Descriptive Writing - Using the Five Senses
Write to Interest!
When you use select vocabulary and skilful crafting of language to conjure vivid mental images, evoke specific sensations, arouse certain desires or provoke particular responses in your reader, you are using imagery. Imagery is an important element in descriptive writing.
When describing, it is important that you engage the reader fully by making him see, hear, feel, taste and/or smell that which you are describing – in short you should spark off certain responses by using language which appeals to the senses. This is known as sensory imagery.
Sensory imagery enhances descriptive writing and is a particularly useful tool in the lower school where students are just beginning to put their creative writing skills into use. At that level, they can be taught how to create sensory imagery by identifying which senses could be most appropriately appealed to for a given subject. For example, in describing a person, it may be possible to make the reader see, hear, smell and touch the person. In describing a scene or object, it may be possible to evoke responses from all five senses.
A good starter is to form word lists for each of the senses relevant to the given subject. The words can then be crafted into sentences which convey imagery appealing to the particular senses as seen in the example below.
Mom's Christmas Ham
Mom's Christmas Ham - Word List
succulent and soft
clove and lemon scented
dripping its juices
garlic and herb flavoured
tasting of red wine
Description of Mom's Christmas Ham
As I entered the house the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked ham greeted my nostrils and tickled my taste buds. The delightful scent of cloves seemed to fill the house and it propelled me straight into the kitchen. Mom had just removed a large, red, crispy looking ham from the oven and it lay in a pan on the stove top still sizzling and dripping its delicious juices. That was my welcome home treat; I could not wait to sink my teeth into the succulent flesh. After quickly embracing Mom, I grabbed a carving knife from the block on the counter and attacked that mouthwatering ham with relish. Uuuuummm, the heavenly taste of red wine blended with garlic and herbs! The spicy flavour combined with the oven’s heat seemed to set my taste buds on fire and after the first soft, yummy slice, I went for a second and a third and ….Mom stood beaming as I ravaged her Christmas ham; my welcome home ham!
The following brief passages serve to illustrate effective use of sensory imagery:
- Describing a Person
- Janet was breathtaking as she emerged on the runway. Tall, slender, elegant, she was the picture of an African princess. Her movements were fluid and confident, graceful and poised. Her white attire, in stark contrast to her glowing, black skin, clung seductively to her sensuous body. Her trendy afro hairstyle accentuated her wide oval eyes and pearly teeth as she flashed a dazzling smile at her captivated audience.
The above description calls upon the reader to visualize this beautiful, black model. It conjures images of a woman who is not only physically beautiful, but also graceful and self-assured.
Note that in this piece of writing, effective description is achieved through skilful combination of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. While the use of well-chosen adjectives such as tall, slender, elegant, African, white, sensuous, afro, wide, oval, pearly, beautiful, glowing, black and dazzling is effective in creating the desired visual impact, it is the artistic crafting of these in combination with the other word groups that achieves the overall effect. The well-chosen nouns, in particular have a powerful effect as illustrated in the following examples:
- runway right away brings to mind a model
- picture suggests perfection
- princess conjures royalty and beauty
- afro depicts black (and beautiful)
Likewise, adverbs such as breathtaking, smooth, confident, graceful and poised are what conveys her elegance. Action words such as emerged, clung and flashed complete this picture of perfection.
Of course, the imagery used here is mainly visual. Effective utilization of the various aspects of sensory imagery is clearly dependent on the subject that one is writing about. Let us look at another example.
- My granny was not like ordinary grandmothers; I mean she dressed more fashionably and acted younger than the grans of all my friends. I watched with pride as the chic woman stepped nimbly out of the car at the school gates and strode towards the cluster of students at the entrance, her gold tipped, red stilettos clicking as if in accompaniment to the graceful sway of her broad hips beneath her close fitting grey dress. As she caught sight of us her eyes lit up and her rouged lips parted into a broad, happy smile. “Jenjen,” she cried as I flung myself into her wide, warm embrace. I breathed in the familiar scent of baby powder as she cuddled me into my special haven against her ample bosom. “Look at my baby, my little doudou (darling),” she cooed in her sing song Caribbean accent which reminded me of waves knocking gently against the cliffs on a warm, starry night. I felt her love enfold me as it always did; my gran who was always there for me. I knew that she would have come.
