The Importance of Sensory Data in Your Writing
Devon Ellington publishes under half a dozen names in fiction and non-fiction, and as an internationally-produced playwright and radio writer. Publications include the Coventina Circle Paranormal Romantic Suspense Novels and the Gwen Finnegan Mysteries as Devon Ellington, and the not-quite-cozy Nautical Namaste Mysteries as Ava Dunne. She is one of the founders of the new site Grief to Art, a site for collective mourning: www.grieftoart.com Her main website is www.devonellingtonwork.com. Other sites include https://devonellington.wordpress.com; https://www.facebook.com/devon.ellington.31 and https://twitter.com/DevonEllington.
Smell. Sound. Touch. Taste. Sight. We gather an extraordinary amount of detail about our environment through our five senses (and dismiss most of it). Awareness of sensory details and then deciding which ones strengthen your work and choosing those for theme, plot, and character development take your writing to a new level.
In a class on this topic, we do parallel sets of stories. On one track, we have an assignment where a particular sense is the driving force of that particular short story. On the second track, we start with a draft of a different story, and layer each sense into it as we do our sensory exercises. (By the end of class, we have seven complete short stories).
Here are some techniques from class:
Focus on Your Senses
If you can put aside a day to do this, break it up into two-hour segments for each sense. If you only have an hour over a series of days, pick only ONE sense each day.
For the focus session, take note (mentally and/or physically) of everything you experience in association with a particular sense. In the sound segment, be hyper-aware of every sound you hear, even in the distance, even if you don’t know what it is. For the texture segment, be aware of the difference in the way your couch cover feels than the way your soap feels or your potting soil feels Do that for each sense. Jot down adjectives or nouns for what you experience (sight often needs nouns).
Write The Scene as You See it
Your first draft is about getting words on paper. Write the action and dialogue as it comes to you (or as you’ve planned it in your outline).
Re-Read it as an Experience
Re-read the scene as though you live in each character’s skin.
Layer In Sensory Detail
What smells surround the characters in the scene? What do they see, when they look away from the person to whom they speak? What does the air feel like? Their clothing? Anything they sit on or walk on? Are they eating or drinking? What does that taste like? What do they hear? Is there ambient noise? Does a specific sound interrupt them or make one of the characters change intent?
Layer in details from all five senses. Don’t be afraid to overwrite.
Explore possibilities for each sense. Does one of the other five senses trigger an intuition (sixth sense) or give the character additional knowledge?
Also remember that smell and taste are closely tied. We can have a hint of a taste in a smell.
Choose What Drives The Piece Best
Put it aside again, for a day or two. When you return, read it and decide which sensory details underline your theme, drive your plot, reveal character details. Keep those. Cut the rest, or any info dumping.
Sensory layering allows readers to experience the piece rather than stay separate from it.