Engaging the Senses

by | August 21, 2012 | General | 7 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

How do you make your stories come alive
for readers? One important factor is your ability to engage their
senses. When you give readers some idea of how your fictional world
smells, sounds, tastes, and feels, their vicarious experience becomes
more vivid and compelling. (I left the sense of vision off the list
above because most authors already describe how things look.) In
erotica and erotic romance, of course, sensory details become even
more critical, because sex is such an intensely physical activity and
because arousal depends so much on non-visual stimuli such as touch
and smell.

Personally, I find it quite difficult
to come up with effective sensory descriptions. All too often, I sit
there at my computer, a scene playing out in my mind, knowing how it
would feel, smell and taste, but finding myself at a loss as to how
to convey those impressions in language.

The fact is, words can never adequately
capture the nuances of sensory perception. Actually, all you can hope
to do is trigger the recollection of sensation on the part of your
reader. Your words must act as cues that evoke a kind of recognition.
Ah, yes, you want your reader to think, I know how my nipples feel
when I’m turned on – like I’ll die if someone doesn’t touch me. I
remember how my husband smells when we’ve been working out in the
yard all day and he hasn’t showered. I can call up the slightly
bitter taste of semen, the salt-and-iron flavor of blood. I know the
crinkly sound a condom packaging opening and the gasp of lube
spurting into a palm.
Actually, of course, conscious thought isn’t
what’s going on. Descriptions evoke emotion via recognition or

Starting this post (without really
knowing where I was going) led me to consider what strategies we authors have
at our disposal to work this little trick. It seems to me that there
are three basic methods for engaging the senses: adjectives,
metaphors, and mirroring.

Adjectives, of course, exist to
describe. The trouble is, the most obvious adjectives are frequently
overused. Again and again, I find myself describing skin as “smooth”,
voices as “low”,”rich” and “melodious”,
the scent of arousal as “musky”, the taste of muscular
flesh as “salty”. Bring out the thesaurus, I can hear you
say, and I do. However, it’s not necessarily a better solution to use
some other term that is less frequent in the language (and thus more
difficult to understand) or perhaps not exactly right for the
sensation I’m trying to convey.

Let’s try “smooth”, as an
example. When I dig out my trusty Roget, I find three inches of
entries in the index under “smooth”. I guess
“smooth-textured” is the closest to my meaning when I’m
writing (for example) about the feel of a man’s erect organ in one’s
hand or mouth. I flip to entry 287.9 (287 as a whole is “smoothness”)
and find the following:

sleek, slick, glossy, shiny,
gleaming; silky, silken, satiny, velvety; polished, burnished,
furbished; buffed, rubbed, finished; varnished, lacquered,
shellacked, glazed; glassy.

Aside from silky, silken, satiny,
and velvety, which
are metaphoric, which of the above adjectives would be a better
description for my hero’s penis than “smooth”? It might be
“slick”, but only if I’ve already dispensed the lube (or I
have a ménage
going on). “Sleek” seems to me to have a different meaning,
and also to be a strange description for part of a man (though you
might talk about sleek hair). “Gleaming”, “shiny”
and so on refer to the sense of sight, not touch. I would imagine
that my hypothetical penis would be “rubbed”,
but not in the sense mean here! I rather like the notion of a
“laquered” penis, but that would have to be a sex toy, not
the real thing!

So in fact, my
hackneyed adjective “smooth” may be the best choice, at
least among the options here. Sigh. (I’d be interested in hearing
other suggestions.)

Metaphors work by
explicitly stating or implying a comparison between the sensation
being described and some other well-known or prototypical sensory
experience. (Actually, an explicit comparison is called a simile, but
the effect is the same.) “Silky”, “satiny” and
“velvety” are all metaphorical when used to describe skin.
They refer to three different textures, associated with different
types of fabric. I’ve used all three of them – a lot. In general, I
rely on metaphor for the bulk of my sensory descriptions. Excitement
is likened to electricity or fire. Pleasure is described as melting
or boiling, compared to slow-pouring honey or breath-stealing race

Metaphors offer a
far wider variety of options for sensory description. First, one can
draw on the full range of natural and artificial phenomena as
potential sources of metaphor. Second, we already understand and
describe our experiences in metaphorical terms. We talk about
“burning” pain, a “heavy” heart, “biting”
sarcasm or a “bitter” argument. Strictly speaking, these
are all metaphors.

But metaphor can be overdone, too. I
know, because this is one of my weaknesses. Over-reliance on metaphor
to describe physical sensations can end up distancing the reader from
your character, rather than bringing her closer. This is particularly
true if the metaphor is “strained” (a metaphor in itself) –
if basis of the implied comparison is not immediately obvious or
possibly inappropriate. Overuse of metaphor can also make writing
sound overly precious and “literary”.

