Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Engaging the Senses

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 imagination.

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 cars.

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 sensations.

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 stroke.

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.


I 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.

I 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?

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

I'm 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!


  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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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