Painting with All the Colors: The Art of Inclusive Sensory Storytelling

Incorporating diverse sensory details for more inclusive storytelling


You know that moment when you’re reading a book and suddenly you’re not just reading anymore? You’re there, in the story, feeling the sun on your face, smelling the coffee brewing, hearing the distant rumble of traffic. That, my friends, is the magic of sensory details. But here’s the million-dollar question: are those details painting a picture that everyone can see?

As a journalist who moonlights as a fiction writer (or is it the other way around? The caffeine-fueled nights all blur together), I’ve been on a mission to crack the code of inclusive sensory storytelling. It’s not just about making your writing prettier – it’s about opening doors and building bridges. So grab a cup of joe (or tea, or kombucha, whatever floats your boat) and let’s dive in.

The Sensory Buffet: More Than Just Five Flavors

First things first – let’s talk senses. We all learned about the big five in elementary school: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. But guess what? That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s proprioception (your body’s awareness of where it is in space – ever tried walking after your foot falls asleep? Yeah, that). There’s thermoception (sensing temperature), and equilibrioception (balance). And let’s not forget interoception—the awareness of what’s going on inside your body. You know, that rumbling stomach telling you it’s time for second breakfast.

Inclusive sensory storytelling means tapping into this whole buffet of sensory experiences. It’s about recognizing that we all experience the world differently, and finding ways to represent that diversity on the page.

The Diverse Sensory Mixtape: Remixing Reality

Here’s where things get really interesting. Not only do we have all these different senses to play with, but everyone experiences them differently. It’s like we’re all walking around with our own personal reality filters.

Take synesthesia, for example. For some people, numbers have colors, or sounds have tastes. I once interviewed a synesthete who told me that the sound of violins tastes like honey. How cool is that?

Or consider how neurodivergent individuals might process sensory information differently. For someone with autism, a crowded room might not just be noisy – it could be a overwhelming cacophony of individual sounds, each demanding attention.

Inclusive sensory storytelling means diving into these diverse experiences and finding ways to represent them authentically. It’s about creating a world that feels real and relatable to all kinds of readers, not just those who experience the world the same way you do.

The Sensory Toolbox: Techniques for Inclusive Writing

So how do we actually do this inclusive sensory storytelling thing? Here are a few tricks I’ve picked up along the way:

  1. The Sensory Deep Dive: Instead of just mentioning a smell or a sound, really dig into it. What exactly does it smell like? Is it sharp or mellow? Does it remind your character of anything?
  2. The Unexpected Sense: Don’t just rely on the usual suspects. Throw in some balance, some temperature, and some internal body awareness.
  3. The Sensory Contrast: Play with how different characters might experience the same sensory input differently.
  4. The Sensory Metaphor: Use unexpected comparisons to bring sensory details to life. Maybe the taste of disappointment is like a mouthful of pennies, or anxiety feels like ants crawling under your skin.
  5. The Sensory Backdrop: Use sensory details to set the scene and create atmosphere, not just to describe specific objects or actions.

Remember, the goal isn’t to cram in as many sensory details as possible. It’s about using them strategically to create a rich, inclusive world that readers can really step into.

Steering Clear of Stereotypes: The Sensory Edition

Now, here’s where we need to tread carefully. When we’re trying to represent diverse sensory experiences, it’s easy to fall into the trap of stereotypes or clichés.

For example, not every blind character has super-hearing. Not every autistic character is overwhelmed by sensory input. And for the love of all that’s holy, can we please stop describing every woman’s walk as “swaying hips”?

Inclusive sensory storytelling means doing your homework. Research real experiences. Talk to people (if appropriate and they’re willing). Use sensitivity readers. And always, always approach with empathy and respect.

The Balancing Act: Senses, Plot, and Character

Here’s a truth bomb for you: even the most beautifully crafted sensory details won’t save a story with a weak plot or flat characters. Inclusive sensory storytelling isn’t about drowning your reader in a sea of details – it’s about using those details to enhance your story and bring your characters to life.

Think of sensory details as the seasoning in your story stew. Use them to add flavor, to highlight important moments, to reveal character. But don’t let them overpower the main ingredients.

Sensory Superstars: Examples from the Literary World

Let’s take a moment to tip our hats to some authors who are killing it in the inclusive sensory storytelling game.

There’s Haben Girma, a deafblind author whose memoir is a masterclass in describing the world through touch and smell. Or consider the way Akwaeke Emezi uses rich, sometimes surreal sensory details to bring their characters’ experiences to life.

And let’s not forget the classics. Helen Keller‘s descriptions of experiencing the world through touch and smell are still some of the most vivid I’ve ever read.

The Editing Checklist: Refining Your Sensory Palette

Alright, you’ve written your sensory masterpiece. Now what? Here’s a quick checklist for polishing those details:

  1. Variety Check: Are you using a range of senses, or relying too heavily on one or two?
  2. Relevance Check: Do the sensory details enhance the story, or are they just fluff?
  3. Character Check: Do the sensory details reflect your characters’ unique perspectives?
  4. Cliché Check: Are you falling back on overused descriptions?
  5. Inclusivity Check: Are you representing diverse sensory experiences authentically?

The Grand Finale: Why Inclusive Sensory Storytelling Matters

Look, at the end of the day, storytelling is about connection. It’s about creating worlds that readers can step into, characters they can relate to, experiences that resonate.

Inclusive sensory storytelling is a powerful tool for building those connections. It allows us to represent a wider range of experiences, to create more immersive and relatable stories, and to open up our narratives to diverse readers.

So the next time you sit down to write, take a moment. Close your eyes. What do you hear? What do you smell? What does the chair feel like under you? Now open your eyes and ask yourself: how might someone else experience this moment differently?

That, my friends, is where the magic of inclusive sensory storytelling begins.


Q: Why is inclusive sensory storytelling important?

A: It’s not just important, it’s crucial! Inclusive sensory storytelling allows for better representation, creates more immersive experiences, and helps diverse readers connect with the story. It’s like giving everyone a seat at the literary table.

Q: How can I write about sensory experiences I haven’t personally had?

A: First off, kudos for asking! Research is your best friend here. Read accounts from people who have those experiences. If appropriate, conduct interviews. Use sensitivity readers. And always approach with empathy and an open mind.

Q: Can too many sensory details slow down the narrative?

A: Oh boy, can they ever. It’s like oversalting your food – a little enhances the flavor, too much ruins the dish. Balance is key. Use sensory details strategically to enhance your story, not drown it.

Q: How do I describe sensory experiences for characters with sensory processing differences?

A: This is where your research hat comes in handy. Look into specific conditions, consult with individuals who have those experiences if possible, and focus on how the character uniquely perceives their environment. Remember, it’s about their experience, not a textbook definition.

Q: Are there cultural differences in how people describe sensory experiences?

A: Absolutely! Sensory perceptions and descriptions can vary wildly across cultures. For example, some languages have words for smells that don’t exist in English. Do your homework when writing about characters from different cultural backgrounds.

Q: How can I make my writing more accessible to readers with sensory impairments?

A: Great question! Provide rich, varied sensory details that don’t rely solely on one sense. Think about how your descriptions might be interpreted by readers with different sensory abilities. And remember, specificity is your friend—”the rough bark” is more accessible than just “the tree”.


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