Descriptive Writing and the Five Senses

 Adding Descriptive Layers to Your Writing

Writing comes to life through the descriptions authors present. Readers are engaged when those descriptions draw them into the scene. But most authors rely only on the visual to describe. This makes for a one-dimensional scene that excludes the reader. Adding sounds, smells, tastes, and touch to narrative can turn a scene that reads like a grocery list of description into a dynamic three dimensional narrative.

Here’s an example of descriptive narrative that relies only on the visual.

Ashley threw her long dark hair back and adjusted her little black dress. She gripped the handle of her purse, opened the door to the Gentleman’s Club, and stepped inside. Several people were mopping the floor, putting away glasses at the bar, or organizing a synthesizer on the stage. She walked to the woman at the bar who had a great body. Ashley hoped she looked older than her eighteen years old. She really needed the job.

Is this boring? Yes.

Is this flat? Yes.

Does this short paragraph make you want to read on and find out about Ashley in the Gentleman’s Club? Maybe. But that’s not what we authors want. We want the reader to read on.

So, what can we add to make it three dimensional and engage the reader? Let’s start with the senses. An easy exercise for any author is to make a chart and then choose what is significant to the character, the setting or the scene. Here’s my chart for Ashley and the Gentlemen’s Club. These, of course, are only some possibilities and limited by my imagination.

Ashley Ashley’s perfume or shower gel Ashley’s hair door opening or closing Ashley’s gum or candy
her clothes cleaners’ floor detergent dress shoes on wooden floor food cooking
Gentleman’s Club cigarettes or cigars (residue) purse mops on wooden floor food odour
cleaners alcohol door knob clang of glasses at bar  
stage food air conditioner people talking  
woman   bar music  

Now that we have a reference chart, we have to decide what is significant to develop the character, the setting, the plot, the scene or, in short, the story. Then we have to decide how to describe it.  The how is the narrative part. It’s is also the hardest part. It assumes we know our scene or character inside and out. Most of us don’t until we’ve actually finished our story. But Ashley’s story is simple—it’s only one paragraph. Underage girl tries to a get a job in a stripper’s club to make money. So, how would an underage girl walking into a stripper’s club to get a job feel? Probably afraid of being found out and possibly intimidated of entering a world she knows nothing about.  Now we can go back to our chart and pick and choose from our list to develop Ashley, her feelings or thoughts, and this foreign world of the Gentleman’s Club.

Her hair as silky and smooth as an Asian princess, Ashley straightened her one and only little black dress and removed a blade of grass from her stilettos. Gripping the strap of her purse, she opened the door to her future in the Gentleman’s Club.  Her future welcomed her with a mixed cocktail of stale cigarettes, whiskey, and the overpowering smell of sin. Several men who looked like bouncers were mopping the floor with bleach, making her stomach churn. It was the same lemony-scent her mother used to remove stains. A buxom woman at the bar was throwing cutlery into a plastic bin, the clang competing with the heavily-tattooed man tuning the synthesizer on the stage. Everyone’s gaze landed on her. Could they tell that she was only eighteen years old? She needed the job, and her Chinatown ID would ensure she got it.

I didn’t use everything in the chart. I did try out several descriptions but settled on those that best developed Ashley and the club and brought out her fear and intimidation. Along with the visual descriptions, you can feel Ashley’s hair, smell the club’s “next day” odor, and hear the cutlery clanging and the tuning of the synthesizer.  When a description wasn’t strong enough, I used comparisons or images. “Sin” doesn’t have a smell but it evokes a powerful image of immorality. Ashley knows what she is doing is wrong but ignores her better judgement.  “Asian princess” is a visual description but it instantly tells the reader about Ashley’s ethnicity and regal looks.  Ashley has a strong reaction to the smell of the lemon-scented floor cleaner. It reminds her of her mother, tugs at her guilt, and makes her nauseous. A character’s personal reaction to some object, however it is described, is more powerful than the actual description. It appeals to the reader’s feelings and brings the reader into your story.

What if we use the same chart but turn Ashley into an underage girl who has experience with stripper’s clubs? She may be afraid of being found out but she would see everything differently and wouldn’t be intimidated.

Her hair fluffed and sprayed to new heights, Ashley straightened her mother’s little black dress and sky-high dancing shoes and strode into the Gentleman’s Club.  A mixed cocktail of stale cigarettes and whiskey welcomed her back like an old friend. Several men who probably doubled as bouncers were mopping the floor with some lemon-scented cleaner that could never remove the stench of sin. A buxom woman at the bar, probably some veteran stripper, was throwing cutlery into a plastic bin, the clang competing with the biker-looking man tuning the synthesizer on the stage. Popping a strawberry-flavored bubble gum into her mouth, Ashley sauntered up to the woman.  Ashley knew that with her heavy makeup she looked more than her eighteen years of age. Her Chinatown ID would confirm the deception if her looks didn’t.

I may have used some of the same items to describe as the first paragraph, but they are now described and colored by a new Ashley.

You don’t have to develop charts for every scene that needs description. And you don’t have to go all out and use all the senses for those scenes that need description. Charts should be done only for those characters, settings or objects that are important to your story. If a coffee in the character’s hand is only a coffee in the character’s hand, then don’t go overboard describing it. Don’t even bother describing it. But if that hot and frothy Grande Latte Macchiato is going to have some function for the character holding it or for the setting or plot, then bring it forward and develop it. If it’s going to be thrown into an ex-lover’s face or stain an expensive but borrowed gown or be the catalyst for a class action lawsuit, then build up that whipped cream. Otherwise, let it be part of the background.

Descriptive writing doesn’t have to be long to be effective.  It should be long enough to state your case. Too much description runs the risk of the reader skimming through it. Too little description runs the risk of the reader becoming confused later on. Try this simple test. Write the descriptive scene (and rewrite, edit, re-edit, etc.) until you’re satisfied with it.  Then let it sit for a week or two. Now go back to it and read it. Did it bore you or did it impress you? Your answer will tell you if that descriptive piece was effective or not.



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