Let’s say I sit at the top of the mountain. You claw your way up—you with your split, bloodied fingernails, blurred vision, parched lips, wind—numbed ears and the scent of hot stone flaring your nostrils. You reach me and gasp, “What is the secret? What is the best craft tool?” I lean forward and whisper two words. “Sensory details.”
Maya Angelou is quoted as having said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” To slip a reader inside a character’s sensibilities, there is no more powerful means for melding one with the other than the transformative powers of the five senses.
Think of the five senses as the nickels of your craft, a five-part coin that should be spent as early and often as possible.
In Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway advises:
Fiction offers feelings for which the reader doesn’t pay—and yet to evoke those feelings, it is often necessary to portray sensory details that the reader may have experienced … if the writer depicts the precise physical sensations experienced by the character, a particular emotion may by triggered by the reader’s own sense memory … to dramatize [a character’s emotion] through physical detail allows a reader to share the experience. (31)
Of course, compelling stories are made up of more than just page after page of sensory description, but if you commit to work all five senses into your writing—sight, sound, touch, taste and smell—you truly can hook and hold your audience.
Taste and smell—the most potent trigger of memories and associations—are ironically the least used sensory descriptions. In A Natural History of the Senses Diane Ackerman explores the ability to connect what is seen in the mind with what is felt in the body:
Nothing is more memorable than a smell … Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines … Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth. (5)
In our mind’s eye, that abstract seat of imagining, we picture the face of a lover, savor a kiss. When we think of him in passing, we have various thoughts; but when we actually picture him, as if he were a hologram, we feel a flush of emotion … The visual image is a kind of tripwire for the emotions. (281)
You can create that hologram and trigger an emotion with a detailed, multi-faceted sensory offering. The more senses you describe, the clearer the mental picture formed in the reader’s mind. The stronger the mental picture, the stronger the emotional connection with the character.
It’s so simple really. Your favorite best-beloved books are the ones that make you feel something. The key to triggering emotions is to engage a reader through sensory description.
Here are just three examples of acclaimed award-winning writers who spend that whole nickel as early as possible.
The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman:
When animal droppings and garbage and spoiled straw are piled up in a great heap, the rotting and moiling give forth heat. Usually no one gets close enough to notice because of the stench. But the girl noticed and, on that frosty night, burrowed deep into the warm, rotting muck, heedless of the smell. In any vent, the dung heap probably smelled little worse than everything else in her life—the food scraps scavenged from the kitchen yards, the stables and sties she slept in when she could, and her own unwashed, unnourished, unloved, and unlovely body. (1)
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt:
Turner Buckminster had lived in Phippsburg, Maine for fifteen minutes shy of six hours. He had dipped his hand in its waves and licked the salt from his fingers. He had smelled the sharp resin of the pines. He had heard the low rhythm of the bells on the buoys that balanced on the ridges of the sea. He had seen the fine clapboard parsonage beside the church where he was to live, and the small house set a ways beyond that puzzled him some. (1)
The grass whispered under his body. He put his arm down, feeling the sheath of fuzz on it, and, far away, below, his toes creaking in his shoes. The wind signed over his shelled ears. The world slipped bright over the glassy round of his eyeballs like images sparked in a crystal sphere … His breath raked over his teeth, going in ice, coming out fire. Insects shocked the air with electric clearness. Ten thousand individual hairs grew a millionth of an inch on his head. He heard the twin hearts beating in each ear, the third heart beating in his throat, the two hearts throbbing his wrists, the real heart pounding his chest. The million pores on his body opened.
I’m really alive, he thought. (10)
Now it’s your turn. Find your favorite books. Look for the passages that most moved you. What do you see, hear, taste, feel and smell?
If you want your readers to journey as your characters, deploy sensory details. But remember, this craft nickel has 5 sense(s). Spend the whole coin.
Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Vintage Books-Random House, 1990.
Bradbury, Ray. Dandelion Wine. Rev. ed. New York: Bantam, 1975
Burroway, Janet and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft 7th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Cushman, Karen. The Midwife’s Apprentice. New York: Clarion-Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Schmidt, Gary. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005.
M. A. Moris is a 2009 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She suggests that if you wish for a better understand of the physiology behind this phenomenon, read “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” by Maryanne Wolf.