Sealing The Deal: The Senses (Part One)

Which one of these descriptions grabs your attention:

A) A boy,
B) A tall boy, or
C) A freckle-faced bean pole with feet the size of pontoons?

I'm hoping that C was the winner. When crafting stories, the writer must strive to engage the reader through description. They have to look for the right words to sell the imagery and drag the reader in for the entire story, whether it's a short or full length novel.

The challenge is to craft powerful passages that evoke strong emotional responses from the reader. To accomplish this the writer must draw upon their imagination to create the imagery as if  the reader were there the entire time. And what better way then to use sensory description.

Of the five senses, our vision is often considered the primary sense. We are surrounded by vibrant colors, items of mass and depth, and people of all shapes and sizes from moment to moment throughout our day. Vision provides much of the data our brains take in and helps form memories that linger with us. So writers must call on those visual cues to help set the scenes within the readers' minds.

Let's say you are writing a scene that conveys an air of mystery and suspense. If you were to write:

A car pulled up near the building. Two men got out.

That doesn't say much at all. You know that there is a car, two men, and a building. They could be co-workers heading into the office or friends going to a movie. The passage leaves us with a lot of blanks to fill in like what kind of car? Is it day or night? Were the men tall, short, or heavy? The description is too vague and leaves too much to the reader's imagination. That makes it flat and dull. So how about:

An old car crept up near the building. Two men slipped out into the darkness.

So now we have an old car and darkness. This sets the tone of a night time event and that their actions may not be the most honest or noble. But still, there could be more said to fill in the blanks. So how about spicing up the passage as such:

The driver killed the car's engine and lights a block from the warehouse. He eased the old sedan behind a dirty moving truck, avoiding the glow of the nearby street light. He pulled his ski mask over his face and singled for his partner to do the same. They slid from the car and darted for the shadows at the edge of the loading dock.

Much more visual details. You can get a feel for when this might be happening with words such as shadows, glow, street light. Color isn't necessary in the darkness but calling the car an old sedan brings up an image of a boxy, four-door vehicle. The dirty moving van adds another layer to the description, giving us something many have seen on the streets or freeways. We still don't know much about the men but having them pull down their ski masks tells us that they don't want anyone to know who they are. With this we have mystery and suspense. It took a few more sentences to set it up but the visual cues helped seal the deal.

So, when crafting a visual cue, the writer needs to decide how important the object or item is to the story and how much detail is necessary to grab the reader's imagination. To tag every item in a story would be sensory overload and blow the reader's mind. It would also kill any chances of people finishing the story. You want to engage but not overwhelm. Much like cooking you have to season your dish to enhance its flavor. A little Cumin in the chili spices it up. A pound of Cumin is just plain yuck!

Look at colors and textures. Simply saying red is one thing; candy-apple red evokes bright, shiny, and something sweet. It stimulates several senses at once, grabbing the reader's attention. One of my favorite lyrics comes from Duran Duran's song Rio, when they describe a woman having a cherry ice cream smile. It's bright, red, and makes you want to taste it. That's powerful description.

Adding size and mass to items helps the reader feel more like they're in the middle of the scene. To say that a man was big is one thing; to say he was mountainous says he's huge. To amp it up even more one could say that his shadow brought the bats and fireflies out to play.

Read some of your favorite stories and find passages that really grabbed you visually. How did the writer set the tone? Did they hit you with a series of short, powerful jabs? Did they layer several adjectives to build up a image that resonated years in your mind? Learning from other writers visual cues helps stimulate the muse and build your writing muscles.

Starting with visual cues are only the beginning. With four more senses to texture your writing, you can paint a picture that will captivate readers forever.


Popular Posts