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?
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. 🙂
When writing for publication (or just sharing), how often do you consider this question: “Who is my audience? Who is my ideal reader?”
Think about who that person is, whether a friend, or a relative, or a spouse, or a co-worker. Thinking about who your ideal reader is can focus your efforts, especially if you intend that person to feel something, or to think differently about some issue.
How best to persuade that ideal reader? What details will he or she respond to?
You may think, “I just want to write my stories and tell them the way that I want and readers will follow.”
Yes, you should write the stories that you want to write – and you should use your own style and voice. But if you plan on anyone else reading what you’ve written, you should think about your audience while you compose so that you have an audience once your work is ready to submit to editors.
Let’s say you want to write a memoir. That’s terrific. Now, who is your ideal reader? A 50-something white woman who stays at home with small children? A 30-something young man with a stressful career in a major U.S. city? A retiree who has survived a life-threatening disease? This is what I mean by knowing your audience. You need to understand who will buy your memoir and who will love it enough to not only finish reading it, but to recommend it to friends.
How about a guest post on a blog? What’s the focus of the blog? Auto detailing? Gardening? Self-help? Once you understand the blog’s overall focus, now you need to figure out who the ideal reader is for that blog. Will lots of technical details interspersed with conversational asides appeal to that reader? Or will a short series of humorous stories that subtly showcase a particular point make more sense?
One more example. Let’s say you want to write for children. Terrific. What age group do you want to write for? Who is your ideal child reader? Is this a story that will appeal to four-year-old boys who love outdoor play and rough-housing? Or is this a small chapter book for 11-year-old girls who suffer from low self-esteem? See the problem? You may want to just start writing – in fact, your entire social network may encourage you to do just that. But let me be your dose of reality: the first step you need to take is to figure out who your audience will be so that you don’t waste time writing down stories that no one wants to read because there is no clear focus on a particular audience.
Understanding your audience means understanding how to reach them, the words and structure to use that will keep them interested, and the organization and style that will appeal to them so that they keep turning the pages or keep scrolling down the screen.
You may think your story is fascinating, but once you understand your intended audience, you will have the knowledge to transform your story into something that others find fascinating as well.
Don’t skip this step: Know your audience to have more publishing success and reach people once you get published.
“I’ve never failed at anything in my life,” he said, earnest and nervously giggling. “And now I can’t fail. I have a family and a mortgage.”
“But what’s the worst thing that would happen? Do you really believe you couldn’t recover? What if you succeeded?”
“I have no choice now.”
I thought, how sad.
To have never experienced failure means you are completely unprepared for it. And to put such incredible pressure on yourself out of a sense of obligation to others to the point of feeling like you have no choice? To expect failure when you try for something? I’ve learned something valuable every time I’ve failed. Every. Single. Time. In fact, my prior failures were instrumental in getting me to this point in my professional and personal life. I wear my failures as badges of honor and proof of my survival and endurance.
Are you afraid of failure? Is that really how you want to live? How you want to make your decisions? From a position of fear?
I often have surprising conversations with people in lots of different contexts – as a teacher, a workshop leader, a friend. But when I hear someone give up on the idea of passion or greatness or career risk because they are afraid or feel trapped, that just makes me sad. I realize a lot of people do this – take the unfulfilling job or less-than career because so many people around them say variations of “that’s too risky!” Or maybe the individual looks around and believes there is too much at stake to take any risk at all. And later, when that unfulfilling career becomes untenable and the person is truly miserable, those same chorus of voices resonate with doubt, determined to make the person remain on a so-called “safe” path.
Worse than failing at something after you’ve tried is to never try in the first place. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was told as a child that my dream job was too risky or there was too much competition, so I should do something more practical. I wanted to be an actor. A stage performer. And at nine, I was admonished that there were too many people trying to have that career, it is a hard way to make a living, it’s very risky, and I’m probably not good enough to compete. I chose my other passion, writing, to which the response was basically the same, but my drive and confidence as a writer (even at nine) was so great that I was able to assert myself and stick with that objective despite the constant naysaying from all of those “caring” people.
