Writing and storytelling are two sides of the same coin, and one usually needs to be skilled in both to create a great story. If your prose is not engaging, your story may not be enough to maintain your reader’s interest; therefore, those of us in the business of helping writers like to suggest that your description incorporates all five senses.
The idea behind this advice is straightforward enough: rather than making your readers feel as though they’re watching everything from behind a screen, you should try to immerse them in your story’s scenes. The more involved in the story they’re able to feel, the more likely you are to be able to grab them and hold on to them. Your writing will be more vivid, interesting and stimulating.
However, in these writing advice circles, there’s a lot of talk and not a lot of instruction. Often, the writing this advice prompts has sensory details shoehorned into the prose that lists details just for the sake of it. The scene looked like this. It smelled like this. These were the sounds. And let’s throw in the temperature for good measure.
This is not particularly engaging description. It doesn’t always flow well; it’s not creative regardless of how poetic it sounds; and it’s of no consequence – it’s forgettable and almost pointless.
Sensory details are not just something to be shoehorned into your description to make your writing sound more vivid. Sensory details are something that should be considered when creating your scenes and your story as a whole, because they are things for your reader to experience through your character, and your character doesn’t experience these senses as fleetingly as a line of text would suggest.
If you’re not quite sure what this means, consider this:
When The Walking Dead is on, I usually spend the entirety of an episode telling people how much I hate it.
This show digs itself into a lot of plot holes (like how does the tiger know which ones are the bad guys? And why do these people, who are usually accurate and righteous, constantly fail to kill the Big Bad when he’s RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM?). But something I’ve been wondering for a good six seasons is how the hell do these literal rotting corpses keep getting the drop on these people? The show never suggests that living humans mysteriously and collectively lost their sense of smell sometime after Rick and Glenn used zombie guts as camouflage in season 1, so I assume that didn’t happen.
Have you ever heard the phrase “It smells like something died in here!”? It’s a phrase people often utter when an environment smells as if something has died because rotting carcasses have a pungent odour.
I can accept that the dead are walking and have wreaked havoc on the world. I can accept that, somehow, the living still haven’t run out of ammo. I can even accept that everyone can maintain impeccable eyebrows when their priorities are as simple as ‘find food’ and ‘don’t die’. What I can’t accept is that a zombie can sneak up on someone who still has their sense of smell.
Don’t include sensory details in your description for the sake of your readers. Include sensory details because your characters have senses.
Touch is not just about textures and whether or not your character is shivering or sweating; touch involves all physical sensations, and can bring a great amount of realism to your characters and settings. These realistic details can extend beyond the half a second it takes to initially mention them, bringing about other scenes and scenarios for you to explore.
I once wrote a scene for a story that involved a character walking through a semi-arid region of Australia in the middle of summer, and the only physical sensation I’d mentioned in my first draft was the heat. Upon revising, I realised this was in no way sufficient for explaining what my character was actually physically feeling.
First of all, she didn’t have sunscreen. The sun wouldn’t have just been hot, it would have burned her. It would have left her in pain and desperate for reprieve. With that in mind, I revisited this scene put myself in her shoes … realising that I had written this scene without considering that I had previously established that she was barefoot!
By paying closer attention to the sense of touch, I was able to create a more realistic experience for my character that extended just beyond this scene. She was severely sunburned and, by the end of her ordeal, couldn’t walk. In the events that followed this scene, her pain contributed to some anxiety and avoidance issues, which affected the way this character interacted with others, and the way other scenes unfolded. Ultimately, it created more conflict in the beginning of my story, and some very interesting scenarios to explore that allowed me to look at my plot from different angles and strengthen it.
When incorporating this sense into your description, try to look beyond the basics and focus on something important. Are your character’s clothes ill-fitting or inappropriate for the situation they’re in? This is likely to influence the action of the story. For example, perhaps your character dressed in heels because that’s completely appropriate for her corporate day job and she had no idea a dinosaur was going to escape in her theme park. But when the dinosaur does escape, her heels are going to create some issues. Sensory descriptions should be more than throwaway lines.
When I think about the way sound can be incorporated into scene building, I think about video games. Forget music, sounds from the setting itself can fill me with anticipation and anxiety. If my character is supposed to be alone in an Egyptian tomb and I start hearing whispers whilst walking through a room full of statues, the setting is suddenly more real to me that the living room I’m sitting in because the sound has grabbed my attention and made me feel something.
The sounds a player hears can inform the decisions they make. Different sounds made within the setting (i.e. not music or other other sounds not actually occurring in the game world), trigger different reactions. Do you feel excited? Do you feel scared? Do you feel relieved? Do you move toward or away from the sound? Do you equip a different weapon? To you activate sneak mode?
You know, like real life.
Characters in stories are no different. Their senses aren’t dependent on the reader; it’s the other way around. The characters are the ones experiencing the story, and sound informs their plot-driving decisions just as much as sight does. So instead of simply telling your reader that your character heard the crunching of leaves behind her, suggesting the monster was on her tail, explore this sound in a way that forces your character to make a decision based off this sensory information.
Taste is difficult because I can’t actually think of examples of a story utilising taste unless someone has been punched in the teeth and the taste of blood is much more overwhelming than the pain.
The point remains that when writing or revising your scenes, put yourself in your characters’ shoes. Allow them to use all five senses, rather than listing sensory details for the benefit of no one but the reader. Your reader is experiencing your story through your characters. Allow your characters to exist.