I shared a revised scene in critique group this week that got me thinking again about how to add sensory detail to writing.
Here is the clip from the story:
The crisp air of the late spring afternoon brushed my cheeks as I cued Callie for her left canter lead. Making a balanced turn at the corner, I sighted on the freshly painted blue and green jump in the middle of the arena.
“Oxer,” I called out to let everyone know which of the jumps we planned to take.
Another rider circled left to get out of our way and Callie took it clear. It was only two-six, and not very wide, but the size of the jump didn’t matter to me. My heart beat faster every time I let go and concentrated on that one moment: the strides into the jump and the pure joy of flying through the air to land on the other side, my amazing mare already seeking the next jump. After a few more jumps I asked Callie to transition down to a trot and then to a walk, patting the mare on her neck. Even snooty Mrs. Everett had been watching us all afternoon — allowing Callie an admiring glance when she’d gotten the one stride the first time through.
One of the ladies said hearing it made her feel like a fly on the rear of the horse, sailing along with the main character. That was my hope, of course, but it’s never a given that what I see when I write will be what the reader will experience. I consider Maria’s comment a high compliment!
Of the senses, sight is the easiest to convey. Most of us have developed a pretty good descriptive vocabulary for what we see — color, distance, size, volume, positioning, lightness or darkness. But what about the other five senses?
(Yes, you read that right. I believe there are five additional senses that can be evoked when you’re writing fiction. More on that as the “parts” unfold…)
In Diane Ackerman’s excellent book, A Natural History of the Senses, she discusses the first five senses in as lovely a way as I’ve ever found. Once I read a part of her book, my mind was much more in tune to all five senses when I wrote.
Here’s an exercise I use to spark my sense of SIGHT:
Take a piece of paper and draw two columns on it. Label one Verbs, the other adjectives
Begin listing every single word that comes to you. Some of them will not relate directly to sight, but put them down anyway, you can always transfer them over to the sense-page to which they belong later. Fill up the entire page. Call a friend, open the dictionary, do an internet search — there are no restrictions on what you can use to build your SIGHT vocabulary.
Second half of the exercise: Use your painter’s eye to “draw” a scene.
- Find a magazine featuring your choice of reading material: high-end decorating, lush gardening, delectable cookery, or a travel adventurer’s dream.
- Pull pages of ads or photo illustrations out at random.
- Pick one of the scenes that appeals to you.
- Take a piece of paper and divide it into three spaces.
- Write the name of three main objects in the scene you chose. People are objects, but don’t pick more than one person to describe. Leave plenty of room around each noun.
- Draw a line out from the word in the middle of the page and begin describing what you see.
- Color? Shape? Size? Time of day? Season? Weather? What direction does the light come from? Age of the object?
- What other things can you see in the picture you chose?
- Turn the page over and write a bit about the scene. (Making up a story is actually helpful!)
This will give you a good way to “see” how strong you are with your ability to “see” the scene and describe how it appears to a viewer.
Hold onto this scene because you’ll be coming back to it later.