Sensory Details: Pulling Readers into Your Story

Saturday, November 10, 2018
Between working on my own novel and critiquing a middle grade novel, I’ve been thinking about fiction a lot lately. When a scene I was working on didn’t feel immediate enough, I pulled out Darcy Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis workshop. One of the things Darcy recommends to solve this problem is to use sensory details. And don’t be satisfied with 3 or 4 details in a scene. Darcy asks you to come up with 3 details per sense per scene.

Why so many? Sensory details make your writing more realistic. They help pull your reader into the story.

I just finished writing a scene that takes place in a kitchen. The characters are making pickles. Some senses, specifically sight and smell, were easy to include. Piles and piles of dark green cucumbers spread out on the counter. The tang of vinegar as the brine heats on the stove.

But taste? Unless you get the urge to nibble on a slice of cucumber, not much tasting goes own during the pickle making process. Vinegar? Raw garlic? Thanks, but no.

Sound? The popping of canning lids. The crisp sound of a sharp knife slicing through cucumbers. The rhythmic noise of a mandolin slicer. It is do-able, but it requires some effort as do sense of touch and sense of motion. We just don’t notice these details as quickly as we do visual details.

And please don’t think that simply mentioning each sensory detail is enough. It has to be truly descriptive. Using the kitchen scene as an example, what if my reader doesn’t cook? How would I describe the smells of vinegar or garlic so that they would click with a non-cook? And there’s also the possibility that something more exotic could be in the works. What if my character was preparing durian?

Working these details in so that I can tick them off of my mental list isn’t enough. As always, the sensory details I chose need to be meaningful. My character might note the scent of vinegar just before she discovers how sharp-tongued someone is. A character’s ability to move a full canner might reveal her strength in contradiction to my main character’s assumption that she was fragile.

Yes, working in three details per sense per scene is a lot, but it will be worth the effort. Working in these details will help bring my characters, setting and story to life for my readers. And, in doing this, I can create a story world that they will want to visit again and again.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins November 12th, 2018.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--The reminder that the sensory details have to be important--perhaps connect with some interactions between characters--is a great one.

Good luck with your writing. You manage to keep a bunch of balls up in the air simultaneously--you're a fabulous juggler. Keep the cascade going.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Sue, I like that you said just working the details in isn't enough. I think that is the key. Even sensory details should serve a purpose or hold a deeper meaning like everything else in your novel. I tend to include a lot of sensory details in my writing naturally, but sometimes it feels like filler or scenery. That's when I need to choose the details that hold more significance to my "character" (I'm writing memoir, but it totally applies). Three per scene is an interesting guideline! I will have to do a count and see where I'm at. Thanks for this! Now I want to eat a pickle. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Thank you! Some weeks I juggle better than others but you know how that goes.

You're right. You are definitely the POV character in your memoir. Focusing details based on what is most important is so important. Otherwise? Its like someone threw a pot of spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick.


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