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.

14 thoughts on “Making Sense: How to incorporate sensory detail into your narrative

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