江介維老師 撰文 (Written by Jie-Wei Jiang, Project Lecturer of AWEC)
Sensory Language as the Spice for Writing
Steven Pinker, professor of Psychology at Harvard University, talks about the usage of sensory language to make one's writing more impactful and memorable in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Following this line of inquiry, this article draws upon the writing sample of Henry D. Thoreau, a well-known US writer and philosopher, to further analyze the impact carried by sensory language to engage the reader.
This article selects one section of the ninth chapter in his renowned book, Walden, or Life in the Woods, to serve as a reference point for the ease of discussion and elaboration:
In warm evenings I frequently sat in the boat playing the flute, and saw the perch, which I seem to have charmed, hovering around me, and the moon travelling over the ribbed bottom, which was strewed with the wrecks of the forest. Formerly I had come to this pond adventurously, from time to time, in dark summer nights, with a companion, and, making a fire close to the water's edge, which we thought attracted the fishes, we caught pouts with a bunch of worms strung on a thread, and when we had done, far in the night, threw the burning brands high into the air like skyrockets, which, coming down into the pond, were quenched with a loud hissing, and we were suddenly groping in total darkness. Through this, whistling a tune, we took our way to the haunts of men again.
Excerpt from Ch. 9, "The Ponds"
In the first sentence, Thoreau depicts the evening scene in a visually powerful manner, especially in his portrayal of the moon"strewed with the wrecks of the forest." Here at this point of narration, the reader could visualize a scene where the moon hung high in the dark canopy of sky, lighting up the wilderness on and off. Then the narration comes with a string of successive moving scenes through which the narrator came to the pond, made a fire, caught pouts, and threw the burning brands afar; these action-packed moves done in the dark fully explained why the narrator thought it was achieved "adventurously." Whereas a single adverb does not suffice to impact the reader vicariously, these moves appeal to the kinetic sense shared by the writer and the reader alike. At the end of the second sentence awaits a narration rich in natural sound effects. More precisely, the "loud hissing" of the burning brands was reverberating against the backdrop of a tranquil forest, and even more so when a certain form of thirst was "quenched," another sensory appeal to the taste, both literally and metaphorically, that could accommodate the wildest imaginations of the reader. Then, as an ending song to this adventure around the pond, an unknown tune was whistled to their heart's content to accompany the narrator along with the companion "groping in total darkness" back to the "haunts of men."
In this paragraph, Thoreau appeals to the senses of sight, sound, taste, and even dynamic activities. He demonstrates a good command of using the sensory language appropriately without overwhelming the reader with unnecessary details. That is the caution that a novice writer has to keep in mind while tapping into the repository of sensory language, as warned by Lisa Cron (2012) regarding the reliance on too many sensory details to "clog a story's arteries" from the perspective of brain science (p. 118). Indeed, every sense chosen for amplification is meant to achieve a higher-order goal, be it to symbolize, to analogize, or even to convince. Simply put, sensory language is, and should be, handpicked to form a deeper connection with the reader. In this regard, Bobette Buster (2013) further contends, "There is always one primary sense that dominates every memory" (p. 23). This contention offers a simple guideline – namely, the selection of one crucial sense to represent a memory, an idea, or even a theme – encouraging novice writers to reflect upon their past experience and memory for writing their thoughts down in a favorable light.
In the end, I would like to recommend Barbara Baig's work (2015), Spellbinding Sentences, for those who are interested in knowing more about the usage of sensory language to spice their writing up. In Baig's book, especially pages 76-92, a set of detailed introduction, exemplification, and exercises is offered to facilitate readers' understanding and development of sensory language skills in their writing.
Baig, Barbara. Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Achieving Excellence & Captivating Readers. Writer's Digest Books, 2015.
Buster, Bobette. Do Story: How to Tell Your Story so the World Listens. Do Book Co., 2013.
Cron, Lisa. Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. Ten Speed Press, 2012.
Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Penguin Books, 2014.
Thoreau, Henry D. Walden, or Life in the Woods. Everyman's Library, 1993.