Thursday, September 22, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Adding Sensory Details (Plus a Postscript)


Here we are, writers, in our final post in this descriptive writing 101 series! And I've saved one of the most important—but also, in many ways, the easiest—techniques for last.

We all of us experience life through our senses, and some senses in particular have the particular power to evoke memories and emotions—both in real life and as we read. Few things can ground a reader more deeply in a character's POV, and in a setting, than the author's use of well-rounded sensory details, especially if those details are combined with some of the other techniques we've discussed, like metaphor and relationship-based description.

As writers, it's easy to fall back to using only one or two senses; often, we rely heavily on sight as we're describing what a reader should see in his mind's eye. One of the things that I like to do as I'm revising is keep an eye out for how often I'm bringing in descriptors that call on all five senses. Not every scene will need to have all of the senses invoked, but being mindful as I revise of how often I'm using them is very helpful.

This passage from Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races is an excellent example:
My father gives me the reins so that he can saddle the war horse with a red cloth. I lick my teeth—they taste like salt—and watch my father tie the matching armband around his upper arm. Every year I have watched him, and every year he has tied it with a steady hand, but not this year. His fingers are clumsy, and I know he is afraid of the red stallion.
I have ridden him, this capall. On his back, the wind beating me, the ground jarring me, the sea spraying our legs, we never tire. 
In these two paragraphs, Stiefvater has given us so much sensory detail: The color of the cloth and the armband, the salty taste on Sean's teeth, the clumsiness as Sean's father ties the armband, the physical sensations as Sean remembers riding the stallion (wind, jarring ground, sea spray, the energy implied in "we never tire"). Right there, we have three different senses involved, each one of them pulling us deeper into the scene and helping us to feel it, the way the very best writing does.

It's also helpful to me to think about what kinds of sensory experiences I have in my own life: What times and places do I tend to notice scents? What about sounds? Colors? Textures? Sensations in or outside of my body? What emotions tend to be associated with different senses? (Scent, for example, is tied in pretty heavily with memory and nostalgia for me.) As I think about these questions, it helps me to hone in on which senses are going to be the most evocative in any given scene.

And just as certain people tend to pay more attention to certain senses, your characters will behave the same way! An artist might see things as textures and light, while a musician might notice the tones and resonance all around her and a baker might be more likely to fixate on scents. In Sarah Addison Allen's The Sugar Queen, the sweets-obsessed protagonist imagines that she can taste the winter weather:
If she could eat the cold air, she would. She thought cold snaps were like cookies, like gingersnaps. In her mind they were made with white chocolate chunks and had a cool, brittle vanilla frosting. They melted like snow in her mouth, turning creamy and warm.
This is an excellent example of sensory detail being combined with other descriptive techniques (in this case, metaphor) to produce a paragraph that is as delectable as it is immersive!

Your assignment for today's post, if you choose to accept it, is simple: Write a brief scene, trying to incorporate all five senses.

And this, my friends, brings us to the end of our series on descriptive writing! I hope that these posts have been helpful and given you some ideas for new things to try to bring your descriptive writing to the next level.

As a little postscript, I will add one thing that I didn't write a post on because there's not a ton to say about it, but which is also important in good description: I know I began this series ragging on adjectives, but they're (obviously) still an important fundamental when it comes to descriptive writing.

However, not all adjectives are created equal. As with other descriptive techniques, adjectives are stronger the more unique and specific they are. Just like picking metaphors, it's a good rule of thumb to use in selecting the right adjective for your descriptions is that the first idea is almost never the best one. Let things percolate. Use a thesaurus. Try writing the scene from a different angle and see what you come up with.

And most of all? Have fun!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors
Part 3: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives

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