As humans, we rely heavily on our eyesight—unless you’re blind, of course—to record, comprehend, and navigate our world.
As writers, our job is to convey that world to our readers. To do this, we need to bring to life on the page that which is all around us in its full sensory glory.
The visual is the easiest to get down in ink. We grow up telling people what things look like, much more so than what they feel, taste, sound, or smell like.
Years ago I read an essay by a woman who was born without a sense of smell. She spent her life asking people to describe smells to her. Disappointingly, they always described one smell in terms of a similar smell. Then, she tells us, she was a first date with a man who told her the wine they were drinking smelled like when you put a grape in your mouth and you get that dry, puckering sensation, but when you bite into it your tongue is flooded with the juice inside that dusty skin. She fell in love with him then and there, and they married.
That story (I’m sorry I don’t remember who wrote it or where I read it) perfectly illustrates the power of capturing sensory details in your descriptive narrative. You do want your reader to fall in love with your work, right?
Now, there are two problems in this category I see over and over. We’ll call the category Using Sensory Details. We’ll call the problems 1 and 2.
1. People only write the visual and neglect the other four senses completely.
That one is easy enough to remedy. Put a sticky note on your computer or notepad that says, “What does it smell like? Taste like? Feel like? Sound like?” If you don’t write multiple sensory descriptions in the first draft, this will remind you to flesh out your story in revisions.
2. People focus on dialogue almost exclusively, neglecting the art of world-building. Manuscripts, and sometimes published books, read like they’re being played out against a green screen. Or like they’re a play script with stage directions framing blocks of dialogue.
The fix for this requires more than a sticky note. It requires careful attention to craft. It requires world-building from the ground up. Or space station out. No matter what kind of world you’re building, your characters will have some kind of senses they use to capture, record, and interpret that world. And if your characters don’t, your readers do!
Readers read in order to live vicariously through the characters on the page, to experience the worlds either strange or relatable that are not their own. To fail to develop that world is to do your readers a disservice.
I have a theory about why I’m seeing so much of this. It’s just a theory. I have no evidence either way.
So much of our media consumption is visual—TV, movies, web—that we are used to viewing worlds on a screen. And when we do, our focus is on the characters moving about and delivering dialogue. As such, we as a culture of story consumers, have learned to take for granted everything going on around the main actors.
Whether you’re sitting in the house at the Guthrie or the Cineplex, what is before you is the product of a creative team: set designer, props master, costume designer, sound engineer, etc. That is, everything going on behind and around the characters delivering the dialogue and bodily motions, has been carefully orchestrated to create an effect. To bring that world to life for the audience.
Imagine going to the theatre and the curtain going up on an empty stage. The actors entering in brown or blue cotton or wool sacks of a wardrobe. Maybe one has a hat. One has a beard. One wears a dress. They deliver their lines flawlessly, they emote beautifully. A decanter appears on stage out of nowhere and they pour themselves drinks. They discuss going to the lake, but nothing in the dialogue tells you if the fish are jumping or the snow is drifting across its icy surface. Now, this is not experimental. This is not black box. This is not radio. This is a full production.
Would you want your money back?
When you write a story, you need to be the set designer, props master, costume designer, lighting designer, sound engineer, etc. As the author, you must do it all. To neglect world building, is to leave your characters acting against the green screen. And you do that at your own risk.
How do we solve problem 2?
• Before you sit down to write that story, chapter, or book, do some freewriting exercises. Focus on the setting and keep the hand moving for 10 minutes or more. Don’t worry about characters, dialogue, or action. Just use your narrative skills to explore the world.
• Freewrite what something feels like, but don’t use labeling words. Challenge yourself. If a character is going to feel guilty, have her interact with some of the props in the scene, creating subtext through motions and objects, instead of using dialogue. Don’t use the words “feel/felt” or “guilt.” If your character is experiencing the taste of ice cream for the first time, make a list of all the words you’d use to explain to ice cream to someone, then write your scene without using any of those words. Challenge yourself to be original. Remember the woman born without a sense of smell?
• Read more stories, great stories, old stories, stories that carry you away to another time and place, that make you feel something deeply. Take notes about everything you notice, other than the dialogue. What have you learned about world building and sensory details by reading these stories?
• Watch a scene from a movie. Then watch it again with the sound muted. Then watch it again with the sound muted and study everything in the scene other than the main characters. Take notes. What have you learned about the world, the characters, the plot from what is happening around and behind the characters?
• Read more books. Did I already mention reading? Good. Read more.
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