Sensory Details in Writing

In writing anything fiction—a short story, a novel, what have you—it is important to keep in mind the significance of utilizing sensory details for the benefit of the reader. Even if your plot is centered around something far outside the realm of perception—and please enlighten me if this is your plan—you’ll still want to try and include a range of sensory effects, and to take your descriptions beyond simple physical designs. Here’s why.

It helps to define the characters

Having different characters see the world in different ways can be essential in making each person in your story unique and exciting to the reader. This effect is similar to that of the characters’ individual areas of knowledge and expertise. How they see, touch, and define the world around them defines not only the setting, but the character’s perspective as well.

Letting different characters see the world in different ways is ideal—suddenly, your descriptions help not only to develop the setting, but the characters as well. Viewpoint here is essential; having multiple “main” characters stay to describe a single place and having them do it differently can be incredibly effective at getting their separate personalities across. I know I’ve gotten lost in the past when books simply repeat the same descriptions of a place for different viewpoints. Once everything looks the same to everyone, the setting is the only thing that’s being defined. And it’s usually worse off, for that matter.

It helps to define the setting

Consistent descriptions help the reader to develop an image of the world or the smaller-scale setting that you’re trying to convey. Ideally, every description will be varied, exciting, and new. Your characters make your world, so allow their descriptions to serve as its foundations. It doesn’t hurt to leave some of the imagination up to the reader—having the characters not “know it all” not only lets the reader be more creative, but is also just realistic. Sensory details work similarly.

Many writers, myself included, have a habit of repeating information to be sure the reader catches every detail. You can certainly do this, but try not to repeat the same information. Have it be told in a different place, or by a different viewpoint character. This will help your reader to stay engaged while still making sure they understand core concepts.

Define more than just sight

It’s easy for us to limit our characters’ sensory details and comparisons to those created by the human eye. It’s natural, as sight is the sense with which many of us tend to associate most strongly. Make no mistake: in writing, the visual sense is one of the most important tools in helping your reader grasp the setting of a page. However, it won’t be all that the characters experience. They can be defined just as well by something like touch or hearing, or even smell, as they can by sight.

Touch, Hands, Universe, Space, Stars, Starry, Galaxy

Take hearing, for example. When a character hears another say something, that character’s past experiences can play a large part in how they interpret the words. If you try and implicate a character’s background into their interpretation of the speech of others, dialogue begins not only to develop a relationship between the talking characters, but also to further progress the reader’s understanding of the individual’s personality.

Touch is a bit different, but functions similarly when used to help describe your character or setting. One character might simply describe a stone wall as “cold and grainy,” while it could remind another of home: “the rough surface of the wall brought back sudden, unexpected visions of the uncut brick back in Yemmin’s homeland.”

As for smell and taste, I’ll leave that up to you. While describing different characters’ food preferences to further their individual developments might be a stretch, I strongly believe it can be done.

What do you think? How do you try to incorporate sensory details in your writing? What are you writing? Are you taking on NaNoWriMo this year? If so, the use of sensory details that stray beyond simple sight might be something to keep in mind.

Nai aurelya nauva mára! 

—J.

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