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Margaret Atwood’s 5 Tips for Using Sensory Imagery in Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 2 min read

Sensory imagery is a literary device writers employ to engage a reader’s mind on multiple levels. Sensory imagery explores the five human senses: sight, sound, sense of taste, touch, and the sense of smell. Sensory imagery involves the use of figurative language and descriptive language to create mental images. In literary terms, there are many types of imagery, from olfactory imagery to gustatory, tactile imagery and auditory imagery. Any description of sensory experience in writing can be considered sensory imagery. Learn more in our guide, which includes examples of imagery, too.



Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative WritingMargaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing

Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.

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How to Use Sensory Imagery in Creative Writing

Sensory imagery can be tricky to incorporate into writing. Use the below tips from acclaimed Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood to help you get started.

  1. Observe the particular qualities of the things around you. The rest of the world deals in abstractions, but for fiction writers, truth is found in the particular, in the telling detail. In fiction, meaning accrues in the layering of sensory texture, so you want to infuse your narrative not just with visual detail, but smell, sound, taste, and touch.
  2. Limit one sense, requiring the others to become more alert. If you close your eyes, what do you hear and smell? If you stopper your ears, what other senses do you notice? Does the fabric of a curtain feel different?
  3. Conjure a memory from your childhood, one that has stayed with you over the years. Take a few free-form notes about anything you remember. Where did it take place? Who was there? What did it feel like to be you then? Now, de-people the scene, and describe just the setting using concrete, significant details. Work to include vivid details that rely on every sense: touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight.
  4. For an added challenge, perform the same exercise as above, but this time prohibit yourself from using any visual details. This constraint will focus and sharpen the other sensory images in the memory. If you choose to fold visual imagery back in, the setting will be more richly textured for having invoked all the other, lesser-written senses.
  5. If you are working on a longer novel or prose project, choose a scene and perform the above exercise, temporarily de-peopling it in order to focus on building layers of concrete, significant detail. What did you notice about the scene or memory when you weren’t focusing on what your characters were saying or doing? Did thickening the world this way change your characters’ relationship to their environment or to one another?

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, mastering the art of fiction writing takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Margaret Atwood, who is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass on the art of writing, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale provides insight into how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, David Baldacci, and more.

Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing
Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing
Judy Blume Teaches Writing
Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing