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How to Use Descriptive Details & Sensory Language in Your Writing

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  • 0:01 Stories
  • 0:52 Details
  • 1:55 Sensory Language
  • 3:45 Metaphors & Similes
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cathy Wilson

Cathy Wilson has taught college literature and composition, junior-high and high-school English, and secondary art. She has a master's degree in American Literature.

When you write a narrative, you can draw your reader into your experiences by adding specific, concrete details to your storytelling. This lesson tells you exactly how to do it.

Stories

Did your parents ever tell you the story of how they first met? Think back to that story; imagine it in your mind's eye. What do you see? Maybe you imagine just what your dad might have described: a sunny, spring morning with the scent of lilacs in the air, a young woman on a bike with long hair streaming in the wind, the electricity of a smile across the neighbor's yard...

People all over the world love storytelling. Remember when you were little? When you went to sleep with a bedtime story? 'Tell me a story;' it's universal. That's why we love movies, and that's why we love reading. I think that stories are embedded in our DNA. But what makes us experience the story and feel it as if it were real?

Details

By far, the easiest way to draw someone into your story is to use specific, concrete details. By 'specific,' we mean 'exact' - the exact thing. For example, instead of saying 'a tree,' we might say, 'the oldest weeping willow in City Park.' Instead of saying, 'cell phone,' we might specify which phone, such as 'a black iPhone 5 with a hot pink protective case.'

Is it hard to figure out how to write these details? It's really not that hard. Simply imagine the story and, just as you did with your parents' courtship story, see it in your mind's eye. I'll bet you can name the exact brand of bike in the story or the specific song playing on the radio. That's what we mean by specific details.

What do we mean by concrete details? That's where we cross over into the other part of our lesson, sensory language.

Sensory Language

In this case, 'concrete' doesn't mean the hard stuff you walk on or the sidewalk. In research writing, 'concrete details' means those things that are solid, proven facts. In narrative writing, concrete language means things that we can actually touch and hold; things in the real, physical world that engage the five senses.

When we write sensory details, we engage any of the five senses: see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Sometime, take a moment and go back to a passage in one of your favorite books. You will undoubtedly notice that the author has used at least one sensory detail. Here's an example from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling:

Harry sat down in the tent entrance and took a deep breath of clean air. Simply to be alive to watch the sun rise over the sparkling snowy hillside ought to have been the greatest treasure on Earth, yet he could not appreciate it: his senses had been spiked by the calamity of losing his wand. He looked out over a valley blanketed in snow, distant church bells chiming through the glittering silence.

What can we experience from the great sensory details here? We can see the sparkles of the snow on the hillside; we can hear the echoes of the church bells; we can feel the shock of breathing in that cold, clean air.

Sometimes, you may have a hard time coming up with concrete sensory details, but here's an easy way to do it. Just pull up that chart we were talking about. Print it out or save it online and write in as many entries as you can for each sense. That will give you a bunch of great possible choices.

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