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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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