Young Writers and Sensory Detail

by Guest Blogger Brian Heinz, Author and 2016 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Brian Heinz

Remember that February trip to Puerto Rico? You stepped from the airport into warm tradewinds carrying the scent of the sea and hibiscus blooms. The chatter of fluttering bananaquits filled the treetops, and the cricket-like croak of the the tiny, elusive coqui punctuated the Spanish dialog and tropical music. Never been to Puerto Rico? It doesn’t matter. When you experience any place fully, it is internalized through your senses.

In my years of teaching Language Arts to elementary and middle school students, one of the shortcomings common to weak writing was the absence of sensory detail. Our young writers tend to be ‘visual’ writers, naming things that the reader can visualize, but forgetting that we experience places and events through all five senses. Many of my books for young readers are researched on location – riding a dog sled at -20 degrees in Canada, ten days in the Cheyenne River Canyon with wild mustangs, rafting swift rivers, or camping in wolf country. I amass sensory details that allow my readers to vicariously experience the environments and the events portrayed in my narrative fiction and nonfiction books.

With my young writers, I’ll often employ a “sensory template” to create a pool of words from which they can draw to enhance their writing. This list includes the five basic physical senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. (But remember, not only do your fingers ‘feel’ things. Our hair lifts with the breeze, our skin feels the dampness of a fog, your feet sink into mud or moss.)

We start with a statement that incorporates three critical elements of ‘story,’ the character’s name, a principal verb to create an action, and the setting (time and place.) This opening image launches our word bank. For example, if we decide to create a piece about a boy boating on a pond, the statement and choices may look much like this collection from a fourth grade class:

Michael is rowing his boat on a pond at sunrise.

See? : water, waves, ripples, flowers, grass, lily pads, fish (eel?), frogs, dragonflies, ducks, swan, trees (pines, oaks, or maples?), other boats, house, log, dock, people, clouds, bubbles, rocks, sand, reflections, alligator, turtle

Hear: croak, pop, buzz, splash, whoosh (wind), quack, crunch, plop, rustle (leaves), voices, laughing, chirp, thunder (rumble), snap, hiss, squeak (the rusty oarlocks, or a mouse)

Feel: wind, wet, rocking of the boat, sweat, raindrops, wooden oars (in his hands), tired, sleepy, warm sun on his face

Smell: roses (garden), smoke (fireplace), barbecue, dead fish

Taste: candy, chocolate, gum, sweat, peanut butter sandwich

I reminded this class that they need not include all five senses on their opening page. If Michael is rowing a boat, he may not be eating at the moment. This is the writer’s choice. The parentheses above are my doing, as I push my writers to be specific, to use precise language. Readers cannot visualize a ‘fish,’ but a mind readily captures the image of an eel. Keep a wary eye for students who generalize. Have them name flowers, or trees, or fish, or birds.

At this point, I create an opening paragraph using some of their words, which I underlined:

Michael pulled on the wooden oars. The boat rocked forward on a row of ripples. Frogs croaked from the lily pads and the sweet smell of roses drifted across the water.”

This paragraph pulls the reader immediately into the story. Now I can add another critical element: The Problem. Imagine this as the next paragraph: “At the center of the pond, Michael rested a moment. Suddenly, something large and dark raced upward and slammed into the floor of the boat, almost tossing Michael into the water.” Perhaps it’s the alligator from our word list? I haven’t said so yet. This creates suspense. Every student would want to turn the page. I could continue: “The water settled down. All was peaceful. A second time the boat was struck, splitting the floorboards, and water rushed in.” Now, I can mention that Michael can’t swim. The class is riveted. I’ve compounded the problem, still employing sensory detail.

In choosing mentor books, examine where, and how often, the authors employ sensory detail. Many of my books are used as mentor texts by teachers around the country. These include The Wolves, Cheyenne Medicine Hat, and NANUK: Lord of the Ice.

When a student, writing about being on the beach last summer, writes this – “While I was walking along the beach, I could smell food cooking on the barbecue.” – I don’t share in the experience. The sentence is permeated with passive verbs, general terms, and lack of sensory detail. But rewrite the idea this way – “My feet sank into warm beach sand as hot dogs sizzled on the grill.” We feel the sand, see the beach, hear the food cook, and smell a specific meat!

In a shorter sentence, the scene has become vivid. We have pulled the reader into the scene and allowed them to re-live the experience by using specific language and sensory details.

A word of caution as your students begin to employ their sensory details. There is often a transitional stage where students tell their readers what to experience by using preparatory terms like I felt… I saw… I heard… I smelled…  and I tasted.

Examine these two paragraphs, the first with the telling tags, the second without such tags.

“When I was at the beach I heard sea gulls screaming. I saw them diving into the water. I felt the sun on my face and I felt the wind blowing my hair. I saw a wave coming and I heard it crash on the shore. I could smell cotton candy from the refreshment stand.”

“At the beach, screaming sea gulls dove into the water. The sun beat down on my face and waves crashed onto the shore. Wind blew through my hair and carried the scent of cotton candy from the refreshment stand.”

 

Brian Heinz is the award-winning author of 18 books for young readers. His picture books include fiction and nonfiction, in prose and in verse, and in multiple genres including historical, fantasy, nature, adventure, and coming-of-age tales. His teachers’ text, Construction & Revision: A Writer’s Handbook for the Language Arts Classroom, will be released this September. A native of Long Island, he taught Language Arts and Science for 28 years. He now presents at more than ninety schools and conferences a year, and teaches “Writing for Children” at the prestigious Hofstra University Summer Writers Program. Visit him on the web at www.brianheinz.com to peruse his works, awards, and program offerings.

Brian Heinz is speaking at the Literacy for All Conference on:

Monday (10/24):

1:30pm – 3:00pm: Story: How Do I Tell Thee? Let Me Count the Ways (Grades 5-8).

3:30pm – 5:00pm: Revision & Editing: The Truth and Nothing But the Truth (Grades 3-8)

Tuesday (10/25):

10:15a – 11:45am: Revision & Editing: The Truth and Nothing But the Truth (Grades 3-8) *repeat session

One thought on “Young Writers and Sensory Detail

  1. Good post. We did a lot of creative writing in my middle school classes when I taught and it is hard to get them to break the habit of only writing what they see. We did creative writing using photo prompts as a way around this too. I had photos taped up all around the room and they had to pick one and explain the scene better using smells, sounds, feelings, etc since we could already see what was happening.

    Like

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