I often wonder why families, in particular, seem so driven to crush the dreams of their younger members. The only answer I can come up with is fear. Some sense that taking risks is a bad thing – and that there are some sort of mythological jobs that are “safe” and “easy” to get and keep.
What is your experience with failure? With fear? With naysayers? There’s a line in the show (and movie) Auntie Mame that I absolutely love: “Life’s a banquet! And most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death!”
Are you going all in with the banquet? Or are you starving? If I could make a recommendation, I would suggest that we all need to live our own lives, take risks, try to follow our passion, and stop listening to the voices telling us to be afraid. Don’t be afraid to risk or to fail. Rather, be afraid of living a life where you never even tried.
When you sit down to write, are you sometimes overcome with the thought that you can’t possibly have anything to say or add to an over-saturated market? That your life isn’t exciting enough to be interesting to anyone? That you have nothing of value to offer a public audience? Do you often put yourself and your writing down (“I’m a terrible writer,” “This [piece you are currently working on] sucks.”
If this sounds familiar, then you suffer from a confidence block.
This is a terrible and self-defeating feeling, but if you are willing to ignore it, there is a way to overcome it: Practice.
And practice in this case means writing and submitting your work again and again and again. Take an active stand in your own defense. If YOU don’t think you have anything to offer, why would anyone else think so? YOU are the one who must first believe that your writing has value.
Editors like to work with confident writers. Think about it – if you don’t present yourself as confident in your writing and your pitch, why would any editor want to take a chance on you? She has to believe that you have what it takes to see this project through.
Think about this in another context: The job interview.
When you apply for a job, do you pepper your cover letter with self-deprecation and doubt? Of course not. Because if you did, you’d never land an interview. Okay. So you’ve presented as a confident and experienced potential employee. Now how do you talk about yourself during the interview? Do you put yourself down and talk about how much you don’t know? Of course not. Because if you did, you wouldn’t have a job. Employers hire confident people who appear to be able to handle the job. Editors want the same thing.
You may not suddenly have confidence in your own work, but please stop saying such things out loud. Write your stories, submit over and over and over until an editor says yes, and build your confidence through methodical practice. There is no magic, or voodoo, or magic pixie dust that separates you from that confident writer whom you admire. The only difference is that person decided to feel unsure and write/submit her work anyway.
You can do this, too. Approach your writing like a job and practice until you feel the confidence you crave.
Each week, check this Monday posting for a selection of current calls for submissions, good writing advice from the interwebs, and legit writing job listings. Fear less, do more. And may we all have a productive and successful 2015!
Calls for Submissions
This looks like a good one – and they’ve got another interesting themed issue coming up called “Queering Nature.” But here is their description for the current call that closes Feb. 7:
“The Fourth River welcomes submissions that explore the relationship between humans and their environments, both natural and built, urban, rural or wild. We are looking for writing that is richly situated at the confluence of place, space and identity—or that reflects upon or makes use of landscape and place in new ways.”
Ah, The Writer’s Market. I wrote a column for their Writer’s Digest magazine years ago called “Freelance Success” when I was a freelance journalist. I’ve always had a soft spot for this company and their publications. So imagine my delight upon discovering this gem – a link that I shared with my Advanced Memoir participants this past weekend at the Murphy Poetry and Prose Getaway in New Jersey. It is good advice, particularly for you memoir-writers. Read and learn.
I happen to know lots of writers – some academic, some business, some creative – and some of these people would very much like to be paid (or paid better) for their writing skills and experience. In an effort to help them – and you, if you count yourself amongst the writing clan who want to be employed somewhere with a good salary and benefits, I offer this segment on legit writing-related jobs. Because there is NOTHING wrong with wanting a good salary and benefits – and no, you are not selling out. Writers deserve to be paid for our skills, so without further ado, check out this choice-sounding Publications Manager position with Corporate Accountability International located in Boston, Mass.