.).
The masters have provided readers with sense imagery in fiction since the first chisel tapped the first story onto stone. If I pull my eleventh grade literature anthology* from the shelf and flip through it (as I just did), I can find an infinite number of examples of sense imagery that great writers used to help their readers experience the universe of their stories.
Here are just a few examples:
“His features were good–a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well-fitting frock coat.” (Ambrose Bierce)
“A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens.” (Flannery O’Connor)
“The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mount’in” (Thornton Wilder)
“I have just spoken of that morbid condition of the auditory nerve which rendered all music intolerable to the sufferer, with the exception of certain effects of stringed instruments.” (Edgar Allan Poe).
“I heard a fly buzz–when I died–” (Emily Dickinson)
“He wished to get out of hearing of the cracking shots which were to him like voices” (Stephen Crane)
“But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. . . It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes.” (Herman Melville)
“While the bubbles were yet sparkling on the brim, the doctor’s four guests snatched their glasses from the table and swallowed the contents at a single gulp.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
“He pokes the logs in the fireplace because the hot red coals frighten her.” (Ann Beattie)
“His bandana got sweaty, and the dust caked on it so that he felt he was inhaling mud” (Larry McMurtry)
“I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.” (Langston Hughes)
“O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed much against you, as against many of the damned in Hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder. . .”
(Jonathan Edwards, or possibly my high school vice principal, I forget)
“He was a warm-whiskered man, but the hair on his face did not protect the high cheekbones and the eager nose that thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air.” (Jack London)
“Is it perfume from a dress/that makes me so digress?” (T.S. Eliot)
The next time you take a hike in the mountains, go shopping at the mall, or watch a baseball game at the local stadium, bring a notebook and pen and–using specific and concrete language–jot down the images your senses reveal. With enough practice, your poetry and prose may provide as realistic an experience for readers as the writings of The Masters.
* In the United States, 11th grade literature anthologies typically (and perhaps ethnocentrically) cover only American Literature from the Puritans to Present. This is why all the authors represented are American.