Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

How often do you hear — or feel — about a rejected novel, “I just couldn’t get into it”? A story might have a great premise and plot, but if we “just can’t get into it,” we’ll put it down and look for another one.

What are some aspects of a novel that make you yawn, go “meh,” or start thinking about what else you could be doing? I would bet that most times it’s because the author hasn’t succeeded in engaging you emotionally, in effectively sucking you into their story world, making you feel like you’re right there with the characters.

I read for entertainment and escapism, so I want to lose myself in a novel, not be a detached observer of the characters and events. Don’t you?

In my editing of fiction, I sometimes see too much general, factual exposition (“info dumps”); or neutral, mostly visual description; or a page or more of straight dialogue (“talking heads”), with little or no indication of where the characters are, what they’re doing, what they’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting, or how they’re feeling/reacting to others and their environment.

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” ~ E. L. Doctorow

 

In order for your story and characters to come to life on the page, your readers need to be able see what the main character is seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and smell, taste and feel along with him.

And to empathize with and bond with the character, readers also need to see/feel her reactions and thoughts.

“If you write abstractions or judgements, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let us use our senses and form our own interpretations, we will be involved as participants in a real way.”  ~ Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction

 

So if you’ve written a half-page or more of nonstop dialogue, neutral information-sharing, or description that’s mainly visual, it’s time for some revisions.

To bring your scene and characters to life and engage the readers, evoke all or most of the five senses in almost every scene.

~ SIGHTS. Readers need to see what your viewpoint character sees: pertinent visual impressions of the scene and people around him. And best to include only relevant information, the things that character would actually notice in that scene. We don’t need a detailed description of everything in a room, for example — they’re usually too busy acting and reacting to study the room thoroughly.

Zoom in on some telling details, like smudges on a mirror, sweat on a brow, condensation on a glass, steam from a coffee cup, fists clenched, hands shaking, shoulders hunched, etc.

A small sampling of visual descriptors: glaring, faded, dim, bright, dingy, flashing, dazzling, blurred, sparkling, brilliant, flashy, radiant, shadowy, smudged, streaked, glistening, shiny, gaudy, gleaming, glittering, gloomy, glowing, hazy, misty, shimmering, streaked, twinkling, tarnished

Example of effective visual description:

“…people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.”
Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

~ SOUNDS. We need to hear anything your POV character can hear, including tone of voice.

Some sound verbs: swish, rattle, crash, whack, crackle, gulp, slam, hoot, clatter, crunch, fizz, grind, gurgle, blare, chime, slap, chirp, chortle, thud, chuckle, clash, croak, rumble, croon, drone,  groan, howl, jangle, knock, ping, jingle, plop, roar, rustle, sizzle, slurp, thunk, tinkle, twang, whine, whistle

Example of sounds:

“…the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. … a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire.”
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

~ SCENTS – anything that might be pertinent or bring the scene to life —fresh coffee, an apple pie baking, bacon frying, a suspicious chemical smell, fresh-cut grass, the stench of a dead body decomposing, etc.

Some possible descriptors for scent: musty, damp, stuffy, sweet, sickly, rank, spicy, acidic, perfumed, fetid, musky, suffocating, putrid, tantalizing, mouth-watering, noxious, sharp, foul, rancid, stinky, funky, pungent, piney

Example of smells:

“…they were crammed in a tiny apartment that smelled of burning rubber and foot odor.”
~  Holes by Louis Sachar

~ TOUCH . We should feel any relevant tactile sensations of the viewpoint character.

Some tactile sensations to consider: sticky, fuzzy, slimy, clammy, hairy, silky, smooth, rough, soft, hard, rigid, fluffy, starchy, crisp, corrugated, rippled, abrasive, cracked, tough, bristly, burning, cold, cottony, damp, dry, feathery, furry, gnarled, hot, knobbed, knotted, leathery, limp, lumpy, oily, puffy, ribbed, rubbery, sandy, sharp, smooth, velvety, wet

Example of touch:

“On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy.”
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

