The term “sensory language” refers to language used in writing that connects the readers to real life senses—touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste.
Writing with sensory language falls into the “show don’t tell” realm of writing advice, where painting a vivid picture of what you want your reader to see is much more impactful than just listing the facts of that scene.
Mastering writing with sensory language can elevate your prose, help your audience empathize with your characters, and create an overall more engaging story.
Let’s look at some examples and tips for how to use sensory language in your writing.
Why is sensory language important?
Using sensory language is important in creative writing for lots of reasons, including the ones listed above. Here are a few more areas of improvement you can achieve by writing with the senses.
Make your writing more engaging.
Using sensory language can plug your reader into the scene. Impactful description can make them feel like they’re actually experiencing the story. Writing with a robust range of senses helps with reader immersion.
When the reader is immersed, they’ll read for longer, and they’ll become more engaged with your story. An engaged reader is a loyal reader.
Help your audience connect with the characters.
Sensory description can help your reader feel closer to your characters. In a way, effective description should help your audience empathize with your characters, because they have a better grasp of exactly what the character is feeling through the tangible description.
Reveal things about your characters and their perspectives.
Not only can sensory language help your audience connect with the characters, but it can also reveal things about your characters. What you choose to describe and which senses you choose to include can reveal their personalities, goals, and perspectives.
set the scene
Setting up a scene with sensory language as opposed to straight listing of facts just makes a scene more fun to read. Your description sets the atmosphere of the scene, which can strongly affect your reader’s emotions!
Here’s a video that talks more in-depth about atmosphere and how to create it with sensory language:
Sensory language brings your story to life and lets your readers walk in the character’s shoes to really experience the story.
Examples of Sensory Language
Here are the general categories of sensory language, plus examples of how they might be employed.
Sight covers anything your character sees, obviously. It describes objects in view, visual textures, colors, lighting, dimension, perspective.
Visual description is the most frequently used and most important sense to write with. The other senses build a more complex and immersive atmosphere, but sight is the absolute minimum for a scene to be understandable.
Smell can convey a lot of different things! A bad smell can make a room really uncomfortable. It can be distracting, it can give you a headache. If you’re dropping a character in an uneasy scene, using an off-putting smell is a great way to get your readers to connect with that emotion.
Olfactory memory is one of the most powerful emotional triggers, but it becomes tricky to write about because you can’t actually trigger an olfactory memory with words, obviously. But you can try to emulate that emotional trigger by writing about common scents that your target demographic will most likely be familiar with.
You’ll typically see taste employed when a character is eating, but don’t overlook environmental tastes! Some smells sit on the tongue or the back of the throat, which make taste and smell related. If you’re writing with one, you’re likely writing with the other.
Sound is anything the character hears. Trees rustling in the wind, squirrels chittering, a child singing, a car honking. To enhance a sound, consider the effects that auditory sensation would have on your character.
A character blasts the stereo in their car—can they feel it rattling up their spine? Maybe their speakers peak and the additional screech pulls goosebumps to their skin. Is it vibrating on the floor of the car?
Your character hears a loud and close scream that jolts them from sleep—how did that sound affect their body? Are they started, shaking, heart pounding? Or are they groggy and confused?
After you describe the sound, ask yourself how that sound is affecting your character.
Touch involves anything your character can feel. Pain, pleasure, and everything in between.
Physical feeling can also include internal reactions. Things like nervous energy, nausea, fear and other strong emotions, dizziness, and hunger also count as touch sensory descriptions.
Kinesthesia is the general feeling of movement. These descriptions might fall into touch as well, but it specifically refers to the sensation of motion. Like a heart pounding, wind beating against your clothes, blinking rapidly.
7. Combo moves!
It’s great to twist more than one sense together to enhance a description.
Smell and taste are very closely related—if you’re describing one, it’s easy to mesh them together for a more rounded description. It’s so natural for these to come in a pair that writers often do this by accident.
Similarly, many of the same words can be used for touch and sight—you can say something feels or looks like something. Like a bunny can look fluffy and feel fluffy. A cockburr can look and feel spiky. The way you describe visual elements often comes with the implication of a physical feeling.
Smell can affect touch as well! Something can smell warm and comforting, which would reflect in how your character feels physically. It could sting their throat or their eyes. It could make them anxious and their chests tight.
Sight can affect touch—think of a bright light suddenly shone on you.
Taste can affect touch—think spicy food. Or something like a description of ice cream, where your character will taste it and significantly feel the cold.
A quick trick to combine senses is to ask yourself how the sensory input would physically affect your character.
How to write sensory language
So we know why sensory language is important, and we know what is included in sensory language—now how do we write with it?
Check out this video about writing strong scene descriptions.
1. Develop the idea of the thing you’re describing.
In order to effectively describe something, we need to know exactly what it is. Picture the thing in your mind. Imagine the smell, tastes, feeling of it. What does it look like where it is? How is it lit? What context does it hold in the scene?
Once you clearly know the thing you’re describing, you can convey that idea to your readers. If you can’t “picture” it in your head, it likely won’t translate to words effectively.
2. Be clear on what it is.
“Show don’t tell” is often a helpful bit of advice to make us write with concrete imagery, but also make sure that you state what the object/thing is that you’re describing. It’s great to state the facts of the scene in plain language, then get into the weeds of your character’s sensual experience.
3. Consider which senses are relevant.
Not all sensory descriptions will enhance a scene. If you try to hit all five every time, you’ll likely overdo it. Think of which senses are important to convey the mood, tone, and character perspective. Which senses would be the most overwhelming in that setting? What would the character notice first?
For example, if your character has been dropped in a sewer, it’s probably too dark to see much right away, but they’d definitely smell it! That scene should likely be written olfactory-first, because that sense would be the most overwhelming.
After that, they might notice the sounds—water dripping, rats scurrying, maybe the sound of pumps depending on where in the sewer they are.
With smell and sound covered, enough time has probably passed for your character’s eyes to adjust to the dark. Now what do they see?
Describing the scene in that order puts the reader in the character’s shoes, experiencing the environment at the same pace.
4. Connect the description and senses to the character or story.
Make sure the senses you chose to include are relevant to the character, scene, and story.
Remember: In a POV character’s scene, we should see (and hear and smell and taste and feel) what they’re noticing. Think about what your character would be noticing and why, then incorporate that into your sensory language choices.
5. Don’t overdo it.
Many new writers tend to “checklist” things like their sensory language—they’ll think of how the scene looks, sounds, tastes, smells, and feels, and they’ll describe all of those things in sequence.
That method could be a fine way to get your first draft out! But with revisions, try to nail down which descriptions are relevant to the character and/or scene. Trim back the descriptions that aren’t serving your story in any way.
Another way to avoid the “checklist” feeling is to combine your senses. Like we covered earlier, there are many situations where senses overlap. Combining them can make it seem less formulaic, plus add uniqueness to your description.
6. Let it sit, then read it over.
As with any effective prose, the real writing happens in the revisions. Don’t rush it!
Let your scene sit for a while, then look it over again and see how you like it. That might mean taking a break over the weekend, or it might mean setting your project aside for a month or two. Every writer and project is different, but make sure you take some amount of space from your book before you come back to polish up your sensory language.
Writing with sensory language
is always worth the time and consideration. Think of your description as the container you’re presenting the gift of your story in—if your container is lackluster, boring, or confusing, your recipient is less likely to open the box.
Clean prose with intentional sensory language is like a good book cover. If the presentation is sloppy, you might loose readers before they can give you a chance. So invest time and effort in your language, and happy writing!