The Sliding Razor: Effects of Sensory Imagery in Writing

By Shannon Magrane

Must scream

Sensory imagery, by definition, is an element of writing in which the five senses (sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell) are described in order to make your readers feel what your characters are experiencing. By evoking a sensory reaction, the writer enables the reader to be part of the characters’ physical experience. It has long been said that bad characters cannot carry a good plot, but good characters can carry a bad plot, so it is essential that the reader be connected to the characters above all. As such, the writer must make it as easy as possible for the reader to empathize with them. If the writer successfully achieves that, then they tie the reader’s emotions to those of the characters, and invest their audience completely in their story from beginning to end.

I understood this concept only on a basic level when I first started writing fiction seriously, much the same way you understand a recipe from reading and memorizing it, but not actually seeing or cooking the dish. It did not fully hit me how effective it could be in practice until reading “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” a 1967 short story by Harlan Ellison. In Ellison’s tale of a nightmarish future, one of only five humans left alive on Earth tells the story of how they spend the rest of their lives imprisoned, immortal, and tortured by the supercomputer that ended the world in the first place. This computer’s name is AM. He can think. He can reason. And he can feel…but the only thing left for him to think and reason and feel is how much he hates humanity.

This was the story that fully opened my eyes to the true potential of sensory imagery to reach inside the reader and fill them to the brim with emotion. Note your reaction to lines like, “AM said it with the sliding cold horror of a razor blade slicing my eyeball,” or, “The pain shivered through my flesh like tinfoil on a tooth.” The latter set my teeth on edge and made me taste metal. I was horrified, I was afraid, I was in the shadow of pain, but at the same time, I was amazed, fascinated, downright inspired.

Ellison’s use of language and intimate sensory imagery made me feel as though I were experiencing every pain the characters endured, an experience that no other writer had managed to evoke until that point. I sought to explore more of this skill, of how to make the words flow so fluidly and so vividly, digging deep as I could into the depths of what a person can feel. Such brilliant details can make another world or an alternate reality entirely tangible to the reader, no matter how wild or unfamiliar it is. It is these evocative details that a reader can recognize through the sensations of their own body, thereby becoming fully immersed in the people and in the world that the author has created. For an author who wants to create this re-familarizing effect in his or her audience, such details are essential to include.

Sensory imagery, of course, can and should be used to conjure other emotions besides fear. Though it feels like common knowledge, all five senses must be considered to get the full range of the sensation you are trying to convey. Think: do you have a headache, or is a jackhammer relentlessly pounding at the crevices of your brain? Are you happy, or did a fierce electric current just shoot through your veins? Are you disgusted by something, or does your skin crawl as though you’ve been dunked headfirst into cold bile? Which set of words makes your body react as you read? Which can you connect more to? And, quite simply, which sounds more interesting?

A writer should look into their own memories, their own experiences, to project onto their characters and narration. But when you do, focus less on the emotion that is being felt and focus more on what is going through the body as it is happening: over the skin, piercing the eardrum, holding the organs and muscles inside. All the little details of what you feel are valuable, and can deeply enrich a story. Above all, as a writer, you must show, not tell, and use of sensory imagery is an incredibly effective way to do that.

Image: SugaryAshes. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Drawing. DeviantArt. https://www.deviantart.com/sugaryashes/art/I-Have-No-Mouth-And-I-Must-Scream-439695641

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