Have you ever read (or written) a story where you or your readers have a difficult time picturing the action and the setting? The writer is so focused on the characters, dialogue, and action, that they forget to tell us where the characters are.
It’s like the characters are floating heads. They’re talking and acting…somewhere which is what happens when you forget to describe any setting at all. It’s your job as the writer to tell your reader not only what your characters are doing and saying, but also where they are and what that place is like.
One of my critique partners (who’s also traditionally published multiple novels) writes amazing dialogue but often forgets to ground her characters in the setting. When she revises, sensory details and description are always something she’s looking to add because she tends to focus on the action and dialogue.
It’s one of those skills that you need to give some attention, especially in the revision stages of writing a story because it allows your readers to really imagine your story and your characters.
What, exactly, are Sensory Details?
Sensory details use all five senses to describe your setting, characters, and action and make it truly come alive. Using the senses also allows your character to interact with the setting and what’s happening to them.
You want to think about smell, touch, taste, sight, and sound. Obviously, not all scenes will have a taste element or a touch element, but your characters should be able to at least see and hear what’s happening in the scene. These details will make your setting and action that much more real and believable to your readers.
The best way to understand sensory details is to read some great examples of authors who effectively tie the senses into their descriptions.
Examples of Sensory Details
This is the most basic of the senses when writing description. In The Maze Runner, James Dashner describes exactly what Thomas, the main character, sees when he gets his first glimpse of the maze:
“A maze? In front of him, through the East Door, he could make out passage leading to the left, to the right, and straight ahead. And the walls of the corridors were similar to those that surrounded the Glade, the ground made of the same massive stone blocks as in the courtyard. The ivy seemed even thicker out there. In the distance, more breaks in the walls led to other paths, and farther down, maybe a hundred yards or so away, the straight passage came to a dead end” (26).
We get a clear sense of the setting and also of Thomas’ confusion. Because this whole novel revolves around the maze, Dashner describes it in great detail throughout the story and devotes entire passages to what the setting looks like.
In Someone Like You, Sarah Dessen weaves details of what the setting looks like throughout the character’s action and dialogue. She doesn’t write extended chunks of setting like the previous Maze Runner passage.
“When we went upstairs to get ready, I flopped on the edge of her bed, which was covered in clothes and magazines and mismatched blankets and sheets…Through the window over Scarlett’s bed, I could see my own mother sitting in the swing on our front porch, drinking coffee and reading the paper” (29).
The details she chooses to focus on in the setting emphasize Halley’s emotional distance from her mother and her closeness to her best friend Scarlett.
Neil Gaiman, in The Graveyard Book, uses the sense of smell to create a deliciously eery scene as a murderer uses this sense to search for a small child.
“The man Jack sniffed the air. He ignored the scents that had come into the room with him, dismissed the scents that he could safely ignore, honed in on the smell of the thing he had come to find. He could smell the child: a milky smell, like chocolate chip cookies, and the sour tang of a wet, disposable, nighttime diaper. He could smell the baby shampoo in its hair, and something small and rubbery – a toy, he thought, and then, no, something to suck – that the child had been carrying” (9).
The scents Gaiman chooses are sweet baby scents: milk, cookies, baby shampoo, a diaper. Contrasted with the murderous man who sniffs them, the scene becomes that much creepier, and since most every reader has smelled all these “baby” smells, we can relate and get a strong sense of the setting through only the baby’s smell.
Sight, Sound, and Taste
Writers also combine sensory details together to create the setting and develop characters. In Someone Like You, Sarah Dessen uses both sight and sound, and she even alludes to taste to develop the setting’s atmosphere and mood.
“My father was always the one who crept to my doorway after I’d been grounded, sneaking me one of his special Brain Freeze Chocolate Milkshakes, which he believed could solve any problem. After the yelling and slamming of doors, after my mother and I stalked to our separate corners, I could always count on hearing the whirring of the blender in the kitchen, and then him appearing at my doorway presenting me with the thickest, coldest milkshake as a peace offering. But all the milkshakes in the world weren’t going to get me out of this” (13).
The main character has just had a fight with her mother which is highlighted by the sound of the yelling and slamming doors. This is contrasted with the creamy, cold milkshakes that never arrive. Halley’s world changes at this moment, and the sensory details Dessen focuses on in the setting reflect that change.
Smell, Touch, and Sound
In The Maze Runner, James Dashner uses a different combination of sensory details to establish the mood and to give us a strong sense of the character’s confusion. The novel begins with a complete focus on sensory details which creates mystery and suspense.
“He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air. Metal ground against metal; a lurching shudder shook the floor beneath him…with another jolt, the room jerked upward like an old lift in a mine shaft. Harsh sounds of chains and pulleys, like the workings of an ancient steel factory, echoed through the room, bouncing off the walls with a hollow, tinny whine” (1).
We wonder where the main character is and how he got in this situation. We get no details at all about what he is seeing. We know that it’s dark, so as the passage continues the emphasis on what he can feel, hear, and smell become more predominant.
Emphasizing the light and how it impacts what your characters see can create suspense and help develop the mood in your story. If it’s bright and sunny, the story probably has a more contemporary, upbeat plot. If it’s dark and dreary, the mood can be scary and suspenseful or depressing.
As writers, focusing on sight when it comes to describing the setting is the most obvious choice, but you can add so much depth, suspense, and emotion to your setting by adding sensory details.
Print out the PDF Sensory Details Checklist that accompanies this post. It will help guide you through the steps to revise (or write) your stories to make sure you’ve got some solid sensory and descriptive details but not so much that the story bogs down in them.
When it comes to adding description, what do you do to make sure you’ve got enough but not too much?
Let me know in the comments below.
Thanks so much for taking this writerly journey with me.