Over and over again, writers are told that in order to enrich their writing, they should strive to engage as many of the senses as possible in a descriptive passage.
The easiest, of course, is visual. We tend to stick with that one, because it’s the most obvious and most overwhelmingly present. Readers always want to know how something looks. But how much more vivid would our descriptions be if we used several of the senses, all at once?
While reading Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue, I came across a paragraph that absolutely embodied this:
“Giddon yanked the papers from her hands and threw them across the room. Jumping at the unexpectedness of this, Bitterblue saw him clearly as she hadn’t before, saw him towering over her, mouth hard, eyes flashing, and realized he was furious. Her vision came into focus and the room filled itself in around her. She heard the fire crackling, the silence of Bann and Helda, at the table, watching, tense, unhappy. The room smelled like wood fires. She pulled a blanket around herself. She was not alone.”
Take a closer look. Obviously the visual is present and dominant. But in the background, Bitterblue hears the fire crackling, notices the silence of the others. She smells the wood fire. Pulling the blanket around herself is tactile. The only sense missing is taste. But something else is going on here as well. We learn how she’s feeling.
Not only does the use of the senses capture our attention, it serves to heighten the tension and drama of what is actually happening in this scene. Something elemental passes between Giddon and Bitterblue. The power of his anger proves how much he cares about her, as does the “tense, unhappy silence” of the others. The sensory details are what drives these emotions home to the reader, what makes the passage so visceral. The ending of the paragraph is powerful: “She was not alone.”
Sensory detail doesn’t have to be perfect in the early drafts of your work. You can fill it in as you revise. But don’t leave it out, and don’t be satisfied with the visual only. Do remember that the senses connect to your characters’ emotions and feelings. It’s their perception, not yours.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Cashore’s work, start with Graceling. Fire is her second book, and is a companion to Graceling and Bitterblue, which is her third book. (You can read my review of Bitterblue on GoodReads.)
Do you have a favorite writer who is particularly good at drawing us in by meticulous and judicious use of sensory detail? Any books or passages you’d like to share?