Just last night I was sitting on the couch reading through a printed-out manuscript with a mug of tea when my elderly lab hopped onto the couch and laid her head in my lap. I managed to juggle the mug, Kindle, and dog long enough to push her off and settle back against the overstuffed cushions.
I took a sip, paused, and glanced down at her. Big brown eyes in a now speckled-white face stared back at me. I sighed and set my mug down on a coaster, fixed my stack of papers into a neat, even-edged pile, then reached down to pick her up. I sighed and lay back, absently rubbing behind her ears. I sat there for nearly five minutes, marveling at the texture of her thick, shedding coat, her happy panting the only sound that broke the living room’s silence.
It was then my head rocked back as I was smacked in the face with the realization…that I didn’t remember what she felt like.
I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I’d actually touched the dog. Really touched. Now, I don’t mean that I never pet her. I do, all the time. But I mean really touch her and think about how I would describe what I touched. Felt the density of her coat, the hard scar tissue on the end of her nose from a run-in with a stray, and how thin and coarse her coat had grown as she crept into old age. It actually brought a smile to my face, and I ended up sitting there for the rest of the night before I headed off to bed with the dog in tow.
As an writer, I spend so much time at my desk in front of my computer that I sometimes don’t take the time to take pleasure in the simpler things in life. I know, it sounds so cliche that it makes my teeth hurt. Regardless, I realized last night that it is true.
A writer is supposed to be able to detail a universe, a world, a country, a field, or a tree. Detailing it so that readers can “see” whatever it is you’re describing as if they were there. Writers do this to draw their readers in, to make the world “come alive,” and to really “set the scene.”
As an editor, I’ve found there is a problem with this. Not that the writers are trying to describe things – no, not that at all – it’s just that writers don’t describe enough! Of course, not all writers will fall into this category, but for the sake of my post, let us focus on the inexperienced or fledgling writer. Most new writers do a wonderful job describing the multicolored robes of the king’s magician, the sun glinting off the trooper’s polished helmet, or the length of the monster’s “razor-sharp teeth.” But then they stop and move on. Let me be honest – it’s not enough.
To truly immerse a reader into your story, you need to describe not only sight but all of the five senses. Sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste. While most writers have both the sight and hearing senses down, few regularly use touch, and even fewer writers ever use the sense of smell and taste.
Why? I’m not quite sure. The world around you (or your characters for that matter) is alive, constantly moving and changing from second to second. To fully create and successfully describe a new world in which a reader has never been, you need to describe everything about it. Below are a few questions I’ve received from authors after my commenting on their lack of “sense”:
Q. How am I supposed to incorporate smell into my novel if all the characters are doing is traveling? (Fantasy genre)
A. Well, when they stop to rest in the shade, simply let them breathe. Things to smell: pine trees, sap, a dead animal carcass, and one of the character’s farts.
Q. I never show my characters eating. How do you expect me to incorporate taste?
A. You’ve all smelt something so terrible that not only do you smell it, but it crawls into your mouth and clings to the back of your throat, right? That’s one way. Another is if you do have eating scenes, describe the food. The spices, the sweetness, whether it’s sour.
Q. I describe touch a lot in my book. But you still said it wasn’t enough.
A. It’s not. Saying that the metal was hot, or that the brook was “cool against her legs” is not enough. By describing touch I mean going beyond the obvious boiling water = hot! example. When she kisses him, is his face smooth or rough with a two-day stubble of beard? When he stepped into his armor, was the wool padding soft or did it scratch against his skin? Was the moon rock just cold, or did they need rubber-handled tongs to pick it up?
Q. Is it possible to describe too much?
A. Yes, and no. Mark Twain took up an entire page describing his favorite characters – but most writers aren’t Mark Twain, and that style of writing may not fly with today’s readers. A few details here and there; a specific sight or smell that stands out when your character walks into the room, or a certain item at the dinner table that they love… You don’t need to describe every aspect of the world every time the scene is introduced, but draw out a certain detail that will make the space memorable (like how the smell of fresh cookies reminds you of Grandma’s kitchen) and your scene stand out. It could also tell a lot about your character depending on what it is they notice first.
Go outside. Take off your shoes. Step into a mud puddle and splash around. Run your fingers against the rough bark of the ancient oak tree out back. Kiss your dog on his wet nose. Stick a piece of grass in your mouth and lay on your back to stare at the passing clouds.
Go on. Get out and touch things…