From the Writers Workshop Project
Tip — Using Vivid Sensory Language
by Michael Jackman

Goal: To learn to use all six, yes six, senses

The craft of fiction involves what John Gardner called creating the “fictional dream” in the reader’s mind. To do so, writers strive to create vivid, visceral writing—writing that powerfully involves the readers’ six, yes six, senses. This is as important to poetry as it is to fiction, and it takes revision to get it right.

In my workshops I incorporate presentations and revision exercises to focus on this important craft issue. Most writers’ first draft description tends to be more abstract and general than visceral and specific. But before revising to evoke a sensation of “you are there,” it helps to go over your options.

When I say there are six senses, I don’t mean anything esoteric like extra sensory perception, or the “third eye” of Buddhism. But there’s one sense that’s usually overlooked when we first learn to count them on our five fingers in elementary school. I’ve listed all six senses below, including both their common sense and fancy literary names. The overlooked item I’ve set in bold.

The Six Senses

  • Hearing, Auditory
  • Taste, Gustatory
  • Smell, Olfactory
  • Touch, Tactile
  • Sight, Visual
  • Balance, Kinesthetic

Notice I’ve listed sight near the end. Why? Because although sight is important, writers concentrate on it so much so as to neglect the others. In fact, hearing and smell, being connected to a more primitive part of the brain, are actually more powerful. They evoke memory and emotion quickly.

Remember when you heard a song play or smelled a certain tang in the air, maybe the wet smell of autumn leaves or the aroma of fresh bread baking, and you were instantly transported out of the present day scene into another time and place, with all the emotions involved? That’s how powerful sound and smell are.

But balance? Kinesthetics is the sensation of where your body is in space. It is also powerful.

Dickens made use of great visceral writing in Great Expectations. In the following excerpt I’ve bolded examples of the sensations. The last paragraph, with it’s tilted perspective, even evokes balance! Note that some words conjure up more than one, doing double or even triple duty.

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head, as he seized me by the chin.

“Oh! Don’t cut my throat, sir,” I pleaded in terror. “Pray don’t do it, sir.”

“Tell us your name!” said the man. “Quick!”

“Pip, sir.”

“Once more,” said the man, staring at me. “Give it mouth!”

“Pip. Pip, sir.”

“Show us where you live,” said the man. “Pint out the place!”

I pointed to where our village lay, on the flat in-shore among the alder-trees and pollards, a mile or more from the church.

The man, after looking at me for a moment, turned me upside down, and emptied my pockets. There was nothing in them but a piece of bread. When the church came to itself–for he was so sudden and strong that he made it go head over heels before me, and I saw the steeple under my feet–when the church came to itself, I say, I was seated on a high tombstone, trembling, while he ate the bread ravenously.

In which parts of speech does vivid language live? It lives in strong nouns, verbs, and (I say this with reservations) adjectives. Many writers overuse adjectives. A good rule of thumb is that if there is a strong noun that can replace an adjective/noun combo, make the replacement. But when used sparingly and well, adjectives can contribute to powerful, vivid writing.

Dickens’ strong nouns include graves, iron, rag, flints, nettles, briars. Strong verbs include cried, cut, tied, soaked, smothered, lamed, stung, torn, limped, shivered, glared, growled, chattered, seized, pleaded. And lively adjective combinations include coarse grey, broken shoes, old rag. There are even a couple of strong adverbs: trembling and ravenously. You can’t do much better for compact, vivid language.

Exercise: In Search of the mot juste

Take a few paragraphs of one of your drafts and circle all the nouns, verbs and adjectives. Have you identified the most evocative word? Where you are using weak, workaday adj.-noun phrases and verbs, i.e. he was a “tall man,” she “went” down the hall, see what more vivid substitutions you can create, i.e. he was a solid, giant of a man; she crept down the hall.

Six senses or, maybe thirty?

No sense lives alone.

Each sensation has many parts. For instance, take hearing. Our sense of hearing contains the subsenses of volume, pitch and tone, to name a few. Sight is not one monolithic sense, either. It includes color, shape, motion, brightness and other aspects. Exploring the underlying parts of the sensations will give you a large list from which to invent stronger writing.

Exercise: In Search of your inner senses

On a sheet of paper, write each of the six senses and list their constituent parts. Or if you prefer a more visual exercise, use a map. Place one of the senses in the center of a page and draw a circle around it. Then draw lines from the sense to its subsenses. Mapping is an excellent brainstorming technique.

A trope of mixed sensations: Synesthesia

A useful figure of speech for writers is called synesthesia. It is a kind of analogy, that is, a type of comparison. Synesthesia is a writing technique in which one sensation is described in terms of another. One reason we have this figure is that English lacks enough words to describe some sensations. For example, in music we often talk of bright and dark tones, crisp or fuzzy playing – thus describing sound in terms of light and texture.

Painters talk of hot and cool colors. Poets may write of a cacaphony of light, the hot silence between two people, or any other phrases that evoke synesthesia as a vivid representation of sensation.

Exercise: Mixing up the senses

List how many ways you can think of to describe one sensation in terms of another. Describe how using the figure of synesthesia can be useful in writing.

I hope you enjoyed this presentation on the craft of writing. If you’d like more information on writing, or on any of my workshops, contact me or check out my workshops.

© 2006 Michael Jackman