Thursday, June 3, 2010

Invoking the Senses in Description

When writing description or "setting the scene" it's important that you tell us more than just what something looks like.

When setting a scene use at least three of the five senses in the description.

I've seen it said many times, so I'm not sure who said it first but most recently, Ellen Hopkins spoke at my local SCBWI conference on this.

One thing she said that really stuck with me is that everyone has one or two senses that they respond to and focus on the most. While it's true that most people are visual and it's important for the reader to understand what they should be "seeing" it's not the only thing that draws a reader into a scene. Some people react strongly to smell, others to sound, or touch. If you leave those out, you could be distancing whole groups of readers who "can't connect" to your writing.

What are the five senses?
- Sight
- Hearing
- Smell
- Touch
- Taste
(and for writing purposes I like to include/separate internal - both physical and emotional - ie. heart pounding, etc.)

I think most of us tend to focus heavily on the visual when writing so, for example, if you want to set the scene as a summer evening at sunset you might say:

It was a typical summer evening. The sun was just setting behind the trees, coloring the sky in bands of red, gold, and purple.

That's nice, but it doesn't really give the full sense of what it's like to really be there.

Now here's the same night with the rest of the senses added in:

It was a typical summer evening. The sun was just setting behind the trees, coloring the sky in bands of red, gold, and purple. A slight breeze tickled the hair on my arms as it rustled the leaves of the Maple trees and carried the scent of the rosebushes throughout the yard.

See how incorporating touch (tickling), sound (leaves rustling), and smell (scent of the rosebushes) adds depth to the scene? There's something for everyone to relate to and it's accomplished in three fairly short sentences. It's succinct enough not to drag down your story, and active enough to not feel boring and/or tacked on.

If you wanted to add in some internal physical/emotional sense that also helps to set the scene before diving into the story, you might add on something like:

Even with the sun sinking, the heat of the day still pressed down around me, making even the smallest movement feel exhausting. -- But you know, say it better than that!

I find this tip most helpful during revision when I'm trying to flesh out scenes. If there's a scene you have that's not quite working take a look and see if there are some senses missing. They might be just what you need to turn a moment into an unforgettable MOMENT.

Pay attention to what senses you focus on the most. After Ellen pointed out that everyone has a dominant sense I realized I tend to focus mostly on the sight and touch and rarely mention sound unless it's plot specific. This helped me immensely in the re-write process.

If you think about it, the moments we remember most in books are the ones that we can really connect to and feel like we know exactly what the character is experiencing.

Re-read some of your favorite scenes and see how much sensory detail is included. If it's done well it's invisible and yet it totally adds to the overall experience.

I wanted to post an example from a published book but I don't have it with me. So I'll just tell you that one author I noticed that does this really well, is Kelley Armstrong. The particular scene I'm thinking of takes place in The Awakening, and at the beginning of the chapter, she completely creates the setting in about three short sentences. I'm going to have to get my hands on that book again and come back and post it.

What about you? What senses do you focus on the most? What are some great scenes (or great authors) you've read that suck you in with all your senses?


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Good advice. When revising I try to imagine all the senses and what the character might feel to see if I can add depth to each scene. There's so much to think about!

Meredith said...

I definitely need to add more sensory detail to my descriptions--I've focused on visual and sound, but it would be wonderful to add in smells and touch and maybe even taste if it's not too much of a stretch. Thanks for the post!

Renae said...

Great post and I love your blog! I use a lot of sight and touch when building my scenes. This post made me realize I need to add more of the senses when I write. Thanks!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great post! When I edit for description, I always try to bring in at least three, possibly four of the senses. I tend to use sight, sound, touch, and smell. Taste usually gets forgotten.

Demon Hunter said...

I think I focus on sight and smell the most. Don't know why, but I'm trying to focus more on the other three as well. :-D

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