Worlds Come Alive with Sensory Details


By Emily Golus


Whether you write about wars on alien planets or romance in urban coffee shops, where your story takes place makes a big difference in how engaging your book is.

In an earlier post, I talked about how to work in setting details without slowing your plot. This week I’m going to zoom in on one particular kind of detail you ought to include—vivid sensory descriptions.

Moving Beyond Sight

As humans, most of us rely on sight more than any other sense. Our descriptions tend to default to visual aspects such as color, size, shape, and so forth. But if you really want to make readers feel immersed in your world, explore it through your other senses.

Try this exercise: close your eyes and mentally place yourself in your story setting. Now, imagine what else you would experience.

·       Scent: Is there anything in the environment that creates notable aromas, such as damp soil, motor exhaust, or sizzling food?

·       Sounds: What are the loudest sounds, and how intense are they? Are there barking dogs, traffic noise, summer cicadas? What background sounds can you hear only if you concentrate?

·       Taste: Is your character sipping a chai or snacking on a street taco? Does the air in the spice market make his tongue tingle with traces of cinnamon?

·       Touch: What is the ambient temperature and humidity? Is your character’s skin being pelted with rain or tickled by insects?

·       Kinesthetic: What kind of flooring is beneath your character’s feet, and is it comfortable to walk on? Does the hilly terrain make her muscles ache?

 You don’t want to include all of these details in your scene, but a few may stand out as unique and attention-grabbing. As your character moves through the location, work those details in.

Use Interaction

When establishing a new locale in your writing, it’s easy just to pause the action and drop a paragraph of description in. But your scene will be much stronger if your character is actually interacting with the world around her.

Here’s an excerpt from my upcoming book, Crack the Stone, in which the goblin Valshara tries to escape through a narrow cave tunnel:


My claws scratched at the limestone, forcing my emaciated body forward inch by inch. The rough stone bit into my bare scalp, my elbows, and anything else not protected by my ragged prison uniform.

The space was so tight that taking a full breath was impossible. Good—that would help me conserve air.

My arms flailed forward, pulling me into the ever-narrowing crack. I turned my head sideways to avoid scraping my face on the cave floor.

The iron shackle on my wrist hit the limestone with a heart-stopping clang.


Instead of just explaining to the reader that the cave is made of rough limestone and the tunnel is extremely narrow, the narrative reveals these details as Valshara experiences them—and thus makes the reader feel like he’s discovering the place himself.

Don’t Forget Emotion

When you’re describing a setting, leverage your character’s emotions. How does he or she feel about the place?

Sometimes you can build your location descriptions as a kind of thesis, leading your reader to an emotional reaction. In the excerpt above, you’ll notice that rather than being a list of unrelated things, each detail works to push Valshara (and thus the reader) into a sense of claustrophobia and even panic.

When your character filters his surroundings through his emotions, it can connect readers to your setting and your character in a more intimate way.

I hope you find these tips helpful as you weave together worlds for your readers. Happy writing, friends!


Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash


Emily Golus is an award-winning fantasy author with nearly 20 years of professional writing experience. Golus aims to engage, inspire, and show how small acts of courage and love can create meaningful change. Her books feature diverse cultures, authentic characters, and cinematic fantasy settings. Her first novel, Escape to Vindor, won the 2017 Selah Award for Young Adult Fiction, and was followed by a sequel, Mists of Paracosmia. In September of 2023, she will release Crack the Stone, a fantasy retelling of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.


Golus lives in Greenville, SC, with her husband, Mike, who is her greatest supporter. They have two active little boys and enjoy hiking, making Thai food, and exploring small towns in the Carolinas. For Vindor book news, visit and, and follow her at




  1. What a fabulous article on the importance of sensory details! I'm looking forward to reading your new book. --Vie


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