Sunday, June 21, 2015

Using Your Senses. Or Not. --reblogged from

If you're a writer or if you've studied writing, I'm sure you've been told that using sensory details enhance the story.

I'm here to ask you to rein that in a little bit, hoss.

See, here's the thing: When I'm reading a story, I want to be in the moment. I want to experience what's going on along with the viewpoint character.

What that means is, I want to hear, taste, smell, touch, and see whatever the viewpoint character NOTICES, not what the viewpoint character hears, tastes, smells, touches, and sees.

Something that really jars me out of the moment is misplaced or meaningless sensory detail.


I'm such a cheapskate. I want everything in a story to do more than one thing. If Anouk hears a mockingbird, I want there to be some reason she hears it. There might be mockingbirds mocking their brains out, but do we notice it? Usually not. We don't observe everything that's within our range of vision; if Billingsgate sees a Lexus, I want there to be a reason. If Action Man is in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out fight, the chances that he would notice the scent of frying tortillas is slim -- if he does notice it, it better have more impact than just the fact of it.

I also don't want the story to come to a dead stop to explain why Paula notices the texture of the tablecloth. If there's a reason, you won't be stopping the story; if you have to stop the story, there's no reason for that detail at that moment.

Now, none of this applies in a naturally sensory-rich setting. If somebody goes to the circus, it's perfectly legitimate for them to be all: popcorn, grit under my feet, lights and colors, taste of spun sugar, calliope music.

But not many of us walk out of the door in the morning and go: chirpy birds, this flower and that flower and this other flower, honeysuckle, my heels go click click click, peppermint toothpaste. If I'm going to be in the moment of somebody noticing all that, I want it to mean something, you know?

Like, okay: As Paula listened to Albert list the reasons he was leaving her, she ran her fingers over the tablecloth, morbidly aware of the warp and weft of the fabric, of the broken threads and imperfections left by years of use and laundering.


If you're not writing from the viewpoint of a particular character, if you have an omniscient narrator, you have a little more wiggle room, but even there you need to choose wisely. You want to bring me into the setting, not juggle details for me. I hate being nibbled to death by ducks.

Marian Allen, Author Lady
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