by Angela Ackerman, @AngelaAckerman
There isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t believe description is important. We know that the key to pulling readers into our fictional world lies in how well we can describe each scene, giving it color and texture, and infusing it with emotion and substance. And one of the very best ways to achieve this is to use sensory detail: the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds that our POV character or narrator experiences.
Emotion factors heavily in sensory description because the mindset of the POV character influences what they notice (which also determines what details the reader is privy to). A character sitting by a river to enjoy a happy, reflective moment after graduating university may be drawn to clusters of green shoots along the muddy bank that slant in the direction of the sun. She might note the sharp, clean scent of pine needles and how each breath makes her feel renewed. The give of moss, the gentle breeze, and the sound of the water chuckling across stones…all of these details may lull her (and the reader) into a sleepy state of satisfied bliss.
However, a character dropping behind an uprooted tree along the riverbank to hide from her enemies would focus on different details: the poke and scrape of wood against her back and arms as she presses tight against the fan of roots. The cold river water seeping into her shoes as they sink in the mud which reeks of decay. The snap of branches, the shouts of her pursuers, the squeezing rush of her own shuddering breaths.
As writers, we can do so much with sensory detail, adding tension and painting each scene with emotion and mood. Choosing the right sensory description not only helps readers feel like they are drawing breath alongside the protagonist, it also triggers their emotional memories. A well-placed sensory detail will cause a past moment to surface, a time when the reader felt the same sensations and emotions as the character. This powerful “shared experience” is what we want to strive for as we describe, because it lays the groundwork for empathy.
A big struggle for writers is thinking beyond what is seen, and working in other sensory details: sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. Usually these take a bit more thought, but they make the experience so much more memorable and vivid for readers. Here’s a checklist you might find helpful, listing how each sense can elevate the scene. Feel free to pin it on pinterest, share it on social media, or print it out to have on hand as you write.
Multisensory details are important, but don’t feel that you have to use all five in every scene. We want to achieve a layering effect that creates an experience, but it needs to always fit with the action and mood of the scene. For example, in the throes of deep emotion or high action, the POV character’s attention will not always be on the world around them to the same degree, so we should only include details that can be worked in naturally.
For more tips on filtering in multisensory description that adds to (rather than pulls away from) a scene, check out The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces.
Rock The Vault
If you’d like to take a crack at busting open the Writers Helping Writers prize vault, stop in! Becca and I are celebrating all week and giving away some phenomenal prizes as we welcome two new books into our Thesaurus family.
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as four others including the newly minted Urban Setting and Rural Setting Thesaurus duo. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.Power Your Scenes With the 5 Senses by @AngelaAckerman Click To Tweet