When I was a 10-year-old boy, we used to spend our summers playing baseball on the asphalt playground of the Academy Street School in Amsterdam, New York. Afterwards, we would go to Mac and Tom’s, a local soda shop, to order a 10-cent Coke with a squirt of cherry syrup.
Today, as a 67-year-old homeowner, I spend my summer Saturdays cutting the lawn and relaxing afterwards with a cool drink. Despite the disparity between baseball and mowing the grass and despite the 57-year difference, these two experiences are linked together in my mind because of the sensory details.
Sensory details are the specific words you use as a writer to describe sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings. For instance, if you wanted to describe Mrs. Jones, your Composition I teacher, you might write the following: “She is short and thin, she has red hair, she wears long, flowery dresses, and she walks with a slight limp.”
That particular description gives a pretty good picture of what this woman looks like, but the description isn’t as strong as it could be because it refers to only one of the five senses: sight. Thus, the reader has only a visual impression of this woman. A much stronger description might go beyond the visual to include the following details: “Mrs. Jones smells much too sweet because of her excessive perfume and hairspray, and her high, nasally voice reminds me of long fingernails on a blackboard.”
The preceding sentence describes what Mrs. Jones smells like when she enters the room and what she sounds like when she speaks. A description using two or three senses is much more memorable than a description using only one sense. Personally, I think that’s why music videos are popular; some people like pictures with their music.
Does that mean you should try to include all five senses in your descriptions? No, not necessarily. Too many sensory details may overwhelm the reader. What you may want to do, instead, is move beyond the visual, the most common, to describe another sense. Or you may want to focus on a dominant impression, the overwhelming feeling you get when you meet someone, when you taste a certain food, or when you experience a special moment.
For example, in his essay “Once More to the Lake,” E. B. White recalls a thunderstorm, and he compares its sounds to the sounds of a symphony: “Then the kettle drum, then the snare, then the bass drum and cymbals, then crackling light against the dark, and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills.”
In an essay entitled “Feel No Pain,” John Seabrook describes the pain rowers feel when they compete in a race: “Marathon runners talk about hitting the wall at the twenty-third mile of the race. What rowers confront isn’t a wall; it’s a hole — an abyss of pain, which opens up in the second minute of the race. Large needles are being driven into your thigh muscles, while your forearms seem to be splitting.”
The personal examples I referred to in my introduction relate to the senses of sound and taste. After I mow my lawn, I always use a long, pressure-treated stick of wood to clean out the grass that accumulates in the mower. When I finish, I toss the stick on the driveway and the “thud” of this wood hitting asphalt reminds me of my baseball days. When I hear that thud, I see my old buddies — Larry, Bernie, and Kenny — and I remember how they would toss their wooden bats on the asphalt after they struck out to end the inning.
Similarly, when my grass cutting is complete, I like to reward myself with a bottle of cold, Cherry Coke. The sweet taste of the cherry syrup in the soda reminds me of Mac and Tom’s and the fountain cokes with a squirt of cherry that I drank back in 1961. Today, the Academy Street School and Mac and Tom’s no longer exist, so I can never return physically to play ball or drink soda. However, these certain sensory details bring me back mentally to a time and a place I like to visit once in a while. If you use strong sensory details in your writing, you may be able to transport your readers in a similar way.