Sensory Details Can Bring Your Story to Life
“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it’s raining, but the feel of being rained upon.” –E. L. Doctorow
Humans use five main senses, which are our key physiological capacities for data perception. However, in most early writing, there is a tendency to focus on only two of these, sight and sound and leaves a lot of opportunity to add sensory details.
This is understandable. First off, sight and sound are what we, as humans, do really well. We primarily scan for danger by looking and listening. Also, when we are sitting in our nice comfy office or coffeehouse or wherever it is we write, it is easiest to visualize the setting we are describing in terms of what we can see or hear in our minds.
Sight tends to come first, as most of us are very visual creatures, but also because when entering the fictional (and sometimes non-fictional) setting, the author is generally “seeing” it for the first time, often through the eyes of a character we are still getting to know. When we see something for the first time, or enter unfamiliar territory, the first things we do is look around and get the lay of the land. We are also alert for sounds. After all, if something huge like a T-Rex comes crashing through the forest in our direction, we need to be prepared to run.
But focusing on sight and sound alone, leaves the reader with the impression of the story taking place in a flat world. In order to expand the setting and infuse it with reality, it is important to consider the other senses. Touch, smell and even taste.
To do this, we need to pause long enough to immerse ourselves in the setting. This is not something most writers will want to do while writing initial drafts. Early drafts are for getting the words out onto the page and filling in plot holes and focusing on character development. But during the editing phase, you have the time to fold yourself into the character, much like a method actor does in developing a role, and pause long enough to sort through the sensory details of smell and touch and taste that would surely be present in the setting.
Then it’s a simple matter of showing those sensory elements to the reader. In other words, describing them without the use of telling words like felt, tasted or smelled.
This is Chekov’s way of showing the moonlit night. The second phrase is the one that really shows rather than tells: “The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star.” –Anton Chekov, Hydrophobia (QuoteInvestigator.com, 1/6/15)
Chekov could have stopped at the semi-colon, but instead of just setting the stage for the moonlit dam, he showed us how it looked.
Here is an example of how I show smell in my WIP: “A sandalwood and jasmine smokiness that drifts off her clothes and hair, like she’s been burning incense.” –Sharon Skinner, Collars and Curses
Here’s another one that describes taste: “It bursts with a sugary sweetness, like cotton candy melting in my mouth.” –Sharon Skinner, Collars and Curses
These types of descriptions help to ground the reader in the setting, making it more real and engaging, immersing the reader in the story in a way that becomes experiential.
One way to catch and edit out telling bits and reshape them into descriptions that show is to use the find feature of your word processing software and look for sensory telling words like smell, taste, look, or feel. It isn’t necessary to remove every instance of these words, but by looking at where they have been used, and reshaping the prose to work without them, you can add depth to your setting and turn your story into a memorable journey for readers.