Sensory Details in Writing: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Sensory Details Definition
  • 1:12 Examples of Sensory Details
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Amy Anderson
Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

The writer's ability to create a gripping and memorable story has much to do with engaging our five senses. This lesson will teach you how to make your writing pop by using the five senses.

Sensory Details Definition

Sensory details include sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Writers employ the five senses to engage a reader's interest. If you want your writing to jump off the page, then bring your reader into the world you are creating. When describing a past event, try and remember what you saw, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted, then incorporate that into your writing.

Sensory details are used in any great story, literary or not. Think about your favorite movie or video game. What types of sounds and images are used? What do your favorite characters taste, smell, and touch? Without sensory details, stories would fail to come to life.

When sensory details are used, your readers can personally experience whatever you're trying to describe, reminding them of their own experiences, giving your writing a universal feel. A universal quality is conveyed when the writer is able to personally connect with the readers.

Another note about sensory details: there is no one sense that's more important than another. It all depends on the scene you're trying to create. However, imagery, the sight sense, is a common feature in vivid writing.

Examples of Sensory Details

Let's look at sensory details in action. Compare the following two passages describing a trip to the grocery store.

Here's a passage without sensory details:

'I went to the store and bought some flowers. Then I headed to the meat department. Later I realized I forgot to buy bread.'

Now, does this pull you in? Of course it doesn't. There's nothing to bring you into the writer's world. Read this revised version with the addition of sensory details:

'Upon entering the grocery store, I headed directly for the flower department, where I spotted yellow tulips. As I tenderly rested the tulips in my rusty shopping cart, I caught a whiff of minty dried eucalyptus, so I added the fragrant forest green bouquet of eucalyptus to my cart. While heading for the meat department, I smelled the stench of seafood, which made my appetite disappear. I absently grabbed a bloody red hunk of NY Strip and tossed it into my cart. Pushing my creaky shopping cart to the checkout line, I heard an employee announce over the PA that there was a special on shrimp. On the ride home, I realized I had forgotten to buy the crusty wheat bread I like so much.'

See how the extra details made the scene come to life? It takes time and effort to incorporate sensory details, but once you get the hang of it, your writing will pop.

Pay close attention to how sensory details, in particular imagery, contribute to this passage from Maya Angelou's vividly powerful short story 'My First Life Line.' Here, Angelou's young narrator (the speaker who tells the story) is describing her impression of Mrs. Flowers:

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Additional Activities

Learning Activities with Sensory Details


Task 1
Using a poem containing an abundance of sensory details, create a chart with five columns headed by the five senses. Read your poem carefully and find the sensory words the poet chose to include. Fill in your chart accordingly. Which of the five senses are most heavily represented in this particular poem?
Task 2
One important function of sensory words and phrases is to create a reading experience that comes alive for the reader. Practice thinking of sensory words for description by trying to rewrite the following sentences without using the actual nouns provided. You will need to use your imagination!
  • The cat watched a bird fly by the window.
  • I dropped my ice cream in the dirt.
  • A butterfly in the meadow landed on the baby's nose.
Task 3
Using for your inspiration a visual image from a magazine or an example of a painting online. Write a paragraph or two describing your personal observation of the visual image, trying to include words from all five sensory categories. You can expand this activity for a group or an entire class by having everyone bring a picture from home and writing a description without sharing their photo with the group. Then exchange paragraphs and try to identify which image that paragraph describes.
Task 4
Write a short narrative based on something that actually happened in your life. Like the examples in the lesson, make sure to create life-like descriptions of the characters, setting, and elements of the plot. After your first draft is finished, read the story closely and see if you can add even more sensory details.

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