~ TASTE.  Let us vicariously taste some of the things the character is eating or drinking.
Some descriptors for tastes: sour, bitter, oily, salty, acidic, spicy, fiery, sweet, rich, buttery, sugary, revolting, biting, fruity, full-bodied, gamy, gross, juicy, sharp, succulent, syrupy, tangy, tart, zesty, zingy

Example of taste:

“Slimy water that tasted like blenderized fishsticks slid down my throat.”
Crown Me! by Kathryn Lay

So if you want to write riveting fiction (and who doesn’t?), don’t keep your readers at a distance, impassively reading the words on the page. Suck them right into your story world, your fictive dream, by making them feel like they’re right there with your character, like they are your character. Evoke sights, sounds, smells, and tastes from the readers’ own memory banks, which will trigger emotions. Scents especially bring back feelings and memories, which readers can draw upon to be active participants in your story.

And show us what the characters are thinking and feeling, too — their inner and outer reactions to what’s going on around them. All of this enhances the readers’ experience and deepens their emotional investment with your story.

Check out these related posts by Jodie: “Show Those Character Reactions” and Phrasing for Immediacy and Power State Cause before Effect, Action before Reaction, Stimulus before Response. And see James Scott Bell’s excellent post yesterday on drawing on your own memory bank of emotions to enhance your fiction.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
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38 thoughts on “Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details

  1. I also need to go through my WIP. Good advice, thank you very much, and timely. I like the Doctorow clip and the examples of each sense. Very helpful.

    If I didn’t have to head to work I’d look up some of my favourite books and search out a few examples. Damn my mortgage.

  2. (Oops. Dramatic typo.Let’s try this again.)

    I’m much better at these things than I used to be. This post got me to thinking about why, and it occurred to me I’m much more careful about writing in close third person POV. Looking at the scene while in the head of a character helps me to think of more sensory information to provide, which, as Jodie said, helps a lot.

  3. Morning Jodie:
    To your opening point of “I just couldn’t get into it.” During an electric blackout late last night, I picked up a book I had been eager to begin. Really nice sensory imagery in the opening two pages. But then the writer began to crowd the stage with too many characters (in a flashback no less). I got confused to the point that I had to re-read pages, saying to myself, “Okay, this guy is the BROTHER of that guy? And he’s married to WHICH woman?” This was in just 16 pages (I just checked). Sigh. I am going to press on because I like this writer’s other books a lot. But boy, if he were new to me, I wouldn’t bother.

  4. Nice post, Jodie. I particularly like the examples you selected.

    Something I’ve struggled with is to not throw in senses just to throw in senses. What the characters are experiencing has to advance the story. I’m still struggling with that, but I’m better at checking for it during rewriting.

  5. Hi Jodie,
    Very curious…on Oct. 17, I posted a similar article on my blog. I went out of my way to enter sensory details as evidence in one of my recent books, in fact, and was reminded of this by an event in Preston and Child’s Two Graves.
    I mentioned also that using body language can involve much more than just the visual. And I worried about what Eric expressed, but along the lines of overdoing it.
    r/Steve

    • I’ll have to check out your article, Steven. Maybe you can give us the link? I haven’t read Two Graves…

      I’m more concerned with being sure to show what the protagonist is seeing, hearing, smelling, etc., as that sucks us deeper into the psyche of the main character, so we bond with him/her more. Showing someone else’s body language would be mostly visual, I think.

    • Just click on my name to go to my website. We’re after the same things, I believe, and body language could include other senses–touch, for example, showing fear from clamminess (maybe my definition of body language is too general?). Without counting ESP, some scientists say there are more than the standard five.
      I’d still insist that one can overdo this (Eric’s comment, basically). If suddenly your protagonist develops an enhanced sensitivity to odors, that could be strange.

    • Thanks, Steven. When I think of “body language” I usually think about how we (or our protagonist) pick up on the feelings and attitudes of others by their posture, gestures, etc., so it’s usually a visual. I advise my clients to show how other characters (not the POV character) are feeling and reacting by their body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, words, actions, etc. And of course the MC can pick up their tense or worried “vibes” through a lot of little clues.

      And yes, if you need your character to have an enhanced sensitivity, like to odors, you’d have to establish that earlier on in the novel. And that example could be a little strange or risky, as you say – could stretch the readers’ credibility.

