Making Sense: How to incorporate sensory detail into your narrative

When writing a narrative essay, one of the main components beginning writers overlook is the need to incorporate sensory detail. What is sensory detail?



Sensory detail is using imagery incorporating the five senses – sight (visual), sound (auditory), smell (olfactory), taste (gustatory), and touch (tactile).  As humans, we learn about the world and our surroundings through our senses. A reader needs to feel engaged in the written world you are creating. Writing that incorporates sensory images engages the reader and makes the writing come alive. It quickens the pulse, gives you goose bumps, makes you taste, hear and smell what the writer tastes, hears and smells.

Take, for instance, the following example:

The mountains are beautiful.

What, exactly, does “beautiful” look like?

The mountains are stacked like dominos, their white caps crisscrossing the western sky.

In another example, the writer is describing her grandmother:

She was very pretty.

What does “pretty” look like? Is “very pretty” prettier than just “pretty”?

Grandmother’s painted crimson lips were always smiling, her high cheekbones and deep, topaz eyes reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor.

This example describes a Thanksgiving dinner:

The turkey was good.

What does “good” taste like?

The Thanksgiving turkey was moist and tender, the apple stuffing permeating each bite of delicate white meat.

In narrative essays, you want the reader to experience what you experienced. Telling an audience something looks beautiful or tastes good is vague; you need to create a sensory image of what “beautiful” or “good” means to you, and how the reader should view beautiful or taste good. The only way to do this is through sensory imagery. Look at the following short paragraph describing a boy helping an elderly woman up a flight of stairs:

Grandmother Workman reached over and grabbed her grandson’s arm. He was nervous because the staircase was so steep, but she leaned against him and they began to climb.

Now, look at the same scene, but here, the writer has incorporated sensory detail:

Grandmother Workman lurched over and grabbed the pale skin of Randal’s thin forearm with her leathery hand. The folds and creases beneath her skin coiled themselves out like electrical wiring, like the bloated, roughly-textured relief map of the world that his mother just posted above his bedside table. Randal looked ahead toward the winding spiral staircase, fidgeted with a small hole in his baseball jersey, and bit his lip. His mouth filled with the sweet, coppery taste of blood as she leaned in closely toward him, breathing her hot breath on the damp hair at the base of his neck. She smelled of wet cigarettes and bacon. As they slowly climbed the long, steep staircase, the only sound was his grandmothers’ labored breathing and the mournful creak of the wooden stairs.

Can you pick out the senses utilized in this scene? Can you see the Grandma more clearly? Can you smell the cigarettes and bacon? Can you hear her breath and the creaking stairs?

One great tool to use to help you incorporate more sensory imagery into your writing is a graphic organizer like the one shown below.  Go through your draft and look for all of the senses you could bring to life with sensory images. In the paragraph above, the writer composed his draft, then went back and added sensory detail once he/she determined what senses he/she needed to show.

Remember that as you write your narrative, your reader didn’t experience what you experienced. To engage your reader, work on incorporating sensory detail into your narrative, and watch your writing come alive.

In Conclusion: Tips to create a memorable ending for your narrative essay

As difficult as it is to begin a personal narrative essay, wrapping it up can be even more challenging. Writers often fall into the trap of tying the narrative up too neatly, telling the readers what they are supposed to take away from their story instead of letting the reader come to their own conclusions. Study a few essays from some of the great writers and notice how they conclude their stories. Often the ending to their narratives is left ambiguous; the reader isn’t exactly sure how everything will turn out; however, the reader should be left with a sense of closure.

Below are some strategies you might use to come to a satisfying conclusion in your own stories. All are final lines from some popular essays.

End with an Image

When nature essayist Scott Russell Sanders was in Omaha to talk to writing students, he said one of the most common problems for beginning writers when crafting a narrative essay is conclusions. He said his advice is always the same: if in doubt, end on an image. It’s foolproof. Showing an image prevents you from telling your feelings. In the essay “Buckeye,” Scott Russell Sanders uses the image of a grazing deer to conclude his narrative:

. . . within a few paces of a grazing deer, close enough to see the delicate lips, the twitching nostrils, the glossy, fathomless eyes.

This lyrical conclusion comes from “Bathing,” as writer Kathryn Winograd shows the last moments of her bath:

The wind sings through the window like a siren, and the steam floats from my skin like milk.

End with Action

Show yourself in action. Move. Do something, anything, to avoid telling the reader how happy, or sad, or hopeful you are in the end. Look at something, and walk away, as Edward Hoagland does in “The Courage of Turtles”:

But since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away.

