Spice up your prose with sensory details

Imagine reading your favorite novel or creative nonfiction book (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, perhaps, or Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World) without any sensory details.

In fact, I challenge you right now. Go pick up that book that you are reading. Flip to a page, any page. Now scan carefully for any and all sensory details.

Let us review what sensory details are: They are details that engage all five senses (Smell, Taste, Touch, Hearing, Sight). Now, I must say that as a writing teacher and coach, I see lots and lots of “sight” details in students’ writings. Visual details – how a place or a person or a thing looks – you’ve all got that down. It’s the other senses that are all too often neglected – to the detriment of your work. Sensory details bring scenes to life and allow readers to really be in that moment with the characters. Without sensory details, what could be an engaging, evocative passage that generates some kind of emotional response is, instead, bland, dull, and dry prose that doesn’t hold any reader’s attention. In fact, it may cause them to say,”See? I told you TV was more interesting and fun than books!” Heaven forbid.

So now that we are on the same page about what sensory details are, allow me to show you some examples to prove my point. I always find that examples are more vivid and convincing than straight lecture, so here we go.

This first passage was provided by Tawnysha Greene, a good friend of mine who has her first novel, House Made of Stars, coming out with Burlesque Press this year. I asked my writer volunteers to submit a passage from one of their published works with the sensory details in place (as it was or will be published) and that same passage with all sensory details removed. This first passage is from chapter 45 of T’s novel. In this scene, the father is teaching the narrator and her sister how to swim in a river.

Scene without details:

*****

I open my mouth for air, look up. “Homing pigeons,” he called them as we drove to the river. “People take them to the valley and release them,” said Daddy, “and the birds follow them back. Sometimes, they beat their masters home.”

He points to them. I close my eyes, breathe in. I smell…everything Daddy says guides these birds home.

*****

As T says, pretty awful, right? Of course her dialogue is strong, obviously, but watch what happens to this scene when she puts the sensory details in.

Scene with sensory details:

*****

I open my mouth for air, look up and see the sky, a flock of white birds overhead. “Homing pigeons,” he called them as we drove to the river. “People take them to the valley and release them,” said Daddy, “and the birds follow them back. Sometimes, they beat their masters home.”

He points to them, and I can feel the vibrations of his voice through his hand. I close my eyes, breathe in, and the cold is less biting than it was before. I smell the damp earth, red clay on the riverbanks, and the yellow dust on the pine trees, everything Daddy says guides these birds home.

*****

Now this passage is captivating, full of relevant sensory details that allow the reader to FEEL this place and this moment in a way that pure dialogue doesn’t allow. To read the full published version of this scene (that was originally a poem called “Homing Pigeons”), click this link.

This next passage was provided by another good friend, author Suzanne Samples. This passage appears in “Chekhov’s Toothbrush,” her award-winning short fiction piece that appears in the recently published anthology, Modern Shorts: 18 Short Stories from Fiction Attic Press.

Here is the passage without sensory details:

*****

Before I can sift through the stack of papers in the corner, I freeze. Did she forget her keys? Drop the list? Leave her wallet? Will she find me digging through her closet?

Fuck.

It’s the cat. It’s always the cat.

The cat shoves her paw under the bedroom door. The same paw that knocked my toothbrush into the toilet and created this whole mess. Without a doubt, I know that the cat has knocked over the soda I left on the counter.

I will deal with that mess later.

The mess in front of me needs me more.

*****

The action and movement is this scene is captivating and raises questions, but watch what happens when Suzanne adds the sensory details.

Passage with sensory details:

*****

Before I can sift through the stack of papers in the corner, I hear a crash and freeze. Did she forget her keys? Drop the list? Leave her wallet? Will she find me digging through her closet like a mole rat searching for a worm?

I feel just as naked.

Bang. Drip. Fuck.

It’s the cat. It’s always the cat.

The cat shoves her jellybean-toed paw under the bedroom door. The same paw that smells of shit and pine-scented litter, the same paw that knocked my toothbrush into the toilet and created this whole mess.

The cat meows at me from the other side, taunting me to leave the potential clues behind. Without a doubt, I know that the cat has knocked over the sticky soda I left on the counter.

I will deal with that mess later.

The mess in front of me needs me more.

*****

Sight, sound, scent, and even a humorous simile – these strategically-placed sensory details bring this scene to life, heighten the tension, and allow the reader to experience this moment with the character as it happens in a more engaging way. To read the entire story, you’ll have to buy the book, but for anyone who loves contemporary fiction, it will be a wonderful investment. Plus, the Kindle edition is only six bucks. Click here for Modern Shorts‘ Amazon page.

The final passage is from a friend I met at the Prose and Poetry Getaway in NJ last year – Trish is working on a memoir now, but has many publishing credits. She generously provided an opening passage to a vignette from her published memoir, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad.

The vignette title is “High Heels.” Here it is without sensory details:

*****

I awake in a facility. My throat tells me my tonsils have indeed been removed. I lie there waiting, not sure what will happen next. I drift in and out of sleep. I am seven.

     Then I hear her coming. I instantly know that is my mother. She hugs me. I know that she has postponed or interrupted something important to be with me, know that I am more important to her than any unfinished business. She strokes my head and gives me ginger ale until I drift back to sleep.

     Today, more than 40 years later, my mother now lies alone. It is she who awaits a visit, awaits someone to comfort her, to assuage her fears and loneliness. To give her a sip of water. I am the one who brings the outside world into her room. And I too soon leave her alone again.

*****

You can sense the potential impact of these connected moments, but it feels like the author is holding us at an arm’s length, not letting us all the way in. Watch what happens when all of the senses are purposely engaged. It is akin to magic.

Vignette with sensory details:

*****

I awake from an ether-induced stupor, alone in a cold, sterile facility. The pain in my throat tells me my tonsils have indeed been removed. I lie there waiting, not sure what will happen next. Still groggy from the anesthesia, I drift in and out of sleep. I am alone and scared. I am seven.

     Then I hear her coming, hear her high heels clicking rapidly down the hall. I instantly know that is my mother. She breezes into my room like a breath of fresh air, exuding her typical high level of energy and self-confidence. She hugs me, and I can feel the excitement of her world of business and politics emanating from her professional garb. I know that she has postponed or interrupted something important to be with me, know that I am more important to her than any unfinished business. She strokes my head and gives me ginger ale until I drift back to sleep. But I can still hear the distant clicking of her high heels when she leaves.

     Today, more than 40 years later, it is my high heels that click down a sterile hallway to where my 87-year-old mother now lies alone. It is she who awaits a visit, awaits someone to comfort her, to assuage her fears and loneliness. To give her a sip of water. I am the one who brings the sights and sounds of the outside world into her little room. And I am the one whose heels she hears getting fainter as I too soon leave her alone again.

*****

Not only do the sensory details take it to the publishable level, but they infuse the vignette with power and credibility. The detailed passage is like a punch to the gut – you really feel this moment now with the author and it hurts – she has made us care by incorporating well-chosen and relevant sensory details. You can purchase Trish’s memoir from her site (linked above) or from Amazon if you’d like to read all 300 vignettes.

Notice in all of these example passages the light touch – the authors don’t go overboard and weigh down their prose with too many sensory details – that would be distracting. Instead, they deploy sensory details in a way that adds spice to an already strong and well-developed scene.

Just as you wouldn’t skip the cinnamon when baking cinnamon buns, please don’t skip those spicy sensory details that readers love. Your audience will thank you for including them. 🙂

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