Years ago, I recorded an audio version of a manuscript for a friend. The plot was nice, but it was the description that captured me. Little was indicated as to what the characters looked like. Hair, eye color, height, complexion, distinguishing features remained a mystery. Legally blind herself, the author had described people, action, and environment in a way that was, of course, natural for her but—forgive the expression—rather eye-opening for me. The story sang and breathed. It felt and sniffed the world around it. My eyes tasted and heard and smelled the pages. As someone lucky enough to have my vision intact, the entire project has remained a friendly reminder that a reader’s experience extends beyond his/her sight.
Compelling description transforms an outline into a living, breathing story, but it becomes even richer as more senses are employed. What do your characters notice when walking into a new room? Does it feel companionable or dangerous? How are they comforted or warned? How do they experience the world around them? Do they seem to fill the space around them or go by unnoticed?
While visual clues are valuable, there’s so much more available. Practicing and developing sensory description and awareness is as simple as going about your day.
At a coffee shop or a day job, waiting in line to pick up your kid after school, from the front porch, talking a walk, or in the cereal aisle, what do know about someone just by how they sound? Listen for the speed and weight of their footsteps. Could you identify your friends and/or family members by the sound they make opening a door? Can you hear them breathe? Would you call that laugh grating, twittering, or raucous?
Smell & Taste
Breathe deeply in through your nose wherever you are. Whether you catch a familiar scent or identify nothing specific, what’s the air like? Is it crisp, clean, stale, musty, empty, heavy, earthy, cloying, or synthetic? Next, take another deep breath through your mouth, letting the air hit your tongue. Can you taste anything? How does this place differ from another room, outside, in your car, or when you’re near another person?
Do your shoes pinch or rub? Does the paper cut on your thumb sting, burn, or scream? Is the avocado on your kitchen counter hard as a rock or about to ooze through your fingers? When your cat smacks the back your head with its tail, is it affectionately gentle or forcefully antagonistic? Is your towel scratchy or plush against your face? Do the keys under your fingers give easily or resist every letter you wish to type?
To up the ante for any of the above, scribble or mentally compose a description of someone/thing/place without looking at them/it. In five words or less, you’ll be training your brain to acknowledge the world around you with more than just your eyes.