Or look at something, and become mesmerized. A chapter from the classic memoir, Stop Time by Frank Conroy, “Yo-Yo Going Down, a Mad Squirrel Coming Up,” shows a young Conroy as he watches a girl through a window:

That same night, hidden in the greenery under the window, I watched a naked girl let down her long red hair.

End with Dialogue

Dialogue can be tricky to conclude with, but can work if it avoids a message or moral. You’ll only want to use this concluding technique if it has been maintained in the narrative; you probably don’t want to throw in spoken word if we haven’t heard anyone speak up until that point.

David Sedaris, in his essay, “Cyclops,” ends with the voice of his father, who is the main character in this essay:

“I don’t know where you got it from, but in the end, it’s going to kill you.”

The following brief reply, taken from Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” shows an image, followed by unquoted dialogue. Beard uses italics instead:

Around my neck is the stone he brought me from Poland. I hold it out. Like this? I ask. Shards of fly wings, suspended in amber.
Exactly, he says.

Another example below comes again from Scott Russell Sanders, this from “Cloud Crossing,” as his toddler son babbles:

“Moon,” he is piping from the back seat, “moon, moon!”

End with Reflection

When used well, reflection is a great way to convey feelings without telling the reader how you felt – or how they should feel. Reflection offers the writer’s thoughts about what is happening or has happened. Reflection can include thoughts about the moment or thoughts looking back, about the experience. Reflection can add clarity, as we see the writer thinking through the experience. This concluding moment is from James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”:

. . . I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.

Bret Lott, in his short essay, “Brothers,” reflects on childhood memories of his family, taking him into the present with his own two sons:

What I believe is this: That pinch was entry into our childhood; my arm around him, our smiling, is the proof of us two surfacing, alive but not unscathed.
And here are my own two boys, already embarked.

When writing your own conclusion, think about what you want your readers to take away from your story. Then think about how best you can show it. Ending with reflection may work great for one story, but not another. Concluding with dialogue may sound forced. You seldom can go wrong with images. Think about what feeling, emotion, or question you want to leave your readers with, the take-away, then pick the type of conclusion that best suits the piece. If you’ve done your job showing the event or experience throughout the narrative, the conclusion will come naturally.


Begin in the Middle: Ways to un-organize your narrative essay

When beginning writers are tasked with writing a narrative essay, most pick an event and start telling the story at the beginning, and the subsequent details follow in chronological order. This seems logical: beginning, middle, end. Sometimes these narrative essays will incorporate a brief flashback, but never deviate from the chronological retelling of events.

The problem with this kind of storytelling organization is that it can become tedious to a reader. Writers tend to begin too far back to the beginning, then proceed to tell every detail up to the end. By the time the reader gets to the conclusion, he or she may lose interest. By taking the narrative out of chronological order and begin “in media res,” or “in the middle of things,” we get off to a swift start that will sustain the narrative through to the end and hook the reader’s interest.

In medias res (or medias in res) is a Latin phrase which simply means the narrative story begins at the mid-point of the action rather than at the beginning. Setting, characters, and conflict can be set up immediately via flashback, conversations, or inner reflection. The main advantage of in medias res is to open the story with dramatic action rather than exposition, which sets up the characters and situation.

In medias res often, though not always, entails nonlinear narrative, or non-chronological order, for exposition of earlier events in order to fill in the back story. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey use this technique to begin with the action of the Trojan War. To Kill a Mockingbird begins with Jem’s broken arm, which doesn’t happen in the narrative until the conclusion. Think about the stories you’ve read for class; where in the story has the action begun? I’ll bet you’ll find it is seldom in the actual beginning of events.

When composing your own essay, there is no magic answer on where to begin your story, but one technique writers use in the revision process is scissors. Take your draft and cut apart at each paragraph, then lay each paragraph out on the floor. Try to envision where the narrative could be re-arranged, and play with the organization. Place the end at the beginning. Place the beginning in the middle. Throw out all the middle that is taking the reader away from the essence of the story. One writer I know who is about to publish her fifth book used this technique to organize her last collection of essays, taking each chapter and throwing it on the floor, then visually studying how best they would fit together.

Once you begin to play with the possibilities of organization, think about the use of “white space,” or the breaks in the narrative where you placed a double space to visually separate the paragraphs. Remember in creative writing, white space means something – a jump in time, a jump in place, or a shift in perspective. How are you using your white spaces? If you tend to use a lot of paragraph breaks, but with no discernible reason, maybe that paragraph is in the wrong place in the narrative.

Once you shift your perspective to consider other possibilities of organization for your narrative other than chronological, you will avoid spinning your wheels in the beginning and hook the reader by placing him or her immediately into the action. For further reading on essay organization and structure read Robert Root’s, “This is What the Spaces Say” and “Collage, Montage, Mosaic, Vignette, Episode, Segment.”