Use Sensory Details to Capture Imagination

Like a novelist, a nonfiction writer can engage the reader’s imagination through the use of the five senses.

Vivid details enhance the reader’s understanding and highlight key points.

We usually think of this kind of detail as being visual. The shape of someone’s eyeglasses, the colors of the flowers in a garden, or the clutter on a desk. Continue reading

Vivid word choices enhance detail

A portrait painter works in large tonal blocks first, light and dark, before adding detail. As writers, we can do the same, focusing on the big-picture elements as we write and do our developmental edit. But now we are down to line editing, adding the details that will make the portrait of our characters come alive.

One thing that elevates prose from mediocre to great is word choice. Using precise words rather than general ones enhances the reader experience. It’s one thing to give your hero a car. It’s another thing to give him a sports car. Give him an Aston Martin and you’re at a whole other level. Continue reading

Engage all the senses in your novel

I used to have a critique partner who was really good about examining each scene for the sensory details that were missing. For example, when a couple of characters walked into a kitchen where a woman was cooking, and I hadn’t thought to describe the smells.

All senses are engaged as appropriate to each scene.

Try not to obsess over this kind of detail early on, but once you reach the polishing stages of your edit, run down every scene and consider all five senses: is there one that belongs there that you’re missing? Continue reading

Know your genre’s standards for description

One of the main reasons we must read other writers in our genre is that we must know what is usual. Readers of a particular genre come to it with a set of expectations. You may tweak those expectations to make your work unique, but if you violate genre expectations too wildly, you will lose readers. Their expectations will not be met, and they will say so in their reviews.

The amount of description is appropriate to the genre.

I recall an Amazon review in which the reviewer complained that the author of a thriller had spent too much time describing people’s clothes. At first, I didn’t understand why this is a problem, because I personally like that kind of description. I had to read several other reviews of that book and others like it before I figured out that it’s a genre convention. Continue reading

Avoid extraneous details in your fiction

Part of achieving balance in your descriptions is managing the details. While on the one hand it’s possible to give the reader sensory deprivation by not providing enough details, on the other hand you can give the reader sensory overload by including too many details, especially if they are the wrong kind of details. Relevant details are necessary. Irrelevant details are distracting.

Details are relevant and add to the reader experience.

Unless you’re writing literary fiction, don’t throw in lots of poetic description for its own sake. Especially if what you are describing is the landscape. That worked for nineteenth century readers who didn’t have a thousand TV channels, video games, and smartphone apps clamoring for their attention. As Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy wrote in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Don’t write for those readers. Every one of those readers is now dead, and they aren’t going to buy your book.” Continue reading

Details embed the reader in your storyworld

One of the most difficult aspects of novel-writing is finding the right balance between providing enough description to create an image of the storyworld in your reader’s imagination, and providing so much that the story is bogged down and ceases to move forward.

© kitzcorner • Fotolia

© kitzcorner • Fotolia

This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that every writer and reader has a different tolerance level for description. Faced with a paragraph of description, one critique partner may say it’s boring and encourage you to cut it, while another will be enchanted by your poetic imagery. You can’t please everyone so, at the risk of giving you a Ricky Nelson earworm, you’ve got to please yourself.

Within reason. Continue reading

Use similes and metaphors to aid description

Several years ago, Margie Lawson taught a workshop put on by the Florida Writers Foundation in advance of the annual Florida Writers Association Conference. Margie teaches about the need to delve deep into character emotion to reach readers. When, at the end of the course, she asked what most struck us, the fellow sitting behind me said “I need to learn to cut loose with the metaphors.”

I don’t know whether he is also a recovering journalist, but he’s right.

Comparisons and similes are used to engage readers.

A farm boy. Poor. Poor and perfect. With eyes like the sea after a storm.—The Princess Bride, William Goldman

When Buttercup describes Westley’s eyes this way, she’s using a powerful simile that even echoes the backstory, because she believes he was killed while at sea. Continue reading