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Writing Sensory Description, Part 1

Most requests for my editing services have been for novels and short stories, and to critique personal essays. The personal essay, which is a subcategory of memoir, is more akin to fiction that autobiography, but that’s a discussion (or disagreement) for another day.

Each writer’s style is as unique as a snowflake. But one piece of advice I find myself giving often is the ever-popular, never-to-be-forgotten “show, don’t tell.” As hackneyed as it might sound, this is excellent advice and an aspect of fictional writing that still gets swallowed in a sea of dialogue.

Authors remember to address the big elements of storytelling: characters have names, jobs, and life roles like wife or father, boss or best friend. They speak to other characters and move from place to place. They do things and things happen to them.

But often, scenes scream for greater narrative depth—descriptions of lighting and shadow, smells or odors, noises, textures, and temperature.

The irony of this “show, don’t tell” thing is, it subconsciously places the burden on visual (sight) description. Humans have five glorious senses that, under ideal circumstances, work together to give us a 3-D impression of our world.

Sight is the sense writers use most heavily because it’s the easiest. How people look, how things look, how places look—stories get bogged down with lots of looking and seeing. But this is not how the human senses operate in real life.

Consider a scene that takes place in a restaurant. A character enters, scans the room, spots the character he is looking for, and walks to the table and sits. That scene might be written like this:

Steven entered the downtown bistro where he was to meet Elizabeth. He nudged his way to the front of the group of patrons waiting to be seated and scanned the room for her.

“Can I help you, sir?” the hostess says. At that moment, Steven spots Elizabeth.

“I’m meeting someone and I see her now,” Steven says and walks toward the table, smiling at Elizabeth as he approaches. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long,” he begins.

Elizabeth smiles warmly. “No, I’ve only been here about five minutes. It’s great to see you.”

Now, I just wrote this and it is intentionally barren of descriptive words. How could I punch this up to bring this scene to life? What would draw readers into the scene? What’s missing?

In Part 2, I’ll focus on using each of the five senses to create greater narrative depth. I will rewrite the scene implementing all five senses.

You Can Help Me

Please share your ideas for adding sensory description to this bistro scene. Besides sight, what can we do with sound, touch, taste, and smell? Write a comment to help add color, noise, odor or fragrance, texture and so on to wake this scene up.

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Jan 16, 2019

dimly-lit downtown bistro, he nudged past the boisterous group of patrons, anxiously scanned the crowded room for her, barely noticing the soft jazz playing in the background, the harried hostess asks hurriedly........


Elizabeth's right eye twitches but she smiles and sets down her steaming peppermint latte on the weathered bistro table.

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