  6. I write far too minimalist, but am working on it with little touches like these. She traces patterns in the condensation on her glass, or the cheap lace on her bra (which she has donned for a specific trashy reason) itches like hell. Always a work in progress.

    Terri

    • That’s an excellent idea, Nancy. Of course, for some authors, that could entail traveling to exotic locations – an added perk! Would the IRS go for that as a research expense? 😉

  7. In one of my creative writing classes, the instructor mentioned the 8 senses and three of them were new to me! The first 5 you mention is what I learned as our senses while in school, but today there are 8 or possibly more: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, space, time, and the unknown.

    I provide some examples of the newer 3 in a blog post.

    I think there may even be more than 8 these days.

    • I love it, Diane! I always advise my clients to be sure to situate the reader as to place and time, etc., especially at the beginnings of chapters and scenes, but never thought of them as “senses” – which I guess they are.

      I’ll check out your blog post. Thanks for this! 🙂

      I love how followers and members of TKZ always have great info and insights to offer below the posts!

  8. Right now I am reading James Lee Burke’s Light in the World. I can only digest a little at a time. It’s so rich with description and imagery. Not wordy or self-indulgent, but his choice of words is astounding. “The shine of wet wood on the inside of a barrel.” You just know you’ve seen that somewhere. Maybe when you were a child. And barrels like that have a particular oakey smell to them, too. Burke wants you to read him slow. He talks slow and moves slow. There’s nothing about the man that says hurry. So he puts you right into a scene. If the MC has wet feet and soggy sox, then you will, too.

    • Thanks for sharing that, Jim. I haven’t read James Lee Burke but from what you say here, I think I’d really enjoy his books, even if they’re not fast-paced! I’m going to jot down that author and title right now, to check him out soon. Thanks again for that.

  9. Jodie–all true. The cliché “the devil is in the details” applies to nothing so much as to language, written and spoken. This past weekend, I attended a college class reunion. People were invited to say something about their experiences, and did so at interminable length. The only memorable thing said was offered when a man characterized the sacrifice his family had made in order that he could attend a good college. “My father and I walked down to the local bank. Watching as dad filled out the paperwork for a second mortgage on our house, all at once I understood something new. I was no longer a kid, and I’d better take college seriously.” Without the son and father walking together to the bank, and the son watching his father fill out those papers, the idea of sacrifice is, as you say, just an abstraction. But having those few details makes it possible for me, the reader/listener to live the moment for myself.

    • (moved my comment up from below)

      So true, and so well said, with an excellent example, Barry. Even in nonfiction writing, the details – the concrete examples with a visual / sensory picture, like your little anecdote here – are what bring the story to life.

      Thanks for your thoughtful contribution to the topic.

  10. Jodie – for a historical fiction writer like myself I feel I have to succeed in evoking all the senses to enable the reader to really feel what it must have been like at that time. For many people history seems very inaccessible and I love bringing it life by focusing on all the senses.

    • Google swallowed my comment, so here goes again (if I can remember what I said)!

      Thanks for bringing that up, Clare. I can see how it’s important to establish the tone and feeling of another epoch for readers, so we can really get a feeling for what it was like back then.
      An example that comes to mind is showing the perpetual smog and pollution of London from all the factories and coal-burning during the Industrial Age.

      And fantasy writers, too, should use a lot of sensory details in building their worlds for us so we need to get a handle on the characters’ world, what they’re encountering around them, and how they’re perceiving it all and reacting to it.

  11. I love these craft-focused posts! I gain so much. The message is one I’ve heard before but so valuable that I could hear it daily (especially when presented so effectively). Thanks Jodie and TKZ!

    I do second the caution related to overuse. It seems to me that overuse typically results from description of non-significant elements/details.

    How to determine what are significant details and what aren’t? Perhaps grist for a future TKZ effort.?

    Jodie – I’m surprised you have not happened upon James Lee Burke. Lucky you! You have some great reading in front of you!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Tom!

      Yes, overuse could lead to melodrama or purple prose, or just an impression that the author is trying too hard. Subtle is always best.

      Thanks for the seconding vote for James Lee Burke – I’ll definitely check him out soon!

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