Mirroring is the third alternative for
engaging the senses. Don’t go looking up this strategy in your
writing text books; I just came up with this name, though I’m sure
many of you use this technique, consciously or unconsciously. What do
I mean by mirroring? Instead of describing the sensations themselves,
you describe the character’s thoughts and/or reactions to those

Here’s a short excerpt from my BDSM erotic romance novella The Understudy. It uses all three techniques, but
relies quite heavily on mirroring. I’ve highlighted in red the
sentences where I’m using the character’s reactions or thoughts to
imply sensation.


Geoffrey positioned himself between
my splayed thighs. “Remember, Sarah,” he said. “Be still.”
Then he rammed his cock all the way into my cunt in one fierce

The force
drove the breath from my lungs. The fullness made me suck the air
back in. If I hadn’t been so wet, he would have torn me apart, but
as it was my flesh parted for him as though sliced open.

My pussy
clenched reflexively around his invading bulk, but otherwise I
managed to avoid moving. His eyes, locked with mine, told me he
approved. His hardness pressed against my engorged clit. A
climax loomed, then faded away as he kept me there, motionless,
pinned to the bed.

He pulled mostly out. My hungry
cunt fluttered, empty for an instant. He drove back into me, harder
than before. I strained against the bars,
struggling not to jerk and writhe as his cock plunged in and
out of my cunt like a pile-driver.

God, it felt good! His roughness
somehow heightened the pleasure. I was his, to
use and abuse. His fuck toy, just as he had said. At that moment, that was
all I wanted to be.


am not holding my own writing up as a model here. I’m merely trying
to illustrate what I mean by “mirroring”. There’s very little direct
description of sensation in this passage but I hope that it evokes
the intensity of this experience for my heroine.

don’t know if this analysis is any help. It’s still agony to come up
with vivid, original sensory descriptions. I remember recently, for
instance, I was trying to describe the smell of freshly brewed
coffee. How would you convey that unique sensation? You recognize it
in an instant, but what are the characteristics of the smell?

Rich. Dark. Earthy. Sweet? Stimulating. Mouth-watering (that’s
mirroring, really). Complex. Chocolatey (a metaphor). Roasted (but
can you really smell that)?

getting nowhere here. Maybe you’d like to give it a try. Maybe you’ll
be more successful that I am. And I’d love to know what techniques
you use to engage your readers’ senses!

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Erin Jamison

    I find the same frustration when trying to describe a love scene and what I really thought was complex was describing the big "O" moment. I always thought it was pretentious when authors would describe the hero/heroine experiencing lights and stars and what not as a descriptor of that moment.

    I guess I hadn't thought of using descriptions to evoke a persons recollection or memory. Most times I've read many authors describe coffee in that way. I'd dare to add bitter to the list as often it's something I try to balance out with cream and sugar.

    The scent of coffee perfumes and permeates the air and when you inhale it, it's almost like you can taste it, like the scent settles on your tongue. For me, it becomes a craving to experience the flavors of vanilla, sugar,and creme that balances the intense, slightly bitter smokey flavor against my palate. It literally fuels my sense of imagination and for just a second, I'm sitting in a small cafe watching the world outside a window instead of sitting in front of computer waiting for the phone to ring.

  2. Donna

    Now I really want a cup of coffee!

    It is very difficult to write vivid, fresh prose, but as I read your post, I was really struck by how we do sort of trust the reader will use our words to access sensual memories of her own. Yet at the same time, surprising, strong language–as in your example, "my flesh parted for him as though sliced open"–creates its own kind of immediate response, even if I've never thought of intercourse in those exact terms. So it is a constant, and often wonderful, balancing act of the fresh and familiar.

    I find that I usually do my best work when I try to please, indulge and surprise myself. Not that this is easy either!

  3. Lisabet Sarai

    Hello, Erin,

    Nothing is as difficult to describe as an orgasm! And yes, I find myself using – perhaps overusing – metaphors that shouldn't be taken too seriously, relating to storms and explosions and so on…!

    The sense of smell is the most emotionally evocative of all. More than forty years later, the scent of evergreen can still take me back to a lustful grope on the couch with my high school boyfriend, who wore evergreen after shave! In fact, I can close my eyes and summon the fragrance…

  4. Lisabet Sarai

    Hello, Donna,

    I don't even know where that image came from. It surprised me!

    We do have to assume some sort of commonality of the sensorium with our readers. On the other hand, violating that assumption can be powerful too. C. Sanchez-Garcia has posted a couple of snippets at Oh Get a Grip from a story he's working on where the hero has synaesthesia. It's a fascinating twist – what would sexual experience be like if you smelled colors, or tasted sounds?

  5. Kissa Starling

    Great topic and yes, I did learn something from your example. I thank you for sharing it. I would love to branch out and find other ways of 'saying it'. You've got me thinking and that is always a good thing.


  6. Whitney

    I really like this post because it highlights some valuable techniques we erotica writers should be actively employing that other genre writers might not have to contemplate so much. Adding an excerpt from your own work in there was a nice touch as well. 🙂 Keep writing!

  7. Jean Roberta

    Lisabet, your example of "mirroring" looks useful. Describing sensory experience is definitely a challenge, and all erotica writers need to do it.

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