Common Sense: Using Sensory Details to Enhance Your Writing

You’ve all heard it: use the five senses to describe your world. However, it’s not enough just to jot down a quick list of sight, sound, smell, feeling, and maybe even taste.

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Here are some tips to really make your writing “pop” with sensory detail.

Sight – Don’t just monologue about what the character is seeing. Pick a couple of details that show your readers something they won’t forget. Choose something specific that makes your setting unique.

  • The moon-path glittered before me on the lake, and I wanted to follow it to a better world.
  • She watched the orange ball sink behind the white stone face of her mountain.
  • Mirrored walls cast rainbowed shadows on the sidewalk.

Sound – Use sounds to move your action along and add depth to a scene. But, as I read in a recent writing article, for goodness’ sake, be creative with your onomatopoeia!

  • She had to yell her reply over the chuffing of the helicopter rotors.
  • He dozed in the hammock to the buzz of hummingbird wings.
  • The pock, pock of the horse’s hooves echoed from the canyon.

Smell – Don’t just go for the obvious. Pick something that doesn’t immediately evoke the idea of scent, and create a memorable detail for your reader. Pay attention to scene changes, too, because the new setting probably smells different.

  • The sharp, copper tang of overheated electrical wires made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up.
  • He held back a sneeze as she drew near. She must have bathed in Chanel No. 5.
  • The sky was black and purple, and the scent of the storm lifted her mood.

Touch – Again, avoid the obvious. Your entire body is covered with sensory organs, so your characters should feel many things besides what their hands are touching.

  • The wind cut through his thin jacket like a thousand needles.
  • Sweat prickled and puddled at her hips.
  • I leaned against the cold stone of the bank and wondered where I could find the money.

Taste – Yes, this is more difficult to work into a story. You can’t always have your characters eating things, or licking them to see how they taste. However, there are ways to use this sense to give your readers that unforgettable sense of your universe. Remember that it doesn’t have to be food to be tasted – and it doesn’t even have to be a literal taste at all.

  • The acrid smoke left a bitter taste at the back of my throat, and I coughed and sputtered.
  • She let the bourbon evaporate in her mouth, leaving only the stinging aftertaste.
  • He remembered the melancholy taste of Fall in New England.

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What is the most memorable detail you’ve ever read?

Blathering: Vacations

Getting geared up for a week’s vacation – from the day job, that is.

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I’m not sure writers ever really take vacations. I’m packing the laptop, the iPad, and of course, the cellphone – all of which have writing apps on them. I’m on the final stretch of the novel, and I’m going to have it done by the end of the year … one way or another!

My idea of the ideal vacation is a comfy deck chair and my laptop. WiFi is a nice perk, but we’ll be on a barrier island with no internet hookup, so I might not be posting as often as usual. Have to see how the iPad manages.

What’s your ideal vacation – and do you take a vacation from writing?

3 Tips for a Memorable Setting

Setting is the time, place, and social environment for your story. Amateur writers generally ignore setting, except as a stage backdrop. Here are some tips on creating a memorable setting.

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Setting must be a character in itself, not just a picture painted at the back of your stage.

  • Make it familiar: choose a setting that you know, inside and out. This doesn’t always mean picking somewhere you’ve actually been, although in many cases, that is the best way to create a memorable setting. It does mean, however, that you need to do your homework. Buy maps of the city and study Google Earth to learn how your characters will get around and where they will live. Read travel articles. Study photographs. If you have created this location (as in science fiction, fantasy, or alternate world stories), create the maps as well. You should be able to tell a reader how to get from Point A to Point B as if you were a resident.
  • Make it integral: don’t just plop your characters down in a convenient location somewhere. Choose a setting that will resonate with them, and with the story. Make it a city that will interfere with their goals or desires, or a country setting that provides natural tension or conflict. Pick a place that generates emotion. Create the only place that your story can take place.
  • Make it memorable: you don’t have to spend paragraphs describing your setting. Add details that will stand out in your readers’ minds. Remember to utilize all of the senses, as well. Give your readers the sounds and smells and tastes of your city or town. Make it real with the little details that they’d get if they actually visited.

What is the most memorable setting you’ve read about?