As I mentioned in my last post, summer has begun, which means my job has kicked into high gear. Something that usually results in a Sleeping Beauty-esque hibernation effect on this blog.
But not today!
[Insert inspiring speech reminiscent of Aragorn’s “But it is not this day!” complete with horse rearing and sword brandishing.]
Have you ever wondered how to craft descriptions into a scene to make it stand out as vivid in the readers’ mind as if they were actually there? The key is to write in a manner than engages the five senses. This challenge may seem monumental at first, but by stockpiling sensory ‘imprints’ for you to insert into your writing and a bit of practice it can easily become second nature.
What is a sensory ‘imprint’ and how do I make one?
First, decide which of the five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, or sound) you will start with. If needed, close your eyes or listen to music on earphones to block out other sensory stimuli to help you concentrate. Then take a minute or so and just focus on that one sensory aspect of the area you’re in.
Sight: tab any special landmarks such as unique or famous buildings, what makes the natural setting unique, and lighting (both sources, and how it moves/reflects/shine through your surroundings. What things would locals point out in describing this area to a stranger?
Smell: breathe deep for a while, taking note of which smells you catch first, and which ones take you some time to distinguish.
Touch: is probably the easiest sense to focus on, as (unless you’re in a zero-gravity room) you are always in physical contact with something – what does it feel like to move against the surfaces around you? How is the air shifting, and what is the temperature?
Taste: is a piece of cake (literally) when you’re eating, but it can be a factor in non-meal-related scenes, too; some smells can actually be tasted. See if there are any in the area, and breathe through your mouth for a few breaths. Even if you don’t eat anything while in this area, mentioning what kinds of food present there can add a lot to a scene.
Sound: list repeated noises that form an auditory ‘backdrop’, and those that occur less often but are nonetheless individual or usual in the setting you’re in.
While you’re focusing on each sense in turn, pause to write down your observations once in a while. But do not use the first words that pop into your head if you can help it. Download a thesaurus app on your smartphone if you have too, by all means – anything to help you avoid clichés. (Because the cliché is what most people’s minds jump to when describing and labeling things.) One thing I’ve found helpful in crafting creative descriptions is trying to describe one sensation by using another. For example:
~ What color is the scent? (Sight to describe smell)
~ What textures could describe a particular flavor? I.e. gritty, smooth, plush, etc. (Touch to describe taste)
You now have a mental (and hardcopy, if you do take notes) ‘diary entry’ or ‘imprint’ of what your senses picked up in the area you are in. Ta-da! Fodder for sensory descriptions! Now, when you come across a situation that reminds you of a scene you’ve written or want to write, take a moment to gather an ‘imprint’, and then use the sensations you gather to flesh out the descriptions. Which leads me on to the next part of this process...
How do I practice?
By writing. Just like with using silverware, riding a bike, or dancing, learning how to write scenes that engage a reader’s senses takes time and immersion in the process. When you’re next writing, pay attention to highlight the sights, sounds, smells, feeling, and tastes of the scene you are working on. Do not run through these as if they were a laundry list at the beginning of the scene, however. Begin with a few descriptions that are the strongest representations of the setting, to give readers a foundation to begin imagining the scene with.
The rich scent of freshly turned earth mingled with the overarching odor of animals and manure, all intensified by the sun heat that radiated off the road and up against my calves. From over the fields the gentle wind carried the grinding whir of machinery, and it toyed with my hair, lifting strands off my sweaty forehead.
With just the two above sentences, the reader is treated to the initial sensation of being outdoors at a farm in the middle of summer without describing every aspect of the scene. Throughout the action and dialogue you can sprinkle more descriptions in – the whir of doves flying from the loft of the barn, the way the gravel road crunches underfoot, and the earthy flavor of dust grit in your mouth. This builds the realism without being overbearing. You do not, however, need to describe everything. Leaving room for the readers’ imagination to fill in the gaps with memories of similar real-life experiences allows the scene to become more personal and real to them than mounds of information ever could.So take heart! Building vivid descriptions that will tickle your readers’ senses isn’t really that hard – just practice observation and your writing craft, and you’re halfway there.
Stacia Joy is the author and illustrator of the newly released fantasy Becoming the Chateran (Book One of The Chateran Series). When not writing or obsessing over art, she spends her days immersed in numerous pastimes that include archery, Irish dancing, playing the folk harp, reading history and researching off-beat topics like medieval medicine, and tossing helpless people as inspiration into her books.
For years now she has been struggling with a bad case of sesquipedalianism, and can also be found nosing into almost anything or brushing up on her nearly-fluent sarcasm. Join Stacia Joy at her blog every Thursday for a delve into the art and agony of writing, a new book cover design, sneak peaks and backstories via Creating the Chateran, or book reviews!
Thanks, Stacia, for stopping by! It was a pleasure to host you on the blog today!