The Five Physical Senses – they are fundamentally how we interact with and perceive our world. Everything from the feeling of a hot cup of coffee against your fingers, to the sound of the wind whisking its way through a group of trees; we find ourselves taking in all that is around us with a natural and needful absorbency. Through our sense of smell, taste, hearing, sight and touch, we are able to express ourselves to our surroundings, as well as understand and communicate with others. It’s the manifestation of our emotions, thoughts and overall being.
So it’s pretty clear how important our senses are to us, right? Right!
It then stands to reason that tapping into the stimulation of the senses, is a vital part of story-telling. When you are able to successfully draw your reader in and make them a participant – rather than simply an observer – you enable them to experience a deeper and more fulfilling connection. With the impartation of sensory descriptions, they will no longer just be reading about a garden scene, they will be smelling it, touching it, and seeing it in all its dazzling shapes, contours and colours.
Sensory description is the bridge that brings the reader into your created world. There’s a difference between describing a scene that paints a picture in a reader’s mind, and describing a scene that grips them and pulls them right in. An event can be described with all the fundamental information, and the reader will be able to comprehend what you intended to reveal to them. However, that very same event, described with the same fundamental information, but with sensory description added, enables the reader to live in the moment, and to connect on a much deeper level.
I’ll give you a few examples:
Basic winter scene: “He reached the edge of the clearing and gazed out across the snow-covered field. A frozen lake lay like a polished disc on the far side.”
Sensory-added winter scene: “The air was frigid, nipping at his nose and ears. His boots crunched through snow, his toes tingling from the cold despite the covering. He reached the edge of the clearing and gazed out across the field. The snow was a glaring white under the pale, winter sun. He had to squint to look at the frozen lake glimmering with a hard, crystalline severity on the far side.”
* With the sensory descriptions added, the reader is able to step deeper into the scene and almost stand alongside the character. They can imagine the cold seeping through the character’s boots, causing his toes to tingle. They can feel the prickling sting of the icy air on their ears and nose. They find themselves squinting along with the character, against the reflective glare of white.
Basic injury description: “The sword slashed across his leg, cutting through cloth and flesh. He cried out in pain and collapsed to his knees.”
Sensory-added injury description: “The sword slashed across his leg. There was an awful ripping sound, and pain exploded from his calf, shocking through his entire body. A scream tore from his throat, filling his ears with a sound of pain and panic. His leg was suddenly hot and wet. The rusty scent of blood stung his nostrils. Crippled, he collapsed to his knees.”
* With the sensory descriptions added, you can easily see how the scene is given a much more vibrant dimension. The injury feels so much more real to the reader. They can now imagine how blood would smell, and how it would make that slight stinging sensation in the nose. They can feel the agonising tear of flesh, and the hot spill of blood soaking into the character’s trousers. They know what a loud shout does to their hearing; for a moment the sound fills the head completely.
Now, take note, there was nothing wrong with the basic descriptions of either example. They gave enough information for the reader to picture the scene, correct? And sure, anyone with a good imagination can easily fill in additional sensations on their own. However, you can see how much more the sensory descriptions contributed to the reality of each scene, and how it allows for the reader to delve right in and experience the events more intimately.
So, to tell a story, one cannot simply write that there is sadness in a heart, or darkness in the night, or tiredness in the legs, or anger in the voice. To tell a story, and tell it well, ones needs to reach out and draw from the senses. The reader needs to feel the aching of sorrow, taste the salt in the tears, the hear gasping sobs of breath; they need to perceive the thickness of deep shadow, feel the uncertainty of diminished sight, and experience the flutter of the heart at the sound of rustling leaves nearby. It should not only be the legs of the running character that are tired. The reader needs to feel the pain of the over-exerted muscles, and the heaving of each breath, and the inner fear of possibly tripping over at any moment. The character’s voice expresses anger, yes, but so does the rest of their body. Let the reader feel the heat gathering in the character’s face, let them see the fury burning in their eyes, and know just how livid this person is by how they are clenching their fists so tightly, their knuckles turn white.
Of course, you shouldn’t go overboard with sensory descriptions. There is always a time and place to add them to get the desired effect. If there is too much sensory layering, you risk over-loading the reader with excessive detail.
In reality, we absorb many times more sights, sounds and tastes in any given time and place. But you don’t need to explain every sensory reaction the character in your story would experience when walking into a forest. A lively forest would be brimming with sights and sounds and smells, but you only need to pick a couple to give the reader a real sense of being there; the scent of pine needles, the chirping of birds, the dancing motion of sunlight through the wind-swept tree branches. Having those three descriptions would give plenty of sensory flavour to the scene … so no, there is no need to go into detail about the branching veins in the arrow-shaped leaf of the plant curled up beside the gnarled root of the fire-charred oak tree. By the time you’ve finished such an explanation, your reader would have skimmed over several pages, and your character would have forgotten why he was traipsing through the forest in the first place!
At any rate, both the reader and the writer can understand and appreciate the importance of sensory-based descriptions. It’s the salt of a story; the element that gives a story its perceptible flavour. Without it, there would be no bridge connecting the two sides of the river. The story would not be real, and the reader would not be captivated.
So, fellow writers, remember to captivate those who wish to discover your tales! Draw life from your words, and bring colour to a page that expresses only in black and white. May we continue to create worlds that will be experienced as deeply and expressively as our own.
I often have to remember the fine line between sensory description and overly detailed. I had to cut a huge amount from my first manuscript just because I went overboard with the details. 😛 You’ve described an author’s main objective very well. Good advice!
Thanks KC! I’m like you in that I need to watch myself when using descriptions. I can tend to go a bit overboard if I’m not careful. 😛 The advice I give is just as much for myself as it is for all my fellow writers out there. Although, in my opinion, I think it’s better to be a little overly descriptive, than under. I find it easier to go back through a chapter and edit things out, rather than trying to add and work more things in. Just my opinion, though. 🙂