Your Story is More than Action and Dialogue
When you’re deep into the writing flow, it’s easy to go with what happens next. You are focused on moving the story forward. But often in that push to story, it’s easy to forget to ground your reader in the surroundings.
The five senses are a way to connect with your reader to give them an immediate sense of where your characters are and how they are affected by the surroundings.
It doesn’t take much to add sensory detail, and it adds a powerful connection to your story. Because sensory detail is often overlooked in the first draft, I’ll focus on adding sensory detail in the editing process.
Sensory detail adds dimension by enhancing mood and theme. You are using sensory information to color the story for the reader. Readers relate to sensory detail as part of everyday living.
You may add sensory detail as you review the last writing session before you begin writing, or you may wait until you finish the first draft to add sensory detail scene by scene.
Sight is the sensory detail you are most likely to use in that first draft. Visual description is the most common element when we write the first draft. The trick to bringing visuals into your story is not through long narrative description. Focus on the details.
Eliminate he saw/she saw sentences. Use your writing software’s search function to find any he saw phrases. Present the object instead.
The Buick’s side mirror flashed red in the sunlight.
That sentence is more powerful than, Off to the left, Emily saw the Buick’s mirror gleam red.
But, the best way to use visuals is to link them to character emotions. Choose descriptive words to link feelings to visuals.
The apartment block loomed above her.
The apartment block soared above her.
Each description gives an alternator emotional sense of the visual. Just one word can tie an emotion to the character and connect with the reader’s sense of the story.
Ordinary, everyday sounds help to ground the reader in your setting. From the clatter of pans in the kitchen to the howls of wolves in the forest, you help your reader sense of place.
Sounds elicit emotions in your reader. If your character is in the bedroom, the birds chirping in the trees outside the window create a sense of peace and safety. Floorboards creaking outside the door evoke a sense of foreboding and create tension.
Although onomatopoeia works in stories for children and young adults, use those sounds—plop, thud, hiss, for example—sparingly in adult fiction.
Scents are provocative in life and also in fiction. In our brain, smell is tied to memory. When you mention scents in your story, you connect with your reader’s memory.
The English language does not have a large scent vocabulary. But you can evoke scents by borrowing from other senses, nouns, verbs, and metaphors to imply emotional qualities.
The pungent rose filled the room with summer.
The cemetery smelled of longing and regret.
Including scent in your scene evokes emotions in your reader that ties them to the story.
Touch is all around us. And it’s all around your characters. Touch is real and immediate, plunging your reader into the character’s instantaneous world. Your reader is there, feeling what your character feels. Does the ground shake? Does he grasp metal or wood?
Touch gives your reader the illusion of being the character in that moment. Touch is less subjective that sounds or smell, providing an immediacy your reader feels. No matter what your character is touching, your reader feels it.
Skin is the largest body organ. Touch conveys a spectrum of sensations. It’s more than hard or soft or smooth or rough, touch senses vibrations, temperature, pleasure, and pain. The variety of sensations provides you with many ways to add touch to every scene.
Although taste is a universal sense, it is subjective. Use the subjectivity to your advantage when something lands on your character’s tongue. And part of what happens is touch, so you can add texture to taste.
What your character eats, their likes and dislikes, deepen a reader’s understanding. Build empathy around your character’s personal response. Even if your reader doesn’t like a particular food, like strawberries, they will empathize with your character’s pleasurable response.
Taste is not just about food. Your character can fall and get dirt in their mouth or swim and taste salt water.
Build a Sensory Connection with Your Reader
Each of the five senses has a unique and powerful impact on the reader. Aim for sensory elements in each scene.
As you edit your manuscript, check each scene for sensory details. Include at least two senses in every scene. Each one is a touch point for emotional engagement with your reader. Little details like sensory information build a connection with your characters. That connection increases your reader’s caring for the character. The more the reader cares, the higher the tension when your character meets an obstacle.
Sensory details create a subtle emotional connection. Your reader may not know why they care, but the sensory details have enriched your story.