Creating Sensory Detail

  1. Make a list of all the items you associate with a particular sensory quality. For instance, if you choose “white” your list might include linens, bridal veil, snowy field, vanilla ice cream, bandages, eggs and powdered sugar. Choose four or five of the items, expand each into a descriptive phrase, and shape your descriptions into list form. Or choose one of your items to expand into a fully rendered description that can stand alone.

    If you have trouble expanding your description, try using question triggers—who, how, where, when, what kind, in what way—to elicit details. Let’s say the first item on your list is an egg. Visualize the egg. Then ask yourself questions about it.
    Where is it? In a straw basket lined with dish towels? Beneath a broody hen? On the top branch of a tree? On the embroidered panel of a child’s Easter dress?What kind of egg is it? A duck egg, dinosaur egg, a boiled egg? Is it round, oval, misshapen, tiny?
    Continue asking questions until a complete image begins to form. In this line from his poem “Varieties of Quiet,” John Witte answers the questions what, what kind, who and where to form an evocative description:
    “There is a quiet on the almost invisible eggs the killdeer lay in the dead grass behind out house.”
    Other sensory categories might include sweet, sour, bumpy, smooth, curly, slick, silent, scratchy, swirly, crunchy, black, swift, slow, bitter or noisy. (Exercise appears on page 84 of your text.)

  2. Describe a place (a forest, swimming pool, library, etc.) solely in terms of one sense. Mute the other senses while you explore the smells, for instance, or the textures of the place. (Exercise appears on page 84 of your text.)
  3. Write a short description of a place or person that combines a concrete detail with an abstraction. Here’s a sentence from Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club that does exactly that:

    …And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow.
    After you’ve written a sentence or two, write a whole paragraph of description that freely mixes the concrete and the abstract. Refer to the passages [in the text] by Whisnant and O’Brien. (Exercise appears on page 85 of your text.)

  4. Make a “word basket” for your writing desk. Fill it with words recorded individually on index cards or slips of paper, one word per card; the more cards, the more possibilities. (You can also purchase ready-made word kits; some are even magnetized so you can create poems and stories on your refrigerator. I prefer to create my own list of words from my personal “constellation of images.”) Concrete nouns, strong verbs and sensory adjectives work best for me, but I also include some abstract words. Here’s a partial list of the words in my basket: blossom, moon, plow, white, melt, deep, stream, edge, hollow, circle, wave, willow, root, parting, hand, crown, hayloft, kites, pianos, mirror, follow, gloss, nibble, home, song, sorrow, mercy, skin, window, wonder.

    The object of the exercise is to trick your mind into making metaphorical leaps you might not otherwise make. Once you’ve filled your word basket, select at random four or five cards, spread them out on your desk, and combine two or more to form a simile, metaphor or other figure of speech. For instance, from the list above you might combine nibble and kites to form “Kites nibble at the sky”.
    Blossom, sorrow and song might form “Sorrow blossoms into song.” Once the metaphorical connection is made, you can reword your metaphor: “Yellow kites take bites of the sky” or “Sorrow’s song is a blossom.”
    You may find that this exercise produces farfetched metaphors, which you’ve been warned against using. The word basket is merely a technique for exercising your metaphor muscles; once you get used to freely associating disparate images, you may find that metaphors arise more naturally in the context of your stories or poems.
    (Exercise appears on page 111 of your text.)

  5. Write a description of a natural object, idea or emotion using personification or animism. Again, verbs are natural entries into both figures of speech. If you’re animating “greed,” for instance, ask yourself how greed moves or acts. Does it grab, clutch or seize? Does it devour? The verbs might be enough to suggest personification or animism, or you could allow the verbs to lead you further in the writing process. If greed grabs, perhaps it has tentacles. If it devours, it might have a mouth. What kind of mouth? (Exercise appears on page 112 of your text.)
  6. Select from one of your stories a character you’d like to develop more fully [if you’re writing nonfiction, use a person you know or someone you might want to interview or profile]. Using hyperbole, describe her physical appearance, demeanor, personality or movement. Limit yourself to one main vehicle for your hyperbole; then expand it. For instance, rather than saying that Gloria is slim as a willow reed, pale as the far side of the moon, and aggressive as a pit bull in heat, choose one of the hyperboles and expand it into a full description. (Exercise appears on page 112 of your text.)

This creative exercise came from the course Creativity & Expression

Beyond the basics of good writing lie the more creative elements – skills that elevate the craft of writing to the art of writing. Take your creative writing to the next level – no matter what type of writing you do. Learn techniques to add depth, texture, and emotion to your writing. 

You will learn:

  • What description is, and how to put your vision on the page.
  • How to engage all of a reader’s senses in your writing
  • To put characters into motion, portraying inner characteristics and emotions.
  • How to set mood, using attitude and tone
  • Do’s and don’ts of revision
  • Putting your writing skills together to craft creative and expressive writing

Learn More About this Course Today!

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