In this example, the writer again paints the picture of a sophisticated woman, but in this instance, he also allows us to hear her voice, smell her homely baby powder fragrance and to feel the warmth and comfort of her motherly bosom. In addition, he creates a vivid contrast between the grandmother’s classy appearance and her warm personality which is what distinguishes her from the grandmothers of his friends. It is something of a marvel that someone who appears to be preoccupied with sophistication and glamour can be, at the same time so warm and full of grandmotherly affection and love.
2. Describing a Place/Scene
Devil’s lake loomed ahead, an enormous expanse of still, dark water. There was no telling what horrors lay within its depths. The overhanging trees were gnarled and bowed forming eerie silhouettes in the approaching dusk. Not a breeze blew, not a bird chirped; no sound; no movement just deathly silence and stillness and the pungent smell of decaying bush. Involuntarily, I felt myself shiver. I pulled my coat closely around me as I looked warily around. Suddenly, there was a loud rumble of thunder and a blast of wind bringing with it stinging raindrops which pelted against my skin. There was nowhere to shelter and no sign of the rest of the group.
The objective of this piece is to create an image of a scary place and the writer achieves this through careful selection of vocabulary and skilful crafting of imagery. He makes the reader experience the trepidation which comes with being alone in an eerie environment.
The reader is made to visualize a lake which is dark and frightening to the extent that it causes the onlooker to shiver involuntarily. He is also made to experience (smell, feel and hear) the different aspects of the environment which contribute to its creepiness.
3. Describing an Object
The wedding ring felt cold and alien on her slender finger. The beautiful diamond which had hitherto winked at Grace amidst its warm circle of gleaming pearls now looked ugly and hostile. The white gold which had once seemed romantic and special now appeared dull and ordinary like something that had been picked up in a dollar store. The cold metal seemed to cut through the flesh of her throbbing finger and suddenly, Grace could not bear it any longer. In one swift movement she wrenched the offensive object off her finger and vehemently flung it across the room. It hit the mirror with a loud ping then rolled beneath the dressing table.
From this description is it easy to tell that all is not well with the marriage of which the ring is a symbol. The reader gets the mental image of a beautiful, expensive wedding ring which once held warmth and romance and had probably been very carefully chosen. At the same time, he is given another view of the ring from the perspective of a wife who is clearly hurting and unhappy. The beautiful ring is therefore transformed into a symbol of pain and disillusionment and the reader is drawn to experience the feeling of unhappiness which impels Grace to throw the ring away.
In this piece of writing the writer has appealed to the senses of sight, sound and feeling. He has also appealed to the reader’s emotions.
4. Describing an Event
The playing field was a sea of red - all types of red outfits; from the skimpiest shorts to the most over-sized t-shirts. The victory train had off loaded all its passengers there and they were jumping, chanting and waving red flags to the pulsating rhythm of the campaign song “Woy,Woy,Woy something’s happening…”. Vendors had come out in large numbers to capitalize on this excellent opportunity to earn some extra income and the atmosphere was filled with tantalizing aromas of barbecued chicken and spare ribs, popcorn, roasted corn and plantains, grilled fish, pelau and other delectables which were being lavishly consumed by the large and growing crowd. Alcoholic beverages were flowing freely; everyone seemed to be holding a bottle or a styrofoam cup and the ground was littered with cups, plates and food wrappings. There was a cool breeze blowing from the sea, but it did very little for the sweating gyrating bodies on fire with the fresh, heady taste of victory. It seemed that everybody was there and the throbbing music and chanting voices could be heard from miles away. The Labor Party had just won the general elections!
The description of an event encompasses all the other areas – person, object, scene and so it lends itself more readily to extensive use of sensory imagery and gives the writer the opportunity to cover all the senses as seen in the passage above.
Use a Checklist!
A good way for the student to determine whether he has appealed to the relevant senses in a piece of writing is to make a sort of check list of the senses and to go back in his writing to identify the imagery which pertains to each. In this way he will also notice where he can make necessary improvements.
With some effort and practice, the skill of using imagery to enhance descriptive writing can be mastered.
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