We all use description in our writing. We describe characters and settings, actions and reactions. Most of what we write is description of some sort. By using the 5 senses, we can broaden our descriptions from a list of attributes to an experience for our readers.
Touch—How do you describe touch? The word feel/felt is passive so how can we describe how something feels without using that word? Let’s think of some words that describe something that you’ve touched.
Silky, smooth, rough, scaly, sticky, slimy, hard, soft, ribbed, slick, grainy slippery…you get the idea.
It’s not the adjectives themselves but how they are woven into the nouns, verbs and phrases that will truly help a reader know how an unfamiliar, or even familiar, object feels. Let’s have an example.
He ran his hand through her _______ hair.
A little cliché, I know. But what if we didn’t go with the obvious choice? What if we chose sticky? This would have a huge impact on his reaction.
He ran his hand through her sticky hair. He stared at his fingers, squishing them together. The skin peeling apart from top to bottom and then he did it again, fascinated at the suction the sugary substance caused.
We’ve all experienced that as kids and, while unexpected here, we get a clear picture of how sticky feels.
Smell—We all know what things smell like. Describing the actual smell without using comparisons can be a challenge. Let’s think of some words that describe smells.
Foul, sweet, burning, smoky, pungent, fruity, rancid, decayed, fresh, stale, dusty, minty, woody, earthy, sweaty, musty, dank.
How would you describe fresh cut grass? Or, the smell of baking bread? How about the smell of a dirty diaper? These are all things we have smelled before but putting words to a description can be hard. A lot of times we rely on common experience of the readers to fill in the blanks. When we write things like, fresh cut grass, or the smell of baking bread, or even dirty diaper, they definitely evoke something in each of us. But because everyone’s experiences are different, what they think of will not be the same as what the writer intended.
Scent also has the strongest connection to memory. Who hasn’t walked into the house while cookies were baking and thought of visits to Grandma’s or baking with Mom? But we can’t just rely on ‘tells’ and the readers experience to describe scent. As an exercise, try using adjectives to describe the following. Some may be harder that you think. If you come up with a good one, share it in the comments.
- Fresh cut grass
- Baking bread
- A garden/your favorite flowers
- Two-week-old leftovers in the fridge
Taste—How would you describe the taste of salt to someone who has never eaten it? Not as easy as it sounds, is it? Especially since we use ‘salty’ as an adjective. So, on to the list of taste words.
Salty, sweet, sour, sweet and sour, savory, rich, tangy, bitter, bittersweet, fruity, starchy, flavorful, raspberry(or all the fruit flavors), mild, spicy.
When writing about taste, your goal should be to evoke the memory of a specific taste in your reader by giving the description of the item and the characters reaction to it.
She loaded the chip with salsa. Opening wide, she crunched down and chewed rolling the tomatoes, peppers and lime flavors around in her mouth. She smiled at her date, but then her eyes watered and she gasped for air. She swallowed the mouthful and the heat slid down to her stomach. Drawing in a deep breath, she plunged her head into the punch bowl, cooling the burn with huge gulps of the sweet, fruity drink.
Or how about the taste of ice cream?
He slid his tongue over the cold scoop on the cone. Flecks of bittersweet chocolate mingled with the sugary cream. He closed his eyes savoring the mix of flavors.
Draw on your personal experiences and sensations to help the readers identify and make their mouth’s water.
Hearing—Sounds are important to our lives. If you describe a setting and leave out the sounds you haven’t given the reader a complete picture. Would you describe a carnival without the barker yelling, the music of the merry-go-round floating on the breeze, a bell ringing and people cheering as someone wins a prize, and let’s not forget the shrieks of the daring souls brave enough to ride the roller coaster. These all add to the setting.
But sometimes we can use sound to convey action.
Pop! Pop! Pop! He ducked, bullets peppering the wall above his head.
This is called onomatopoeia. These words imitate the natural sound of things. Think of them as sound effects for writers. Here are some examples of onomatopoeia.
Boom, crash, pop, splash, drip, plop, warble, whoosh, croak, whistle, giggle, growl, bawl, clang, clap, clink, slap, thud, buzz, chirp, meow, moo.
These words mimic the sound they describe. They are often found at the beginning of a sentence and signify the sounds themselves. They can also heighten the tension or surprise the reader as in the example above. So don’t forget the sound of your setting for a complete picture.
Sight—Last of all is sight. As writers, we are used to describing the visual aspects of our characters and setting. But we have to remember to make them part of the story and not just a laundry list of description. Here’s an example.
He was tall, about six feet. He had blond hair and blue eyes. He wore blue jeans and a black t-shirt.
Pretty boring, right? Now let’s make it part of the story.
I looked up into his face when the gun cocked. The boy’s blue eyes shifted around the alley. Switching the gun to his left hand he wiped his palm on his tight, black t-shirt. He turned and ran away, his messy blond hair blowing in the wind.
Making the details part of the action makes it more interesting for the reader.
Using color can be tricky. Ally Condie stands out to me as someone who has mastered the use of color in her writing. Here are the first few paragraphs of her book Matched.
Now that I’ve found the way to fly, which direction should I go into the night? My wings aren’t white or feathered; they’re green, made of green silk, which shudders in the wind and bends when I move—first in a circle, then in a line, finally in a shape of my own invention. The black behind me doesn’t worry me; neither do the stars ahead.
I smile at myself, at the foolishness of my imagination. People cannot fly, though before the Society, there were myths about those who could. I saw a painting of one of them once. White wings, blue sky, gold circles above their heads, eyes turned up in surprise as though they couldn’t believe what the artist had painted them doing, couldn’t believe that their feet didn’t touch the ground.
Those stories weren’t true. I know that. But tonight it’s easy to forget.
She uses color seven different times in that passage alone. Never once did she ‘tell’ us something about the color. She didn’t tell us her dress was green or the night was black or even that the painting was of angels. She ‘showed’ us the thoughts of her POV character and worked the color in. So let us find better ways of using sight in our writing to make it vivid.
By employing all the senses in our writing, we don’t just tell our readers a story, we let them share in the experience of our characters. We can evoke emotion and memory. We can create well-rounded settings and vivid, colorful pictures. So go forth and try something new. Expand your descriptions to artistry.