characters / setting / writing

5 Simple Ways to Bring Your Story to Life

I’m talking about five little details you take for granted, but account for half of your connection to the world: Sensory detail–

  • taste
  • touch
  • visual
  • smell
  • audio

As a writer, it puts the snap in your story, realism in a cardboard setting, the visceral vehemence in a thriller. Sensual feedback is to readers what WD40 is to locks. No matter how flowery your prose, it requires the color of life, communicated by what characters hear from sights that can’t been seen, conclude from body language that belies a friend’s words, smell in otherwise pristine surroundings, touch and bump and nudge in their frantic race through the plot. Take your characters over the sensory cliff. Douse your setting in sound and color. Offer this window on reality to your readers and you move your writing to the next level.

I recently reviewed The Intercept, debut novel of Dick Wolf, acclaimed producer of the Law and Order franchise, one of the most successful brands in TV history. I snapped it up from my Amazon Vine list making the assumption that anyone who could mastermind L&O would write a blockbuster.

Maybe not.

His characters were fascinating–strong, heroic, flawed the way we like them in mystery thrillers. Plotting was without equal, exactly as I’d expect from an award-winning screen writer/director/producer. Still, as I read the book, I felt untouched by events, as though I was watching. At first, I thought it was his choice of POV–omniscient third person–but came to realize it was something more fundamental. His characters were flat despite sneak peaks into their personal lives and backstory on events. Even when I was in their heads, I didn’t know how the world around them affected them. What did they smell? What scurried through their peripheral vision? Did their stomach churn when the sweat on the Bad Guy’s brow made it clear he was lying? Yes, I’ll read his next book, but Wolf is no Lee Child or Brad Thor.

Have you ever watched two people from a distance far enough you couldn’t hear their words, and still clearly understood they were upset, or worried, or madly in love? Every place has its own atavistic structure. Maybe it’s a peculiar mixture of organic growth and human industry. Maybe it’s a color out of sync with the rest of a building, or the faint sound of music from a rooftop party. That’s what I’m talking about. How do those details affect the way you react to a story, in a way mere words could never hope to accomplish?

Consider:

  • Sounded like a chicken being strangled
  • The soft snick of a knife opening
  • ice clinked gently in a glass
  • A sound that might have been the extinguishing of my hopes
  • mouth-watering aroma
  • if the wind was right, I could catch the scent of sauerbraten wafting across the street from Jonas Schmidt’s
  • smell of burned rubber and hot brakes and gas and oil
  • Smelled of desperation accumulated over the years
  • Somewhere a dog barked
  • fire hissed softly and the log shifted  with a little shower of sparks

You’re there, in the scene, your emotions tingling. Your focus may be on the gun in the antagonist’s hand, but sensory detail provides the rich texture of real events.

William Strunk wrote in Elements of Style, the tiny tome that should be in every writer’s library:

“The surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete.”

Janet Burroway explains what that means:

“A detail is ‘definite’ and ‘concrete’ when it appeals to the senses. It should be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.

Noah Lukeman discusses the development of settings in his best-selling writer’s how-to book, The First Five Pages:

“Draw on all five senses when bringing a setting to life. Smell alone can transform a setting: a room reeks of dead fish or garbage or a corpse, or something pleasing like incense or flowers.”

If you’re having difficulty bringing a scene to life, try this Sensory Chart. Fill in all the details that go along with the location. Put yourself there, and then put your reader there.

Now sit back, think about your story’s trouble spots, and add sensory detail. Let me know if you need more help.


Jacqui Murray is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-weekly contributor to Write Anything. In her free time, she is  editor of a K-6 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, creator of two technology training books for middle school and six ebooks on technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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10 thoughts on “5 Simple Ways to Bring Your Story to Life

  1. Like slow dipping honey drops from the hive you drop little writing gems from time to time and as a novice in the business I find them priceless. Using sensory devices in writing and Strunk’s ‘tiny tome’ are nothing new but your explanation of why they are important and how their use can make the reader see, smell, hear, taste, and touch it to make the story real and feel the emotion is just great. The ten examples of the use of sensory devices is a big bonus for me personally. Thank you for both. Arun

    PS : To remind myself of the SDs I imagine a human body and try to locate the points -tongue, eyes, nose, ear and hand -taste, visual, smell, audio and touch.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I hav ebeen struggling lately with my writing and realized yesterday that I have completely stopped describing anything around my MCs! Going to go back to the start of the story and describe describe describe using all my senses! :)

    • I think that’s a preference thing. I’ve read stories that have lots of description. I love it and others in my writing group hate it. I feel like it puts me in the scene and they find it distracting.

      All about finding your audience.

  3. You have some of the best writing advice I’ve found – also specific and clear. You mention of Wolf using third person omniscient. I’m starting an experiment using third person objective (drawing inspiration from the Norse Sagas, which never gave subjective description). As I am very much about getting into my character’s heads, third person objective is a real challenge for me. Obviously the five senses continue to be important, but would you have any advice specific to writing from the objective view point?

  4. That is a challenge. The power of a story often is the ability to emotionally pull the reader into the action and the characters. You will have to be clever in the 3rd person objective to carefully describe what the narrator sees to elicit the reader reaction you desire–clenched fists, sweaty brow, darting eyes. You’ve made me want to read the Norse Sagas to see how they did this effectively!

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