April 18, 2012

How to Describe Sensory Actions

Sensory detail brings a scene alive for the reader. The taste, smell, visual, tactile and sound of your story’s world can do more to make it real than anything else. But you can’t say, ‘she heard’, ‘he tasted‘. That puts the reader outside the story, watching, not experiencing. We’re writers and must be much more creative about our presentation.

Here’s a list of prompts to get you thinking about what the senses actually feel like from the inside. These are from my own writing or novels I’ve read so don’t use them. Taste the words and recreate them with your own voice.


  • His voice trailed off, the conclusions inescapable

“who is it?” a whiskey-soaked voice asked

  • voice pinched
  • spoke in a hoarse whisper
  • said absently
  • voice clipped and filled with a dark edge
  • Made a muffled squeak
  • Fists balled tightly, eyes string blandly
  • weary resignation
  • hollow voice
  • she asked between bites of calamari
  • Had a little girl voice that stopped just short of lisping
  • Voice low and gravely
  • Voice detached and clinical
  • Voice thick with conviction, guilt,
  • Voice cracked and raw
  • Speaking in quiet tones
  • Hadn’t realized she was holding her breath
  • Said coolly
  • Breathy explosion of words
  • Her voice soft and measured like a guy trying to overcome a stutter
  • Tone weary, but cheerful
  • No, yes, maybe, I don’t know–shit!
  • Half smile in place like a casual piece of armor
  • “I don’t know.” Too rapid
  • He said it too fast and too loudly
  • Dropping into topics she cared passionately about but she didn’t comment
  • She yelped
  • I sense a but coming
  • Yes, she lied
  • Meaningless gibberish
  • Like what, I said around the bite
  • Chuckled in spite of himself
  • Quite a coincidence, his voice made it clear it was anything but
  • Said in a calm, unhurried voice
  • Jinn nodded, but it took him a moment to find his voice
  • The tone said order could prevail over chaos
  • Said absently as the printer spun out more paper
  • I beckon him to proceed
  • The playfulness fell away like a discarded cloak


    stared through him

  • Looked left and right before starting
  • shadow passed over his eyes
  • Flicker in his eyes
  • Said without looking at him
  • focused on an empty space in the air between them
  • looked for a common theme, a thread of some sort
  • She frowned–couldn’t recall the incident
  • Heard little and cared less
  • Hovering over her shoulder
  • his eyes flattened
  • his face hardened in concentration
  • arched an eye brow
  • looked at me with a strangled expression
  • Thinking about my conversation with the old detective
  • shot a look over the top of his glasses
  • Squinted at the sun


    ears strained to create a visual picture of what was happening behind her


  • Eyed me as though his bullshit meter was ticking in the red zone.
  • An alertness in the eyes, behind the glasses that sat crookedly on the nose
  • Cold gaze fixed on the anxious young man
  • Sure, we know that, said Herrera, taking off his glasses to inspect the lenses.
  • He saw her eyes open wide in surprise and recognition.
  • Eyes bleary from surveillance and the two-hour drive
  • Vision narrowed to a pinprick
  • Eyes clouded
  • eyes locked on like magnets
  • four pairs of eyes blinked in unison
  • studied her with a predator’s unwavering attention
  • blinked a couple of time
  • eyes narrowed to slits
  • narrowed his eyes
  • eyes locked in a shared undestanding
  • Squinted out into the audience
  • yellow rimmed eyes narrowing
  • eyes turned inward
  • shook her head and stared at the pool
  • peered sightlessly at a wall
  • Staring sightlessly into the darkness
  • Stared off into the crowd but didn’t seem to see anything
  • Stared into the distance
  • Fixed expression
  • Looked at a place somewhere over his shoulder
  • Their eyes met, but he broke it off
  • meaningful eye contact
  • studied him with her level gaze
  • dark eyes radiated a fierce, uncompromising intelligence
  • rubbed raw eyes
  • his eyes flickered past me
  • eyes narrowed, she got a vertical wrinkle between her eyebrow
  • risked a peek
  • she screwed her eyes shut
  • stared brazenly into her eyes
  • eyes felt scratchy and I was jittery with coffee and raw from sleeplessness.
  • His eyes were never still and he never looked at me except in passing



  • Anais anais
  • Her perfume smelled like jasmine.
  • Her hair smelled like crisp apples
  • All I could smell was my own human breath, my own human body and the faint metallic odor of blood
  • The smell of tobacco hung on him like a cloud
  • Smelling like they hadn’t bathed in a month


  • The air was full of the smell of burned rubber and hot brakes and gas and oil


  • Malodor of dank concrete and compacted humanity no ventilator fan could ever drive out
  • The room smelling of tobacco and crumbling plaster and peeling wallpaper
  • smelled of mold and rug beer and food left rotting in the sink on crusted plates.


  • they could smell it, couldn’t they? It was like booze on the breath
  • Smelled of desperation accumulated over the years

Any of your own favorites to add? I’d love to read them.

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything and Technology in Education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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