When we tell stories, we often strive for the “truth”. I don’t mean the ethical, moral kind of truth here. Rather, that we try to make the story believable enough that our audience will be drawn in and experience exactly what we’re trying to communicate to them. This applies to both fiction and non-fiction and is valid for any preferred medium.
And, the most primal and immediate way that all living beings experience anything is through the senses. The evolution of these senses through the ages has not only been critical for our survival, it has also both united and divided us as a species. In ‘A Natural History of the Senses’, Diane Ackerman describes this as follows:
There is so much physical variation among people – some have strong hearts, some have weak bladders, some have steadier hands than others, some have bad eyesight – it’s only logical that senses should vary too. Yet, how much in agreement our senses are – so much so that scientists can define a “red wave” by saying that it is produced by a vibration of 660 millimicrons, which stimulates the retinas to see red. Tones are defined equally precisely, as are the temperatures at which we feel hot or cold. Our senses unite us in a common field of temporal glory, but they can also divide us. Sometimes briefly, or, as in the case of artists, for a lifetime.
Telling stories with words has, perhaps, at least one distinct disadvantage over other media. The words have to draw readers in, hold their attention and count on them to exercise their own imagination and creativity to see, hear, taste, feel or smell what is being described. Unlike, say, a piece of music or a work of art, which attracts and holds our hearing or sight more directly. And, yet, the flip side is that words are, possibly, even more powerful as they can, indeed, allow readers to experience all of those senses.
There is one school of thought that believes in eight physically-experienced senses. Beyond the five senses of smell, touch, taste, hearing and sight, there are also: sense of place, sense of time and sense of the unknown. Good storytelling (fiction or otherwise) leverages these eight senses varyingly and effectively, like music notes, to accomplish specific objectives like: moving a story’s action along, creating tension or conflict, giving us a character’s motivations or emotions or even, simply, slowing down the pace of a narrative as needed.
Consider this example from the short story, ‘A Little Cloud’ by James Joyce in his collection, ‘The Dubliners‘ (senses evoked have been added by me in bold and parentheses):
The glow (sight) of a late (time) autumn sunset covered (touch) the grass (sight) plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust (sight and touch) on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches (sight); it flickered upon (touch) all the moving figures (sight) – on the children who ran (sight) screaming (sound) along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens (space). He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad (unknown). A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed to him.
In ‘Writing Fiction Step by Step’, Josip Novakovich explains this as follows:
The words you put together need to evoke – and sometimes provoke – images. Effective writers usually prefer direct adjectives of color (“red”, “white”, etc.) and other sensory materials to abstract adjectives. “Stupendous”, “awful”, “beautiful” and “ugly” may sound grand but don’t help you paint your images. These adjectives frequently only express what effect you want to achieve in your description; they are not shortcuts, but copouts, which can’t save you from the basic obligation to create paintings and music in your prose.
While there are many, many ways to evoke / provoke images, we’ll focus on just a handful here. None of these are hard and fast rules. In fact, for every recommendation below, there are many writers who have done the opposite to much success. Still, these are guidelines that can be applied when we need to freshen up a story or poem that isn’t quite working. Perhaps, if there is one “rule”, it is to avoid cliché.
Choosing When to Describe Sensory Details:
Presenting specific sensory details in a story is like creating the physical stage or the background for your characters, themes, narrative. We don’t need a complete description of the sky or the park or a person’s appearance, but just enough details that communicate the requisite mood(s) or emotion(s) for the scene. In the above paragraph from Joyce’s short story, with just a few details, we get an immediate sense of a bright, autumn evening, with both the very old and the very young whiling away time. And, more than that, we get a wonderful juxtaposition of the protagonist’s carefree external world with his melancholic inner world as he awaits a meeting with a friend he hasn’t seen in a long time. Joyce could have chosen to narrow his “camera focus” onto just 1-2 objects within that scene. But, clearly, he wanted to communicate a sense of expansiveness in the outer world against the closed-off or narrow inner world – and, that’s why it works so effectively.
