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Descriptive Writing - Using the Five Senses

Updated on July 27, 2017
Joyette  Fabien profile image

Joyette taught English & Literature at High School for many years. Her Writing and Education hubs come from her experience in the classroom.

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Sensory Imagery

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

Source

Mom's Christmas Ham - Word List

(click column header to sort results)
SMELL  
SEE  
TOUCH  
HEAR  
TASTE  
tantalizing
large
crispy outside
sizzling
succulent and soft
clove and lemon scented
red
soft inside
 
juicy
delightful
dripping its juices
hot
 
garlic and herb flavoured
freshly baked
 
 
 
tasting of red wine
mouth watering
 
 
 
hot/spicy
 
 
 
 
delicious

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!

Sample passages

The following brief passages serve to illustrate effective use of sensory imagery:

  1. 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!

Source

Review

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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    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 5 months ago from Dominica

      Mr Romine,welcome to the Hubpages family! Thank you for your feedback! I look forward to hearing from you with respect to my other hubs.

    • Brett Romine profile image

      Brett Romine 5 months ago from Hartford City

      Outstanding illustrations for various types of descriptive writing. I will have to check out your other hubs on creative writing. Thank you!

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 20 months ago from Dominica

      Iqra, the hub is intended as a guide to assist you in writing your own essay.

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      iqra 20 months ago

      hello... sir i want to write descriptive writing on a object, i am in 8th grade at LGS, i am finding this difficult to write so can you provide a complete essay on any object?? i will be very thankful

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      A person 2 years ago

      Hello everyone

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 2 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you, steph

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      steph 2 years ago

      very helpful

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 2 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you Tan. I hope you voted "awesome" :)

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 2 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you Lee. Your comment is full of enthusiasm. It makes me want to write! :)

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      Tan 2 years ago

      I love the way you have used your english... Awesome!

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      Lee 2 years ago

      Bravo! The way you write is inspiring and mesmerizing

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 2 years ago from Dominica

      Hi, I am sure you can come up with some words to describe fire if you follow the guidelines which I provided

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      hi 2 years ago

      it was useful but i needed a chart on how describe fire

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 2 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you very much for your positive feedback. All the best!

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      Arush R. 2 years ago

      The article is really helpful, and you have explained it in such a way, that it will never fail to help someone understand

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 2 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you for reading!

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      These are very good writing tips for all ages, not just for school children.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 2 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you. Glad you found it useful.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub, Joyette. Your chart was very useful on how to describe ham. This would help writers at school and at home alike. Voted up!

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 2 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you aesta1

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      The examples are very effective in showing what you try to impart. I understand it better. These are worthwhile tips.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 2 years ago from Dominica

      No Sharifah, I have not heard of Monezilax

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 2 years ago from Dominica

      Thanks Gipsy Rose, I appreciate your enthusiastic comment. Thanks for passing it on also.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 2 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. Very informative and very descriptive. I see exactly what you mean. You write and people see what you see, hear what you hear, smell what you smell and of course taste what you taste. Wonderful and I see that such writing requires making a list of the descriptive words first in order to work on them properly. Passing this on.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 3 years ago from Dominica

      Thanks vespawoolf, glad you enjoyed reading!

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 3 years ago from Peru, South America

      I like the idea of a checklist to pinpoint areas of description that could be improved. I enjoyed reading the examples of imagery.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 3 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you Abluesfornina. This is something very close to my heart!

    • Abluesfornina profile image

      S Marie 3 years ago

      You are good and clearly put in the work for these articles. You can feel the care you have for educating children as well. Appreciate this.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 3 years ago from Dominica

      Thanks for reading, AliciaC

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a great hub, Joyette! You've conveyed your message very effectively in the illustrative passages. Your hub is interesting, useful and enjoyable.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 3 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you DDE. I hope it can be useful :)

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A fantastic way to write and you have said it all here.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 3 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you! I am always happy when someone finds my hubs useful! All the best.

    • MPG Narratives profile image

      Marie Giunta 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Great tips on descriptive writing. Your examples are excellent and really teach an aspiring writer how its done. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Joyette. I will keep referring to this article for my own writing. Voted up and useful.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 3 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you so much, Minnetonka Twin!

    • Minnetonka Twin profile image

      Linda Rogers 3 years ago from Minnesota

      This is such a great informational hub. I love the idea of putting a list of senses. I'm going to share this well written hub and pin it so I can use it for my writing. Hit many buttons and voted up.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 3 years ago from Dominica

      Welcome crassnsilly! There's lots of good stuff here though :)

    • crassnsilly profile image

      crassnsilly 3 years ago from leigh-on-sea

      At last – someone who knows what they are talking about. Hub Pages is so full of rubbish poems and advice about making toy animals, it is great to read someone who can inform. Thank you.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 4 years ago from Dominica

      You are most welcome! Thanks for reading!

    • ieschiefengineer profile image

      Satendra Kumar 4 years ago from India

      Excellent hub! Thanks for sharing.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 4 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you stuff4kids. I am always happy when my hubs can be of use

    • stuff4kids profile image

      Amanda Littlejohn 4 years ago

      Great hub, packed full of useful and practical information. I can use this with kids - or even to improve my own writing. Thank you so much. :)

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 4 years ago from Dominica

      And your comment does just that! You seem to be a natural :)!

    • CraftytotheCore profile image

      CraftytotheCore 4 years ago

      This hub is excellent! Very well-written!

      Appealing to senses is what makes written words so intriguing. They capture the audience in a trance-like state and whisp them off to a world of imagination.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 4 years ago from Dominica

      Thank you chuckd7138. Your feedback is valuable to me ! I am happy that this hub can be useful to you and that you will share it !

    • chuckd7138 profile image

      Charles Dawson 4 years ago from Virginia Beach, VA

      This hub is very educational, and like Maria, I will also be revisiting it from time to time as a refresher. Thank you for posting! And yes, I will definitely be voting up and sharing.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image
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      Joyette Fabien 4 years ago from Dominica

      Well thanks, Maria Cecilia. I only just posted it so I will be visiting it also to make improvements. You can be assured that the next time you visit you will find it refined. I am happy that you find it useful.

    • Maria Cecilia profile image

      Maria Cecilia 4 years ago from Philippines

      I like this hub I think I will visit this from time to time to review... This is what wanted to develop more in my writing and so glad to find one article that really talks about it... voted up...