We want our scenes to be immersive and believable. But sometimes description feels flat and lifeless. A common weakness is not using sensory impressions effectively. Often, there is too much focus on the visual. We don’t just see the world -we experience it through smells, sounds, temperature, and many other senses (not just five). Writing should capture these other kinds of experiences.
It’s not just about using multiple senses -it’s also about choosing the right details to construct an immersive and psychologically convincing sensory experience.
In order to make our writing more immersive and believable, we should practice engaging multiple sensory modalities, and learn how we can effectively use various sensory details to construct vivid and immersive scenes.
This post is about developing the ability to use sense impressions and details effectively. There will be a few concepts discussed, and lots of exercises for practice.
Understand the meaning and importance of sensory density; Develop range across sensory modalities, and awareness of options for increasing sensory density; Practice writing with high sensory density; Understand how distancing language reduces immersion; Practice avoiding distancing language; Understand salient details and telling details; practice using salient details and telling details.
Sensory Density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. A passage that only has visual sense impressions has low sensory density. A passage that engages multiple sensory modalities has high sensory density.
I could describe a walk through part of the city by showing the reader discarded shoes hanging from power-lines, old payphones caked with grime, a boarded up house on the corner, potholes. You’re beginning to see what kind of a place this is. But it’s not immersive description -not as immersive as it could have been if I also mentioned urine fumes from the sidewalk, the hacking coughs of old men, clouds of cigarette smoke -things that impinge on different senses.
A common rule of thumb is to engage three different senses to make a scene feel real.
The following lines of poetry have a very high sensory density:
All through the night the dead
crunch pieces of ice from the moon. (Yannis Ritsos)
This line of surreal poetry, though not aiming to be believable, is vivid and evocative. Part of its strength comes from the density of sensory impressions. We have sight, sound, taste, temperature, passage of time, all engaged in the space of one sentence. It conveys a creepy sense of weary, dissatisfied restlessness, and maybe dread or existential angst. I don’t know what it looks like for the dead to crunch pieces of ice from the moon -and I’m not sure you could find pieces of moon-ice big enough to crunch, or how the dead might get those pieces, or how they would crunch them- but the surreal line comes to life because of the evocative sensory imagery.
Here is another example of high sensory density.
“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde)
We can say that a passage conveys a sense impression to the extent that the reader is able to answer questions about the passage related to that sense. For the passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray, we could test what was conveyed by asking such questions:
Could you say what temperature the wind was?
How frequently it was blowing?
The sound it made?
What the studio looked like inside?
What it looked like outside, through the open door?
The passage manages to paint a vivid picture across several senses (and all of that from one sentence that is, grammatically, just about the smell). That’s sensory density.
Exercise – Sense Modalities
There’s way more than five senses. The point of this exercise is practicing with senses we might not normally consider, in order to expand our range with different sensory experiences. Some of these exercises will require you to really flex your descriptive and creative muscles.
There’s a table below with a series of different senses listed in the left hand column. For each one, your job is to come up with a description that uses that sense (write out a chart like this on a sheet of paper). Use your imagination to come up with any scene, setting, action, or object you want to describe. Or use any of the following prompts: piece of fruit, visiting a planet, magic spell, meeting an alien, fist fight, explosion, losing consciousness, stepping through a portal, skiing, falling asleep on a couch.
For example, in the “sight” row, you might choose to describe an apple using sight. For the “temperature” row, you might describe a cup of coffee. Use only one sentence per description. The purpose of this exercise is just to expand awareness of available sensory modalities, and to practice making descriptions using these different senses.
|sense modality||description that uses that sense|
|interoception (your choice)|
Exercises: Sensory Density
The point of these exercises is to practice sensory density. For each of the following prompts, write a description that engages three(3) or more senses. The main goal of this exercise is to practice coming up with different sensory impressions for the same scene. It is up to you to rely on your creativity to fill in the sensory details.
- 2 to 3 sentences in length per exercise
- 3rd person, past tense
- The POV character is your choice
Prompts: (for each one, use three or more senses!)
- Going to the dentist.
- Playing hockey outside.
