When people read our stories we want them to feel like they are part of it. One method of accomplishing this is hitting them with sensory details (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste). Right now, as you read this, all of your senses are hard at work. If you would, take a moment to really consider this.
For me, I feel the weight of my body resting against my computer chair. My fingertips feel the smoothness of my keyboard keys and my forearms are kind of sticking to my computer desk. My eyes are straining a little as I just woke up a bit ago and the monitor is still too bright. I’m listening to music, but the cooling fans of my computer are also buzzing away. The writing cave (my office) smells like hot pockets, energy drinks, and my cat Niblet. There is an unnatural minty freshness lingering in my mouth because I brushed my teeth a few minutes ago.
In that hastily written example, I offered some very basic examples of sensory description. While it’s a giant block of information, it highlights some of the elements many writers forget when they tackle their manuscripts. Again, these elements are sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.
The trick is figuring out when, and how, to best utilize sensory information. If you do it too much, it will bog down your writing and slow your pacing significantly. If you don’t do it at all, your reader may feel slightly disconnected from aspects of your story. However, there are a couple basic guidelines you can consider when applying sensory detail to bolster your writing.
Show vs Tell. There’s a ton of great articles out there about showing versus telling. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, you can check out one I wrote right here. When you are moving into showing territory, utilizing some sensory details will help your reader sink into the scene you are creating.
Opening a Chapter. I’ve talked in the past about anchoring your reader in setting early in your chapters. This is especially important if a reader has put your book down and came back to it. You need to quickly pull them back into the story world. Sensory elements will help the reader sink back into the story and the POVs of the characters within.
Change of Location. My office smells a lot differently than the bathroom at a gas station (or so I like to think). When we move our readers from one place to the next, it’s good practice to help them transition by using sensory details. If you find ways to repeat this information throughout the story, sensory cues by themselves can act to quickly prompt the reader to a change in location or character.
Enhancing Emotion. We’ve talked briefly about writing emotion in the past. Sensory details can enhance emotion. My wife and I bought some basic macaroni and cheese to try to feed Thor. He’s starting to experiment with different kinds of “grown up” food now. As a kid, this was a quick and easy thing my mom would make for me. After we made it for Thor, the smell and taste immediately began to make me feel an extreme sense of nostalgia. Pairing that with the idea that this was the first time Thor was eating it (or trying to at least) enhanced this feeling.
You likely have some sensory experiences that are highly personal to you as well. These are great fodder to build more realistic stories. After that experience with Thor, I jotted a brief notation of it down in one of my journals; maybe it will end up in a story one day. When you are wandering through life, take note to open your senses up and pull information from your surroundings. Not only should this enrich your life, it should enrich your writing as well.
Sensory detail to reveal motivation, or as a metaphor. In the movie Gladiator, we see Maximus Decimus Meridius reach down and pick up a handful of sand before he enters the arena. He does this every single time. He grinds the sand into his palms and we can almost feel the grit. He also smells it.
Even before he becomes a slave and is a Roman general, he is shown reaching down, picking up soil, and smelling it before he rubs it into his palms. At first you could make the assumption he does this to enhance his grip of the weapon. However, as we learn more about the character that simple action takes on a deeper meaning.
We learn that he is a farmer and just wants to return home to his crops and his family. The act of smelling and feeling the soil almost becomes a metaphor for his desire to return to something he lost. This sensory element is repeated throughout the entire movie and is a constant reminder of his internal motivations. Without going into spoilerland, this use of sensory driven action serves other facets in the movie as well. Especially as a contrast in the end where he is walking through a field and feeling the swaying stalks of wheat with his fingers.
A word of caution. I mentioned it above, but it’s worth restating, you can absolutely overuse sensory details. As with most things in writing, there is a balance one must try to achieve. Mary Buckham, in her book, A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting, said it best: “Not every setting needs all five senses described in detail—that approach is overkill and can have a major impact on your story pacing, not to mention overwhelming the reader with information” (p. 52).
That’s it for today. This was a basic introduction to the concept. In the future, we will break this down and explain some of the components more in-depth. As always, I’m curious about how you all manage to weave sensory information into your projects. Do you actively find yourself smelling and feeling things in an attempt to write about them realistically? Do you just close your eyes and think about them? I’d love to hear about your process. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!