I’ve written about the importance of sensory imagery in writing before, specifically for developing characters, in my blog: Use The Five Senses and Bring Your Characters to Life.
But it’s not just for developing your characters; sensory imagery is needed everywhere if you want your readers to engage with your story.
What is sensory imagery?
When we tell a story, we create a world in the reader’s mind, and by using specific, definite, and concrete details, we enable the reader to enter this new world.
A detail is definite and concrete when it appeals to the senses. It should be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.
Whether you are writing non-fiction, fiction, poetry, or plays, getting in touch with your senses, and using imagery that relates to them, will serve you well.
Experience using sensory imagery.
This post aims to give you the experience of engaging with each sense and letting it take you somewhere unexpected. It’s all very well to understand the concept of using the senses and even be convinced that it’s important to include them in your writing. Still, until you’ve taken the time—10 minutes is all you need— to experience the nuances of each sense, you might not fully understand why using sensory imagery in your writing is essential and how it works.
How to start: Choose a writing prompt and write it at the top of your page. Set your timer for 10 minutes. Read the prompt and begin writing immediately, without thinking—follow the first thought and go wherever it takes you. No editing, no judging, just writing.
Keep your pen moving.
Don’t stop until the time is up.
Tip: Write by hand. Writing by hand connects the brain and body and, I believe, the heart. It’s especially helpful in getting those first thoughts onto the page.
Remember: you can always write from the POV of one of your characters.
25 Great Sensory Writing Prompts.
The Sense of Smell
More than any other sense, smell can connect us intimately to the past in a way our ideas cannot. A scent can initiate a flood of memories regardless of how unexpected or fleeting. A whiff of your mother’s perfume on an old sweater can catapult you to a long-forgotten memory of weekly drives to ballet class, the last kiss at bedtime, tears over a science project, or your wedding day.
Prompt 1. What’s the most unusual smell you’ve ever encountered?
Prompt 2. What’s the first scent you smell upon entering your home?
Prompt 3. What is the most dangerous smell you can think of?
Prompt 4. If you were holding your favorite stuffed animal from childhood, what would it smell like?
Prompt 5. Peel an orange, inhale the scent and write about the first memory that comes to mind.
For more on smell, read the blog How the Sense of Smell Can Enhance Your Writing.
The Sense of Touch
Touch is a basic human need, and it’s the first sense we develop upon entering this world and the last sense to go as we depart this world.
It is also one of the least used senses in writing, perhaps because it’s the most difficult to describe. But think about how often we confirm what we see by reaching out and touching. A reader can more easily engage with a character’s world if they can touch it. I’m using the word touch rather than feel because the term “feel” tends to lead us to emotions, and while that’s important, it’s not what we’re aiming for here.
Prompt 1. Write about the last time you touched wet.
Prompt 2. Write about something you want to touch but can’t or shouldn’t.
Prompt 3. Imagine you can describe a sculpture by how it feels as you run your hands over it.
Prompt 4. Write about the earliest touch you can remember.
Prompt 5. Write about something you can’t pass by without touching it.
For more on the sense of touch, read the blog How To Use The Sense Of Touch In Your Writing.
The Sense of Taste
Taste might be the least used sense in writing but think of all you can learn about your character through their tastebuds. The sense of taste and the act of tasting can be highly evocative, taking your reader from delight to disgust with a mere nibble.
Yes, it may be challenging to describe taste without using the senses for sight and smell, which are inherent in taste but challenge yourself to see where taste alone might take you.
Prompt 1. This exercise will prime you for the following four prompts Choose something you like to eat, a piece of fruit, a square of chocolate, and most anything will work. Sit quietly and take a few slow breaths. When you’re ready, take a bite or place the food item in yo r mouth and let it sit on your tongue. Take note of physical sensations, flavor, and sound. You may discover new sensations and ideas for enriching your descriptive details. Now, write a description of what you experienced.
Prompt 2. Write about your favorite childhood meal and how it might ta te today.
Prompt 3. Think of two of your favorite foods. Now write about how they might taste together.
Prompt 4. Write about the experience of tasting a foreign dish for the first time.
Prompt 5. Describe the taste of your favorite dessert without revealing what it is.
For more on the sense of taste, read the blog, How To Use The Sense Of Taste In Your Writing.
The Sense of Hearing
Second, to sight, hearing gives us a primary experience of the world we live in. Sounds enrich our environment; we depend on them to help u interpret, communicate with, and express the world around us.
While not as evocative as smell, familiar sounds can stir memories and transport us to another time and place. What more powerful tool could a writer ask for than auditory details that offer nuanced layers to a scene?
Prompt 1. What would it sound like if you amplified the sound of snow falling on the roof?
Prompt 2. Describe the sound of a family holiday dinner.
Prompt 3. Play a piece of your favorite music and write from the first image that appears in your mind.
Prompt 4. Sit quietly for 2-3 minutes until you can identify the sound that is the farthest away. Describe it without naming it and go wherever it takes you.
Prompt 5. What sound do you most like/dislike?
For more on the sense of hearing, read the blog How To Use The Sense Of Hearing In Your Writing.
The Sense of Sight
The sense of sight is the sense we use most often in writing.
If you’ve ever tried to describe something without referring to sight, you’ll know just how challenging that is to accomplish.
Perhaps this is because 70% of the body’s sense receptors cluster in the eyes, and it is mainly through seeing the world that we appraise and understand it.
A visual image can be a trigger for memory and emotion. A painting can take us back to a time in history replete with triumph or tragedy. A gesture captured in a photograph may symbolize love, loss, or confusion.
Remember, sight is not only for description and scene setting; showing how your characters see the world and how they feel about it will capture your readers’ attention.
Prompt 1. Describe your face as you might see it reflected in a pool of water.
Prompt 2. Describe someone who doesn’t know you are watching them.
Prompt 3. If anger were a creature, describe it.
Prompt 4. Describe your ideal writing place.
Prompt 5. Choose a painting and describe it without using the sense of sight Use every other sense.
For more on the sense of sight, read the blog How To Use The Sense Of Sight In Your Writing.
I hope you find these prompts useful—let me know how it goes.