All Three Monkeys And More – sensory writing

What Can Your Character Physically Feel and Touch?

Confining your description of a setting to what is visible, is not to do it justice. A writer should encourage the reader to imagine using all five senses. Think of what this environment would smell like, taste like, feel like and the sounds you would hear. The sense of smell is particularly potent as it is the strongest of memory triggers and naming a distinctive scent will pull your readers into your work.


Compare the following:

Isobel lay on the ground and gazed at a sky dotted with yellow leaves. Smoke curled into view and her eyes  followed its trail to a nearby bonfire.


Isobel lay on the ground and gazed at a sky dotted with yellow leaves. The branches rustled like paper bags and the wind carried the scent of a bonfire and air that tasted of earth, smoked, damp earth and beneath her, wet mud seeped through her clothes and onto her skin, cold and embracing.

I think you’ll agree that the second version draws the reader into the setting, allowing them to roundly experience the landscape – via every imaginary sense.

What Can Your Character Hear?

Try to use all senses to describe the following:

Prison cell

Hospital ward

Beach Pub

School room

Your grandmother’s sitting room


About suehealy

Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre and associate lecturer in playwriting at the universities of Lincoln and Portsmouth, Irish playwright Sue Healy has a PhD in modern theatre history. Her most recent stage play Imaginationship (2018) recently enjoyed a sell-out, extended run at the Finborough Theatre and is headed to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in August. Cow (2017) was staged at the Etcetera Theatre and Brazen (2016) ran at the King’s Head, funded by Arts Council England. Her work has been performed at the Criterion, Hackney Attic, Claremorris Festival (New Writing Award winner), Brighton Festival (the Sussex Playwrights’ Award Winner) and Sterts Theatre and has been developed by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin and support by the Peggy Ramsay Award. Her nine radio-plays have broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. She has won prizes for her prose including the Molly Keane and HISSAC Awards and the Escalator Prize. A UEA Creative Writing MA alumna, Sue spent eleven years in Budapest editing Hungary A.M. Sue also tutors Creative Writing at CityLit. View all posts by suehealy

7 responses to “All Three Monkeys And More – sensory writing

  • Sue Ann Bowling

    Use of all available senses is even more important when your POV character is missing one or more senses. I’ve used blind and/or paralyzed characters once or twice, and find I really have to work at imagining how they perceive the world through their other senses. Have a couple of chapters from a blind POV in my WIP.

    • suehealy

      Hi Sue Ann, I completely agree. A friend of mine has written a book from the POV of a deaf person and has just started one with a protag with one eye (which affects ability to judge distance amongst other thihngs). It’s a good exercise in getting you to consider other senses. Thanks for your comment. BTW, I’m also a ‘Sue Ann’ – though I go more by just ‘Sue’ these days : )

      • Sue Ann Bowling

        I can definitely relate to one eye–I went through several years when six months of the year one eye was blind due to a retinal bleed (diabetic retinopathy) leaving blood in the eye. Had to quit driving and had an awful time with herding–couldn’t tell if the dog was lined up behind the sheep on cross drives.

  • NK

    As always, great advice Sue! And, just as a note, I have a favorite street musician who is usually at the Bedford Avenue stop but yours is of a different one… makes me want to write the story of why yours is there and mine is not. Of course I haven’t been to that stop in over a year so who knows what else has changed.

    • suehealy

      Nancy, thanks for your citation on your blog! Actually, I took that photo last year (June 2010) – so maybe there is a story re why this guy was there and yours was missing… hmmm, there’s a springboard for ya.

  • Edward Hotspur

    Your advice in this post is a bit counter to your advice in your Word Up post. In the latter, you advise pithiness, and in the former you advise exposition. But all is not lost! Taken in aggregate, a prudent reader will discern that judiciousness is key; let the descriptive punishment fit the situational crime, as it were.

    But then, what do I know? My blog is the literary equivalent of a shotgun. Specifically, a shotgun where a little flag with “BANG!” emblazoned on it comes out of the barrel.

    • suehealy

      Hi Edward, thanks for your comment! No, I don’t advise exposition here – at least not in the heady sense. As I say in the piece, if you want to use PF, you need to do so sparingly – and landscape description, if used at all should be short and succinct. I’m saying the same thing here as I said in “word up” re adverbs etc… ie, use with caution. My blog encourages the new writer to stand back and look at their writing and ask why they are using the different elements and what each brings to their work. Clarity, simplicity and brevity are usually best but if you embellish, shade, flesh-out, I suggest the writer thinks about the tools used to do so.

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