Dec 07 2014

The Suit Chafes: Using Sensory Details to Enrich Your Story

Published by at 11:23 am under Writing Articles

Comics are a visual medium, and that can be an advantage over prose when it comes to storytelling. The motion and force in Wonder Woman’s punch, the adorkable grin on Ms. Marvel’s face, that gorgeous two-page spread of Gotham City: these are images that can be harder to get across in writing. But don’t get discouraged, novel writers. Prose has its own advantages, and one of those is that it can be much more immersive than comics through the use of sensory details.

 

Touch, smell, hearing, taste: use them right, and it can deepen your reader’s experience, making them feel like they’re right there with your characters. This isn’t central to your story. A solid plot and well-rounded characters always come first, but when you’re revising your second or third (or tenth) draft, look for places where you can enrich your description with sensory details like the examples below:

 

Touch

  • Your heroine is wearing some kick-ass leather boots. Are her feet sweaty and gross inside them?
  • The wind on that tall building your hero is perched atop of is probably cold and biting against his face.
  • Does your villain wear gloves? The sense of everything he touches is going to be dulled by their fabric.

 

Smell

  • What’s the evil corporate executive cologne like? Is it way too much?
  • Your superhero team’s base is on a space station. That’s cool, but the recycled air probably smells stale and awful.
  • A mugger is in an alley. Does the alley smell like old beer? Vomit? A dumpster full of rotting food from the Italian restaurant next door?

 

Hearing

  • Does the femme fatale’s husky voice make your hero (or heroine) shiver?
  • Has your villain been punched in the head so hard that it sounds like his ears are stuffed with cotton balls?
  • Your mad scientist is in her laboratory. The humming of computers, hissing of Bunsen burners, or squeaking of lab rats could make up the background noise.

 

Taste

  • The coppery taste of blood might be your heroine’s first clue that the last punch left her with a nosebleed.
  • The villain’s minion has just been knocked face-first into the dirt. Did some get into his mouth?
  • Your hero has been captured and bound, and the ball gag tastes rubbery.

 

Small details like these can make the world of your novel feel more real to the reader—which is important when that world is populated by mutants, aliens, and men and women in colorful tights. Sensory details alone won’t make a good story, but they can add another layer to already good writing.

 

BM adds: Kristen Brand just wrote the superhero novel Hero Status.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “The Suit Chafes: Using Sensory Details to Enrich Your Story”

  1. Andurilon 18 Dec 2014 at 8:59 am

    I’d add that you can probably use the different emphasis of certain sensory details as a way of portraying the character and their abilities.

    Someone like Superman or Power Girl standing on top of a roof probably wouldn’t be bothered at all by the wind, at least in terms of the heat and cold. But they’d be hearing and seeing a lot more than the average human being would be due to their super-senses, picking up every sound in the city by way of their super-hearing, and potentially seeing literally everything through a combination of telescopic and x-ray vision. Mentally sorting through that sheer volume of information could be something of a chore in itself.

    Another strange area would be Spider-Man. He has the normal set of human senses, but also an additional danger sense. What’s that one even feel like beyond a ‘tingling’ of sorts?

  2. DeltaE93on 12 Feb 2015 at 9:22 pm

    A great article that addressed something often underused by new writers of all genres. With a novel you have space to expand past just the visuals of something, and it’s hard to go wrong sprinkling the other 4 senses around!

    And on an unrelated note, I would love to see an article or two on superhero/supervillian catalysts. Why does “Captain Baddie-Puncher” do what he does? Why does “Lady Doom N’ Gloom” want to commit her dastardly deeds?

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