04 February 2015

Wednesday Writing Exercise: 5 Senses

Note: This exercise was originally written for About's (now defunct) Creative Writing for Teens website. Although it was aimed at teens wanting to get better at writing, I hope it will be useful for all writers.

Writing the 5 Senses: A Description Exercise

Instructions: Writers, especially those with less experience, often concentrate on visual detail when writing descriptions. The following exercise is cumulative, adding a new kind of sensory detail with each step.

1. Write a paragraph or so describing a place (either one you know well, or one you've made up). Use only visual details. In other words, describe only what a person would see if they went to that place. Include enough information for a reader to be able to visualize the setting.

2. Rewrite or revise your description from step 1, inserting details of sound. You should end up with a description that allows a reader to both visualize the setting, and imagine what it sounds like there.

3. Rewrite or revise your description from step 2, inserting details of smell. Consider what the objects in the setting might smell like, as well as the air in general. Your result should be a passage allowing a reader to visualize the setting, and imagine the sounds and smells there.

4. Rewrite or revise your description from step 3, inserting details of taste. This can be as simple as the taste of the air in an open mouth, or as complex as your narrator sitting down to a feast. Aim for a piece that allows the reader to imagine the place in terms of visual detail, plus sound, smell and taste.

5. Rewrite or revise your description from step 4, inserting details of touch. These can include what things actually feel like to the touch (in which case you'll need to add in some action to allow your narrator to touch things), what things look like they'd feel like, and other details such as the feeling of a breeze on the skin. Remember that touch can include sensations like temperature, texture, pressure and more. Give your reader some sense of what it is like to be physically present in that setting in addition to the visual, sound, smell and taste details.

6. When you've finished step 5, you'll probably have much more detail that you'd ever need in a descriptive passage. Set aside your description for a moment and decide what you want to convey. Is your piece intended to set a mood? To give a deep sense of place? To serve merely as a background? Assume, for now, that you are trying to build a sense of place that will make your setting really come alive for the reader. Make a list of all the essential details of that place, the things that make it unique--that place rather than any place. Add to your list the details that give flavour to the place, even if they don't make it completely unique; and add those details that you just really like, for whatever reason.

7. Go back to your description from step 5 and use your list of important details from step 6 to edit your passage. Concentrate on using the right details and removing the ones that don't really matter.

Notes: The aim of this exercise is to remind you that you have five senses you can use in your descriptive passages. If you're not making use of them all (or at least most of them), then you're neglecting a potentially useful tool. Try this exercise every now and then as a reminder, and do it with different settings. The detail you decide to keep in step 7 will likely be different for different settings, or even for the same setting when you're trying to create a different mood. Play around in step 7 and see how changing the details you keep or cut changes the whole feel of the piece.

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