Life isn’t sterile – your scenes shouldn’t be either.
I’m a little biased because I’m practically blind and make up for that with good hearing and the sense of smell of a pregnant woman, but when describing scenes, writers usually focus way too much on what the character is seeing. They will throw in what the person’s hearing sometimes, but even that isn’t all of what they are sensing.
This isn’t a movie your character’s watching with a sound here or there. They are there. They have four other senses besides sight, five if they’re psychic like a few of my leading ladies. And trust me, in real life, those can make a far more lasting impression than something someone sees.
This post is going to be a little workshop. Take one of your scenes, one where the scenery is important to the plot or the characters, not just helping flush out the story by painting a background. A good example is a crime scene in a mystery. You could also go with a disaster, sex, exploring, or fight scene. Those may be harder since there’s so much action taking up the space, there’s not a lot of time for your character to process so the sensory input would be scattered, but it’s just as important in action scenes because your character is always processing. And adding little details within those action moments are what make them real to your reader.
Pick your scene. Got it? Good. Let’s go.
1) Make sure you’re in somebody’s head. A lot of new writers have trouble with what we call head hopping, where they are basically an omniscient narrator that pops into a character’s head here or there and then goes into another’s in the same scene. Unless your narrator is some kind of alien, ghost, magical being, ect… that can actually prance through other characters’ minds and is doing it in the scene, don’t do this! A lot of the classic authors did this because that was the style back then but readers today get annoyed by it and it actually makes your job of showing the reader what’s going on harder.
So, pick a character. If you have multiple POVs then a good rule of thumb is to pick the character with the most at stake in that scene.
2) Take a few paragraphs of your description of the scene you picked. This can just be a quick assessment by the character to orient the reader to a new place, or it can be combined with the action in the scene.
3) Underline and label (using multi-colored pens, highlighters, just writing it, whatever) the parts that describe something the character senses, and count up how many are based on each of the senses. (You can decide using your own judgment how much a block of description should count for.) How many are based on sight?
Yep, that’s what I thought.
4) Take the same scene and rewrite some of the descriptions. This time, make it so half of the descriptions are of the senses besides sight.
Hearing’s a good one that is usually the secondary sense go to. Don’t forget that while the landscape is beautiful, the hills are alive with music 😉 There’s rustling in the tress from the wind, there’s bugs buzzing in the Southern heat, or it’s quiet… toooooo quiet.
Smell and the tastes related to it are ones I think writers should utilize more. You ever walk into the office and know an old lady was there because the place reeks so badly of perfume you’d swear they smashed the bottle on the carpet? What about that faint smell of mold it seems all old houses in the South have? Rain, cleaner, books, wood, clothes, and sweat all have a smell. If a place is lived in, I guarantee you it has its own unique smells. You may not be able to describe them besides just naming the smell, but it does ground the reader. Remember, smell is the closest sense tied to memory.
And then the one that almost never gets touched (pun intended!) on when describing a scene, but is usually pretty well represented in action – touch!
Your character is in a guy’s house for the first time. What does the carpet feel like when she takes off her shoes, what’s the couch fabric like under her thighs as she sits, what’s the couch’s firmness? Is the cat that decides to join them fluffy and soft or more of a stiff haired type?
There are so many subtle things we sense every day that just don’t get registered because they are filed away as non-important, just part of everyday life in that area. So when writers are working on scenes, they don’t think to add these things unless there’s something really obvious, like smelling the noxious perfume. The everyday smells and feels of things are details that can help ground your reader, but since you don’t notice them, chances are your characters don’t either. Unless something’s off or new. You want to give them the five sense feel of the place, but not in a way that’s unnatural.
Since stories are about something happening, you’re going to have ample opportunity to have your character experience new things. Same place but something’s off or new place, stuff is happening. You can say the place didn’t smell like it used to, or describe the new place as the character is just barely getting to it. Going to the office everyday would make your character used to the smell of the place and the feel of her chair, so she could notice that something’s off. She could smell something weird and not be able to place it, until she gets into her office area and figures out she’s smelling the cleaner that’s usually dissipated by this time in the morning, or covered up by the smell of brewing coffee that’s suspiciously absent.
5) Reread your scene to see if it makes sense. Is there too much on the hearing and smelling and not enough sight? Put it back in.
The point of this exercise is to round out the scene, not make it unnecessarily about exploring the five senses. It’s to get you to “see” your world in a different way and showcase that to the reader since they notice these things too and don’t always realize it. They sure as hell notice when something’s off about their everyday senses though. There’s a sewage smell, a drip drip like water from a leak, their favorite shirt feels itchy, or the don’t sit right in their chair, like something lowered it, Cues like this that something is off is a great way to build suspense, to clue your reader into the fact that something is wrong.
6) If you want, after you integrate the amount of sensory description you feel works for you, post the old scene and the new one here or on your own site.
7) Go through and doctor the rest of your scenes. Oh come on, that book isn’t going to fix up itself.