Use Sensory Details to Capture Imagination

Like a novelist, a nonfiction writer can engage the reader’s imagination through the use of the five senses.

Vivid details enhance the reader’s understanding and highlight key points.

We usually think of this kind of detail as being visual. The shape of someone’s eyeglasses, the colors of the flowers in a garden, or the clutter on a desk.

In Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark gives the example of a news story in which reporter Christopher Scanlon described a light switch taped in the ON position by a mother whose daughter was missing. The light was for the front porch, and the mother had determined it would stay on until her daughter came home. That one visual — a light switch covered by a piece of tape — encapsulates the tragedy.

The other senses, though often overlooked, are just as important as sight.

Using Five Senses Fiction
Illustration © adrenalinapura • Fotolia

Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound On His Trail, which describes the manhunt for Martin Luther King Jr.’s killer, told the Mayborn literary nonfiction conference, “… the prison bakers at the Missouri state pen interviewed after Ray’s escape said they … liked to work in the bakery because it smelled so good in there … minutes before Ray’s escape, they had just pulled 65 loaves of bread from the oven.”

Here’s how Sides used that information in his book:

The prison bakers sweated in the glare of the ovens…they’d prepared more than sixty loaves, and now the kitchen was redolent with the tang of yeast …”

We all know that smell. You’re may be thinking of it right now. Smell is a powerful sensation that often triggers memories. Yet writers employ it far too seldom.

All Sides did was extrapolate the sensory detail from his research. Bakery plus fresh-baked bread equals “tang of yeast.” That kind of detail rivets things in people’s memory. That’s why we want to use them. For more on this, review my post “Engage all the senses in your novel.”

You do want to ensure that your details are relevant. As I said in that post, “Don’t distract the reader by putting in irrelevant sensations just to tick an item off a list.” But if, like Sides, you can discover a sensory detail that’s integral to the scene, use it.

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