- Trench warfare.
- Shopping at a large mall.
- Dumpster diving.
- Casting a magic spell.
Exercises: Sensory Density part 2 – specific challenges
For each of the following, render the given scene/action/object by using the specified sense(s). Some of these are super challenging. Some might require a little bit of research.
- 4 to 6 sentences in length per exercise.
- 3rd person, past tense.
- When a specific sense is asked for, come up with a descriptive detail that makes that sense relevant. For example, if you are asked to use smell, you will have to invent some detail in your scene that can be smelled; if you are asked to use nociception, you will have to invent some reason why the POV character is in pain.
- Render: dumpster diving, from the POV of a blind raccoon, using touch, smell, taste, and sound. Don’t use vision.
- Render: hunting shrimp, from the POV of a narwhal, using any combination of senses, but including salinity detection.
- Render: being abducted by aliens, from the POV of a farmer, using any combination of senses, but including sense of gravity, proprioception, chronoception, balance, and interoception (your choice). Make it weird.
- Render: running from the police, from the POV of a burglar, using any combination of senses, but including nociception and cardioception.
- Render: sick on a rollercoaster, from the POV of someone who ate too much cotton candy, using any combination of senses, but including taste, smell, and at least three different forms of interoception.
Salient impressions are the most powerful sensory impressions in a given scene or setting. They are the things that stand out to the viewpoint character.
Try to render salient sensory impressions for any scene or setting. Imagine yourself in place of the viewpoint character -or rely on a memory of something similar- and capture what draws your attention: in an outhouse, that might be the smell; in a subway, that might be the feeling of cramped bodies invading your personal space, or the jerk-and-stutter of the train while you search for something to hold for balance; if you step outside in winter, the salient impression might be the cold.
Because salient impressions are the ones that draw our attention, it makes sense for them to be included in your descriptions, not just because it helps render the scene, but because it increases psychological fidelity. Your prose will better match psychological reality if you focus on the sensory impressions that are more plausibly drawing the attention of the viewpoint character. And, conversely, immersion can be ruined by focusing on low-salience details when a high-salience detail is available (imagine reading a passage where the POV character is set on fire, and they describe the smell and the colours of the flame: immersion is guaranteed to be broken; the focus in this case should be on the heat and the pain, because of their salience).
The smell of flowers coming through an open window is a “telling detail”, because it also helps to illustrate a larger picture -we can picture the garden even though we are only given the scent.
Telling details are descriptions of smaller parts of the scene that help to paint a bigger picture. Unlike salient details, they are not necessarily the strongest sensory impressions. But telling details give an indication or suggestion of the larger scene, allowing the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. For example:
The ascending-and-descending pitch of a race-car’s engine as it whooshes by. This detail is just about the characteristic sound. But it helps render the larger scene. We can picture the race-car. Maybe we can also feel the wind.
A single pair of sneakers squeaking on the basketball court, and the rhythmic bouncing of the ball. Again, this detail is just about the sound. But we can imagine someone practicing basketball by themselves on an empty -probably indoor- basketball court. We can picture their motions. The sound gives an indication of a larger scene.
Broken bottles and cigarette butts littering an apartment hallway. I don’t need to explicitly tell you that this is a dirty and run-down apartment. The telling detail informs you of the larger scene. If I asked you whether any of the lights are broken or burnt out, your imagination can probably supply the answer.
A trick for rapidly establishing a scene is to use one broad description, just to situate the reader’s imagination, and then supplement that broad description with one telling detail. The formula is: broad description plus telling detail.
Dave Chappelle used this technique with comedic effect (successful comedians are master story-tellers). He wanted to describe a particularly bad ghetto. This is how he set the scene:
We pulled up to an old rickety building[…]
That’s the broad description. Then comes a telling detail (which Dave Chappelle calls one of “the familiar symptoms of a project”):
A [expletive] crackhead ran this way [skittering noise][…] And then another one jumped out a tree [skittering noise][…].