Two Important Caveats:
1) Employing vast amounts of sensory details will not mask the absence or paucity of other narrative devices and techniques such as dialogue, action, suspense, conflict, plot, etc. And, again, this applies to both fiction and non-fiction. As with anything, overdoing one technique at the expense of another will rarely work, so choose and employ sensory details sparingly and only as an essentiality.
2) Sensory descriptions should be natural extensions of the emotional, sensual and psychological worlds of the characters. In other words, no matter how periphery an object or image may be in a scene, if it does not convey the appropriate moods, habits and, yes, souls of the character(s), then it is going to strike the reader as a false note and, by extension, make the entire story rather unbelievable. So, be careful about which details you’re going to pick and how you’re going to show them.
Choosing How to Describe Sensory Details:
1) Nouns, Adjectives, Verbs – Some writers eschew adjectives altogether. Hemingway was famous for this, favoring nouns and action verbs mostly. And, indeed, choosing the right nouns for the details we’re aiming to present can be more effective than adding more florid / purple prose. But, this means picking nouns that require no (or very little) modification to engage the reader’s senses. Adjectives should only be used when we want to add nuance or reveal something unusual about the thing itself.
While Joyce’s passage above is liberal in its use of both nouns and adjectives, consider this excerpt from ‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’ by Katherine Mansfield from ‘The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield‘.
Her own room at last! She closed the door, lit the gas, took off her hat and coat, skirt, blouse, unhooked her old flannel dressing-gown from behind the door, pulled it on, then unlaced her boots—on consideration her stockings were not wet enough to change. She went over to the wash-stand. The jug had not been filled again to-day. There was just enough water to soak the sponge, and the enamel was coming off the basin—that was the second time she had scratched her chin.
The use of plain nouns (there are only 2 adjectival insertions) works very well to both convey the sparseness of Rosabel’s room as well as contrast against the more vivid and richer descriptions, as seen through Rosabel’s recollections of her work day, in the rest of the story.
As for verbs, they are, of course, the best to breathe life into your narrative. But, beyond using them to describe actions, they can also be used to describe effects. For a wonderful example of the latter, here’s how Fitzgerald, in ‘The Great Gatsby‘, described an inanimate thing, sunlight, playing on Daisy Buchanan’s face.
For a moment, the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened – then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.
Note how the sunlight falls and then deserts – both actions conducted with human-like emotions – romantic affection and lingering regret. That even the inanimate world around Daisy is enamored of her makes her beauty more acute and palpable than another character’s verbal declaration might have done. It is also telling that the narrator, Nick Carraway, chooses to describe Daisy’s beauty to us in this oblique manner rather than stating something more, say, Hemingway-esque, like “damned good-looking” or with “curves like the hull of a racing yacht”, which is how the latter described Lady Brett Ashley in ‘The Sun Also Rises‘. (Admittedly, these are two very different women – Daisy Buchanan and Brett Ashley. But, it is these very different descriptions that make us understand that and the differences between Nick Carraway and Jake Barnes, the respective narrators.)
2) Associations – This is about incorporating what we know with what we sense. Our intellectual associations are based on facts, memories and speculations. Many of these are often buried deep in our sub-conscious. For example, the taste of a tart berry might take you back to childhood summers spent berry-picking. In literary terms, we create associations with the use of metaphors and similes where one thing is or is like some other thing. Often, association can also be negative, where one thing is unlike another.
Here’s a description from Oscar Hijuelos’ ‘The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love‘:
….. he recalled the first time he saw the man on a stage, off in another world and bending his body in a hundred shapes, as if he was made of rubber: prowling like a hound, on his haunches like a cat, spreading out like a tree, soaring like a biplane, rushing like a train, vibrating like a tumbling washing machine, rolling like dice, bounding like a kangaroo, bouncing like a spring, skipping like a stone…. and his face a mask of concentration, conviction and pure pleasure, a being from another world, his stage another world.
