I recently took a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to do some research for the book I'm currently writing. Besides being a lovely girls' weekend with my twin daughters and my Mom, I was also unplugged from the internet.
It didn't take me long to realize that while I was unplugged I was much more aware of little details that normally get lost in the noise and hustle of life and cyberland.
With the vivid display of the trees changing color, the cool lake air, the steady lapping of the waves against the rocks, and the hint of wood smoke from our fireplace, my senses were heightened and the world around me sprang to life.
I carried my notebook and mechanical pencil with me on every hike. I'd often find a smooth rock to sit on so that I could write down my sensory impressions of the setting, those little details that often escape our notice amidst the busy chaos of normalcy.
I was reminded again of just how important sensory details are to the life blood of our stories. It's always the easiest to describe what we SEE. But we can't stop there. We have to learn (and that takes practice!) to infuse our writing with TASTES, TEXTURES, SOUNDS, and SMELLS.
When we learn to use all the senses, we grow one step closer to being able to SHOW our stories versus TELLING them. It's so much easier to say, "The day was dreary." It takes much more work and skill to show the dreariness through the stench of the rotting fish, the sticky rum on the floor, the endless dripping of rain down the chimney, etc.
As we strive to make our stories jump off the page through our use of sensory details, here are just a few things I've learned over the years:
1. Find a balance with how much sensory detail to include. The amount we include will relate to a number of factors including our genre and writer's "voice."
For example, historical writers have to bring an unfamiliar era and setting to life for modern readers by interspersing time-period related details. And so we have the liberty to use more details not just for the sights of a bygone era, but also the smells, sounds, tastes, and textures.
Some writers will naturally have a flowing voice that lends itself to more description. While others may have a stark, even brash tone, thus requiring more effort to include all of the senses.
Whatever our genre or voice, every writer (even historical) can look for ways to seamlessly weave in the sensory details so that the reader experiences the setting as if he or she were really there but doesn't realize how we plopped them there.
2. Try to include each of the five senses in every scene at least once. While I've heard some authors encourage the use of all five senses on each page, I don't think that's always realistically possible with the pacing of our novels.
However, I've made it my goal to try to weave in the use of all the senses at least once throughout a scene. That may not always work. After all we don't want to contrive a smell or taste in a scene where it's not needed. But the guideline serves to stretch and encourage me to be more aware of ways to bring the scene to life for my readers.
3. Have our sensory details do double-duty if possible. When we read an article (like this one) urging us to include sensory details in every scene, we have the tendency to randomly start adding in things.
But before we add a description, we can ask ourselves, "What purpose is this description serving?" "Why do I need to include it?" I usually try to have a couple of reasons for adding something. I don't want to just get in the habit of dumping a scent or sound because I haven't had one in a while.
Instead, I want the sensory details to do double-duty, to bring the scene to life AND set the mood, foreshadow something, add authenticity, to reflect emotion, to move the plot along, or build character.
While it's not always possible to make our descriptions work for our story in more than one way, we do want to be cautious about just tossing them in. Instead add them as strategically as possible and make sure to keep them true to the point-of-view character.
4. Broaden our usage of smells and tastes. The English language doesn't have a lot of vocabulary to describe taste. After all our tongue can only distinguish between sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. And smells are tricky to describe too. We can often describe the thing that smells, but not the actual odor itself.
One way to increase our usage of smells and tastes is to use comparisons. For example, instead of saying the garbage smells putrid, we can say it smells like canned cat food and overripe bananas.
Another technique is to link smell and taste to our other senses. For example, we can say something like the spicy chili made me cry (combining taste with sight); or the odor from the boy's gym bag assaulted me (combining scent with touch).
What about you? Have you unplugged recently? What was the experience like for you? Any other tips you'd add for how we can utilize our senses to make our stories jump off the pages?