Margo and I chose the same topic this month discussing sensory details, but from slightly different perspectives.
I think we’ve all heard the old saying to “Stop and Smell the Roses.” It has its own meaning but we also have a memory of how a rose smells. Our sense of smell is located in the same part of our brain that effects emotions, memory, and creativity, so it is no wonder that most think that it is our strongest sense when it comes to memories. When you hear that, do you recall a blood red rose like the picture or one that is canary yellow or blushing pink? You might think yellow or red or pink rather than how I described them but in writing, as you know, using an additional descriptor gives the reader a clearer picture. I know I work to include more sensory details as I write but I don’t always remember to do that in a first draft. I work to use small items to convey what I see on the page and this means I’d have to stop and think about what word I use to describe the particular color or smell or sound, so I am usually layering those things in my second run though. One tip I got a long time ago on color was tying it to food or something that is easily recognizable. For example, avocado green or sunflower yellow. As I was writing this, I could think of lots of ones that are commonly used but coming up with something that is a bit fresher requires thought and that takes me out of my story if I stop to consider that while in an initial draft. But sometimes inspiration strikes and I end up with a fun descriptor early on.
Being from the south, I have lots of memories of waking to the smell of coffee or bacon cooking. Or a bar-b-que in the afternoon. I find that smells in certain situations really help to ground my scene if I am writing in a particular setting that lends itself to a kind of food. However, trying to capture how the leaves move in the trees or the sound of wind in a new way is a bit harder for me so I normally note to myself that I need to come back and work on adding that detail. Capturing sounds seems to be one of those illusive things for me in a manuscript. There are some sounds like cars backfiring and gunshots that are easier to add and are found in mysteries. But creating an atmosphere in a scene or of a city with sound seems a bit harder to me – especially creating a new way of seeing that city or scene rather than something readers have already seen.
For sight, point of view becomes important and can define how I use it. If first person, finding the balance between what my character might notice and what he/she would pass by becomes a consideration. I know sometimes I have to remember that listing streets or landmarks isn’t enough of a grounding for the reader. So I look for other ways to build that in. For third person, I have a bit more leeway in describing the setting but also work to make sure I don’t create long paragraphs of description.
Touch is also hard. Trying to convey how something feels in a mystery is not something I normally think about. So I work on that a lot. I think action helps some but the actual feel of what is being touched is difficult to convey without it seeming to be forced. At least for me, I find that including this sense is one of the hardest to convey in a way that seems natural to the story.
I also find that I don’t use taste a lot in my novel. My main character drinks coffee so I use it a bit there. And there are a few meal scenes but those are mostly character interactions so the food, while I describe it and try to work in a few sensory details, is secondary to what is going on in dialogue and action.
I find that since I am a pantser, I work to get the story down in words first, then tie the scenes together before I can go back and add some of the sensory details. That’s not always the case and I continue to work on adding some of that in my early draft. I’ve also become more observant in different places – not just the people but all the sensory details.
How about you? Do you try to work in all five senses? Any tips on doing that? Do you add that level of detail in your first draft or go back and add them? One of the stories that I remember best as to sensory detail is Stephen King’s The Shining. What story do you remember all those details from?