Storytelling Techniques - Description that Appeals to the Senses
Editors talk a lot about description in fiction, and one of the things I often see when editing other writers is the lack of description, or if there is some, it’s too weak to make the story as effective as it should. Writers tend to be very good at it, or pretty bad.
Description shouldn’t be confused with narrative, which is the expositional bit of writing woven between the dialogue and the active descriptions. Any good story isn’t effective without great description – it’s a clever way to involve the reader, to help them imagine themselves within the story, with the characters, to show them action, drama, tension, atmosphere, mood and, importantly, emotion and conflict. It places the reader within that setting, that moment; it makes the story feel real.
And the best way to do this is to write description that appeals to the reader’s senses, engages them, thrills them and takes them on an emotional journey. It’s sensory description. Well written description utilises the senses to create sensory details and create a picture in the reader’s mind – things that can be touched, tasted, seen, smelled, or heard.
In other words, use one or more of those senses to lift your description from the page. You don’t have to use every single one, otherwise that would overload the whole thing. But make use of those senses that would add mood and atmosphere, or create tension to add different layers to the story. For instance, being in a room in the dark would primarily exaggerate the senses of sight and hearing. What can be seen? What are those shadows? What’s that noise?
Being in a social gathering might make use of taste, hearing, smell and sight. Characters might be eating food, smelling different scents, hearing music and seeing colours and sights etc. Or a romantic scene might use touch alone to let the reader imagine what the characters are experiencing.
Colours rarely get a mention in descriptions, yet the world is made of colours. Don’t just write about a blue sky and white clouds or describe green grass. Lift the description to another level; think about the spectrum of colour that is all around us. The sky isn’t just blue. It can be layers of different hues. The clouds aren’t just white. They can be all colours because of reflections from the sunlight. Grass isn’t always green, and so on.
For example, this is ordinary, dull description:
David walked down the hallway. ‘Hello?’ But there was no answer and other than some half eaten toast on the kitchen table, the house appeared to be empty.
Vivid and colourful description turns dulls description into sensory description and is a great way to show rather than tell, for example:
David walked down the hallway. The smell of burnt toast clung to the air. He hesitated and listened, but he only heard the rhythmic hum of his heartbeat in his head.
The dull grey light of the afternoon cast a weary shadow across the hall from the porch, and yet in his mind, the house grew dark with every second.
‘Hello?’ But there was no answer.
he house appeared empty.
Compared with the first example, this second one involves some of the senses to add some descriptive layers to the scene. It engages the senses and the reader will feel as though they’re part of that scene.
Good, sensory description creates not just atmosphere or mood, and a sense of being there, for the reader, but it helps to convey emotions. Description that appeals to the senses is description that creates emotional responses.
Don’t write ordinary, dull description that doesn’t actually describe anything. Make use of senses, colours and emotions. Make it vivid, figurative, colourful and appealing. Make it emotional. Make it count.