This is rather an excessive use of associations, but it works well because it fits into the context of the scene and the overall narrative. Also, the exaggerated description manages to convey that the character (Pérez) being described was quite unlike other musicians and performers – in fact, quite unlike a normal human being in his abandon and exuberance. To manage both these types of associations – like something and unlike something – in the same description is quite the literary feat. Not easy to pull off.
3) Synesthesia: Ackerman described this as the stimulation of one sense through the stimulation of another. So, for example, when music evokes color (as it does for Neil Harbisson and has done for many musicians through the ages). A certain amount of synesthesia, or intermingling, of the senses is built-in for all of us. But, for the best artists, it is even more pronounced. Another example is how low voices can signify darkness while high voices imply brightness. Another example is from Kiran Desai’s ‘The Inheritance of Loss‘:
The floor was dark, almost black, wide planked; the ceiling resembled the rib cage of a whale, marks of an ax still in the timber…. He knew he could become aware here of depth, width, height and of a more elusive dimension. Outside, passionately colored birds swooped and whistled, and the Himalayas rose layer upon layer until those gleaming peaks proved a man to be so small that it made sense to give it all up, empty it all out. The judge could live here, in this shell, this skull, with the solace of being a foreigner in his own country….
With this visual description, drawing our attention like a camera swooping beyond the dark, enclosed interiors to the soaring/rising birds and mountains outside, we also get a sense of depth and space. That the judge shuns the outdoor, open spaces and wishes to hide away inside the “shell” tells us a lot about his character without any further explication needed.
Strengthening Our Sensory Writing Muscles:
So, let’s end with some thoughts on how we might strengthen these sensory writing muscles. There are too many effective approaches to share here, but here are five simple, yet powerful ones:
1) Ekphrasis (you’ll need to take the brief quiz to read through the explanation) – Take a piece of art (painting, sculpture, photograph, etc.) and describe it in words. Use some of the approaches mentioned above.
One other approach to describe the artwork only in terms of the emotions it evokes in you, as Matisse used to advise his students. Another piece of advice from him: close your eyes and see how long you can hold the vision – with all its varying details and then describe it from memory.
2) Reading like a Writer – Do a close reading of your favorite authors’ work. Whenever you come across a passage that evokes a visceral reaction, pause to review. Ask why, specifically, it stood out. What does it tell you about the character(s), the story, and the scene?
3) Single Character, No Dialogue – Write an entire scene with a single character and no dialogue. Through his/her actions and expressions, show us both his/her role in the story and the associated emotions. Really go to town by describing the external world through the sensory perceptions of the character – e.g. a coming storm or a cold wind. Consider, also, describing emotions and insights about the character by, say, describing the look in their eyes or the angle of their stance. [Dostoevsky did this very effectively with the “eyes” of many characters throughout ‘Crime and Punishment’: Raskolnikov, at varying times in the story has eyes that were “dry, feverish, piercing” or “it was as though a flame had blazed up in his lusterless eyes”. In fact, Dostoevsky uses the eyes as the windows to the souls of many of his characters in this story.]
4) Multiple Characters, Just Dialogue – Now, flipping the previous exercise on its head, write a scene with no descriptions, just dialogue between the characters such that we learn more about the characters and the stories. Dialogue can also be very descriptive. A wonderful example of this is Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ in his ‘Complete Short Stories‘, where a man and woman are sitting at a train station and the entire story is mostly just dialogue, other than a paragraph at the beginning that sets the scene. We get a complete and multi-dimensional understanding of the characters and their conflict (even though they don’t specifically mention the words “baby” or “abortion”).
5) Re-do a Few Clichés – Take a cliché such as “busy as a bee” or “scared to death” and describe it in a fresh way. Sometimes, you can do this by restoring it to the original imagery – for example, bees are constantly moving and buzzing, which is where that bee cliche comes from. Sometimes, you will need a fresh play on the words.
Just a few thoughts and approaches to freshen up a tired-sounding story or poem. Do post in the comments if any of these approaches work for you. Or, if you have other favorite techniques that are your constant go-tos.
update: This terrific essay from The Paris Review by Amina Cain on visual narrative.