Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sensory Images and what NOT to do

When you start out writing, many people will tell you to make sure you put in lots of sensory details, as they liven up your writing. And yes, that is true. If you can smell, feel, taste, hear, and see the story, it will be a lot more vivid than if you are just looking at it like a movie.

But the trap I've seen a lot of writers (myself included) fall into is they end up using the character as a sensory vessel. Now while this would be technically correct to write:

Zachary saw the blooming flowers and bent down, smelling their sweet fragrance.

It comes across as weak. Zachary is technically the subject of this sentence. He dominates. And unless the act of Zachary bending over to smell the flower is very significant, we don't care about it. What you would want to do is, instead, just go out and tell us about the blooming flowers and what they smell like. The reader doesn't need the main character to be a sensory vessel. Here is a quick revision:

The blooming flowers released their sweet fragrance into the meadow.

There were two things I did there. First, I was able to add the little detail about the meadow (in 2 less words mind you) Second, I made the flowers the subject of the sentence. Now we as a reader are focused on the flowers and the image is a lot more powerful.

But you have to be careful when you do this with any POV that isn't 3rd person omniscient (and I don't recommend you use that) because while readers don't want to see Zachary bend down and smell the flowers, the character has to be smelling the flowers. If he is trapped in a glass box where the smell can not enter, then the sentence I wrote would technically have a POV problem. Instead you could do this though:

The blooming flowers swayed in the meadow, and Zachary could only imagine their sweet fragrance wafting through the air.

Granted there are quite a few more words in this, but come on, my MC is locked in a glass box.

This POV problem though also goes for the other senses including sight. If you character can't see it, you can't describe it. But you don't need to (or should) explicitly tell us what your character sees. Again, some examples:

Zachary turned around and saw the bear chasing him.

Zachary turned around. The bear was chasing him. 

It's subtle, but in an industry as competitive as creative writing, every little trick you have to make your writing just a bit more powerful goes a long way.

For you: Have you noticed this in your own writing? Do you have any tricks for showing sensory detail without explicitly having the character experience it?


J.J. Lancer August 17, 2011 at 11:33 PM  

Sensory descriptions are one of my weaknesses. I really like that you provided some examples, though. Now I have some inkling on how to fix my own failure sentences. :D

A Kwee Life September 11, 2011 at 3:30 AM  

Thank you. I appreciated the examples. I've got some telling me to put in more like, how the old house smelled. I already said it was dank and musty! You know? Then I have others that say I get too wordy. Just can't win. So, thank you.

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