Friday, June 24, 2011

Adding Sensory Details

Happy Friday everyone! Don't forget writing prompts are due on Monday. Click here for details about this round's prompt. Also, there's still time to get yourself entered to win K. Dawn Byrd's latest release.

So. Editing.

You're in your third draft, you've evaluated your scene, and you've decided it should stay. It advances the plot, your character grows, you need this scene. Now what?

Now is a good time to evaluate description.

Your manuscript likely falls into one of two categories:

1. You're like me, and there's basically no description. Your character's are just talking heads with a green screen behind them.

2. You've got tons and tons of description and you need to decide what to keep and what to toss. If you're suffering from too much description, click here to read Erica Vetsch's wisdom about how to decide what to keep and what to chuck.

If you fall into category 1, you can stick around here. (If you're in category 2, it's okay if you eavesdrop!)

A good place to start is with the 5 senses. We tend to naturally describe what our character's see, but don't forget about those other senses - what can they taste, touch, smell, and hear?

Let's try a little hands on example and see how it goes. I've opened up the first draft of my WIP, Lost or Found. Here are the first 148 words of the prologue in their rough form:

It would have been an ordinary evening, forgettable even, had the phone not rang later that night.

Elise and I had spent our afternoon at orientation at The Learning Center, where we’d taken summer jobs tutoring kids. While we wouldn’t return to school bronze like those who lifeguarded, we also wouldn’t be stuck serving French fries to harried families. And it was the kind of job that looked good to Columbia. That’s all that mattered to us back then.

“I’m dumping Kenny,” Elise said to me as I made us iced tea. It was yet another one of our similarities, our love for iced tea.

I stopped mid-pour and looked at her. “Oh, Elise. He’s going to cry. You know that, right?”

Elise sighed. “I know. But I just don’t know what else to do. He’s talking about applying to Columbia too.”

I bit my lip. “Hmm.”
There are practically no sensory details in this. So I'm going to close my eyes for a second and think about Piper and Elise. I'll make a list in my head that looks like this. (Note: This isn't a comprehensive list because that would be insane, but it's enough to get my head in the scene.)

LOCATION: Piper's kitchen

WHEN: Around dinner time.

WHO IS THERE?: Just Piper and Elise.

What can Piper SEE: Elise's red shirt, the kitchen counter's that are clean from lack of use, her report card stuck on the fridge

What can Piper HEAR: The quiet of the house at an hour that most families are eating dinner together, kids outside playing in the summer evening

What can Piper SMELL: The brewing tea

What can Piper FEEL: The pitcher, the countertop, the steam of the fresh tea

What can Piper TASTE: The remnants of the cough drop she's been sucking on

The other thing that's important is this is a memory of Piper's, so it will be tainted with a bit of nostalgia. She won't just say Elise is wearing a red shirt, she'll remember other details. Like:

Elise had on her favorite red shirt, the one she wore for good luck on tests. Later that night, when I watched the wreckage on the evening news, I would think of the shirt and how her token of luck had failed her.

This is just the first 150 words of the book, so I'm not going to panic about cramming in all the senses, but it definitely needs more: (Additions/changes are bold.)

It would have been an ordinary evening, forgettable even, had the phone not rang later that night.

Elise and I had spent our afternoon in orientation at The Learning Center, where we’d taken summer jobs tutoring kids. We wouldn’t return to school bronze like those who lifeguarded, but we also wouldn’t be stuck serving French fries to harried families. And, even though the classrooms smelled like gym socks, tutoring was the kind of job that looked good to Columbia. That’s all that mattered to us back then.

“I’m dumping Kenny,” Elise said to me as I made us iced tea. It was yet another one of our similarities, our love for iced tea.

I stopped mid-pour and looked at her through the sticky steam of the freshly brewed pitcher. She had on her favorite red shirt, the one she wore for good luck on tests. Later that night, when I watched the wreckage on the evening news, I would think of the shirt and how her token of luck had failed her.“Oh, Elise. He’s going to cry. You know that, right?”

Elise sighed. “I know. But I just don’t know what else to do. He’s talking about applying to Columbia too.”

I bit my lip. “Hmm.”

So by my count, that's three senses I added - smell (the classroom smelled like gym socks), sight (the steam, the red shirt), and I think the steam also counts for feel, since she describes it as being sticky. Three senses in 150 words is plenty, I think. There's no magic ratio or anything, but I'm pleased with how these details punch up my scene.

What's the sense you find yourself forgetting about? Mine is taste.

Have a great weekend everyone!

11 comments:

  1. Helpful!! I'm always good at thinking of the sense...but not so hot at effectively getting them in the piece. I over think it.

    By the way, I always smile when you mention the talking heads! ha

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  2. Is it OK that with one part in my story, there is a really important conversation. Because I am on first draft, can I write the basic skeleton of the conversation and add the body later. Tell me if that is not OK or not.

    Alyson

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  3. Absolutely, Alyson. That's the way I do it too.

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  4. I always seem to forget about senses almost all together at first. I usually remember sight though. One time, for my history class we had to write a story about the Mayflower using all 5 senses, and I remember how much I loved that story, and I eventually ended up winning first place in the contest, so that has helped me a lot in my writing, trying to remember to use as many of the sense I can. This post was incredibly helpful.

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  5. Taste--yeah, a tricky one. I love when someone delivers an unexpected taste--like, you know, if that classroom TASTES of gym socks. ;-) Or mentioning the taste of tea, aftertaste of coffee, etc. What bugs me to no end is when someone think they have to describe the taste of, say, a donut. "The sweet doughiness, punctuated with powdered sugar . . ." Um, yeah. We've all eaten a donut. ;-) Things like that fall into the "too much" category for sure! Which is a good rule of thumb. If it's something we all know, mention, don't describe.

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  6. Tabitha, congratulations! How awesome!

    Roseanna, YES. We shouldn't be tasting everything, that's for sure.

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  7. Great stuff, Steph. As always. :-)

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  8. Great post, I forget about sensory details so much! So in my rough draft it's a bumpy ride between sensory highs and lows, because sometimes I remember and overdose! LOL.

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  9. That's so cool, Tabitha!

    Hmm, I think I probably forget the sense of smell most often, though taste is a close second. :)

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  10. Faye, I totally relate! My first drafts read like that too :)

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  11. I think I probably forget the feel one the most... maybe. Or probably taste. Feel and Sight is something I write a lot of, especially sight haha.

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