Senses: Add three to five senses to every description.
When I started writing, I used to swap my pages done that week with two friends. We would read each other’s work and send back comments. My friend’s comments were almost universally the same. I had not included any sense impression except for sight.
”What does it sound like?” They would ask. “What does it smell like?”
At first, I added additional sense impressions at their urging. Then, with time, I began to remember to do it myself. Now, the majority of the time, I do remember on my own.
Why? You ask. What’s the big deal about sound and smell, and maybe taste or feel?
Makes the experience feel more real.
Imagine you had someone in a virtual reality suit, and you wanted to convince them into believing your program was the real world—not necessarily to delude them, but to entertain them. No matter how realistic your visuals, if they heard and smelled their living room while seeing your waterfalls and grand vistas, they would never been entirely swept away.
But what if you could make them hear the roar of the water and smell the pine resin? That would go much father to convincing them that they were there, in your scenario. What if they could feel the cool breeze? What if they could taste the icy cold water?
Because, when it comes right down to it, how do we tell where we are? By the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feel of things. Those are the methods we use to bring in information. So, if those senses were fooled, we would “correctly” draw the conclusion that we were somewhere else.
Our real senses are the most convincing, of course, but we have a second pair of senses, too—our imaginary senses. We can imagine seeing the warm brown walls of the Starbucks; hearing the percolating liquid; smelling the roasted coffee; tasting the hot sweet liquid (after we added six types of syrups.) With enough mental pointers, we can get a pretty vivid mental image.
Which brings us back to writing: One thing we writers are trying to do is befuddle the reader—to draw them away from their actual life until the life on the page seems almost as vivid as reality. The more we can do this, the more they can be drawn into the story and forget their surroundings…making it more likely that they will keep reading.
Adding sense impressions to a description—even a description of just a single sentence or two—goes a long way to help ground the reader and make their experience more immediate. It also helps broaden your readership. Some people, like myself, tend to think visually about images. Other people don’t. They may be more aware of what they hear. Adding these details helps ground readers across the perception range.
So, how do you actually do it? You picture your scene in your head and then cast about your imagination/memory for what that place/time might look, sound, smell, taste, or feel like. And you add this in. (Feeling is a good one not to forget. In real life, we are often aware of how hot or cold we are.)
Experience has shown me that adding five sense impressions draws the scene out too far. Two is often not quite enough. If I can find a place in a descriptive paragraph or early in a scene to include three sense impressions, the scenario both feels more vivid and is not bogged down by too much description. This is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes, I just use one or two. Sometimes, more than three. But three seems to me to be what makes a scene come alive.
The neat thing, as a writer, is that it makes you more aware. I probably would not have noticed that I can feel the weave of my sweater or hear both the regular whir of my heater and the gentle rrrrr of a plane leaving Dulles airport and flying overhead with an occasional mrrr of one of the cats. (No particular smell here today, I’m glad to say.) Even if we are not aware at the time, we can become more aware in retrospect by sitting down and working our imaginations trying to piece out what a particular time and place would sound and smell like.
It’s fun. You should try it.