You could think of “telling details” as “familiar symptoms” if you prefer Dave Chappelle’s terminology. He continues the routine by adding additional telling details to further colour the scene:
I look out the window. Remember, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. […] I look out the window. There was a [expletive] baby standing on the corner. And the baby -the baby didn’t even look scared. He was just standing there.
It’s a funny picture, but it proves the point. When you want to describe a scene, give the broad description, and then colour it with “telling details” (or “familiar symptoms”).
Don’t over-describe. It is often better to let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting. Give them a telling detail and let their mind fill in the blanks.
Exercises: Telling Details
Your goal with these exercises is to rapidly establish a scene by using one broad description, and one or two telling details. You are practicing coming up with evocative details. They should be small details that help paint a bigger picture. Try to create as vivid a scene as you can by using small, suggestive details that create an impression of the larger scene.
- 1 to 2 sentences in length per exercise. Don’t cheat by using really long sentences. Part of the exercise is condensing your descriptions. Deliver a powerful punch by using telling details.
- 3rd person, past tense.
- POV character is up to you.
- Render: a medieval battlefield after a gruesome battle.
- Render: the lobby of a fancy hotel.
- Render: an island paradise.
- Render: a maniacal gang leader.
- Render: a bookish and nerdy university student.
- Render: a magical kingdom.
- Render: an evil kingdom of a dark lord.
- Render: a goblin with a heart of gold.
- Render: a prison with a bad reputation full of violent criminals.
- Render: the class clown.
Distancing Language (also called “filter words”)
Avoid using language like “he saw” or “she smelled” or “Billy heard” in your descriptions, and instead show the sensations directly. When you present a sensory impression by indicating that a particular character is the one sensing it, you place that character as a barrier between the reader and the experience. This distances the reader from the experience. This is called using “distancing language” or “filter words”. It makes the reader experience less immediate and less immersive.
When you are editing your prose, look for distancing language and get rid of it. When rendering a sensory detail, you don’t need to indicate which sense is being engaged, or who is doing the experiencing. I don’t need to say “the smell of urine fuming from the sidewalk” -by mentioning “urine fumes” the sense modality is implied; I don’t need to say “Billy smelled urine fumes” -if Billy is the point of view character, it is implicit that it is Billy who is experiencing those fumes. By indicating either of these things explicitly, you distance the reader from the experience, putting an additional layer between them and the experience.
Avoid distancing language whenever possible. Don’t say, “Billy saw a goat standing there.” Just show the goat. Leave Billy out of it.
Exercises: Avoiding Distancing Language
Fix each of the following passages by eliminating the distancing language. They are not good passages, and they need some revision. For some of them, you will have to be creative and invent your own details about the scene (eliminating distancing language is not always a simple matter of cutting words). Feel free to add or delete words as necessary, or completely rework the passage (as long as the gist is the same). Your primary goal is to make the passage feel more immersive by eliminating distancing language -but that will sometimes require inventing details.
Billy walked in to the barn. He could smell that the goat had left something for him.
Gertrude jumped out of the plane. She felt the wind, and she saw the ground far below, but growing slowly larger.
He felt a pull on his hand, like a magnet, sticking his hand to the rune-symbol on the wall.
She walked outside. The temperature was very low, and the wind felt very cold on her face. (For this one, please also get rid of the word “very” both times it appears).
X89’s cyber-sensors picked up the reading of an electromagnetic field. He could feel the buzzing of the field. The device must be nearby.
Sensory density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. Prose with a high sensory density will feel more real and immersive than prose with a low sensory density. A rule of thumb is to aim for three different senses.
Try to give salient sensory impressions. In addition to helping to render the scene, this increases psychological fidelity. Conversely, a passage that neglects a high-salience impression to focus on a low-salience one risks breaking reader immersion.
Avoid distancing language (filter words) like “he saw” or “she smelled” and instead show the sensations directly.
Use broad details to set the scene, and telling details to add colour to the scene. Don’t over-describe. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the scene based on your telling details.
In our exercises, we practiced eliminating distancing language, rewriting to increase sensory density, rendering a scene with high sensory density, using salient details, and using telling details.
I hope you liked this post on sensory impressions. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, etc. in the comment section.
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