Writing Excuses 7.5: Sensory Writing

Dan and Mary were joined by Sam Sykes at World Fantasy, and invited him to talk about sensory writing, which he had recently discussed in a workshop.

The heart of the discussion is which senses (typically beyond sight) to include as we write. Sounds, smells, tactile information, and even tastes are necessary to engage the reader. And while it’s possible to include too much of that, Sam counsels writers to err on the side of excess because it’s always easy to edit things back a notch should you find upon re-reading that you’ve gone too far.

Sam, Mary and Dan offer lots of good advice on the matter — when it’s important and why, how to do it well, and how not to overdo it.

Term of the Week: “Literary diabetes.”

Disclaimer of the Week: No grandparents were harmed in the recording of this podcast, nor were any chihuahuas.


Write the point-of-view of a character whose vision is obscured, and describe how they use their other senses to attempt to determine where they are.

Terrorists in Love: The Real Stories of Islamic Radicals, by Ken Ballen, narrated by Peter Ganim

21 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.5: Sensory Writing”

  1. Great podcast. It brings me back to my work around the “explain everything that you see” syndrome or the minimalist approach. Don’t ask yourself what is there, ask what stands out? Is it a smell, a sound, a vivid color, or lack there off. What’s wrong, off or different from the norm.

    Also ask, why is this detail/location/person important (description wise)? Why should I care? Is it the insincere bleached toothy smile from the new middle manager? Or the shiny new BMW in the parking lot of a thrift store? Marry detail with emotion/relevance and most of all something that moves the story forward (foreshadowing, important character trait, etc.).

    Remember that whenever you describe something you are telling the reader, “Look at this, this is important,” which means that you are slowing down the action and narrowing the focus of the reader.

    At the risk of sounding extremely conceded, I will propose an exercise: take the parking lot beside the thrift store. Write one sentence per sense (sight, sound, taste, smell) that describe ONE detail that stands out.

    Again, great podcast! :D

  2. Sorry about the audio quality on this. Jordo did everything he could to compensate for the fact that one or more of the mics wasn’t on. This results in a high noise floor and lots of clipping.

    Still, if you turn the volume up (after the intro) you should be able to hear everything without blowing your speakers.

  3. I’m reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace right now, and even though the print version is at least as big as one of those chihuahua-killing tomes, it’s amazing how good he is at choosing just the right detail to paint a distinct portrait of each character, or the scene, or the society in general. Jane Austen is also extremely good at this; in Pride and Prejudice, her characters really came off the page because I was able to say “wow, that’s just like such and such annoying person I know.”

    I think that good sensory writing is very similar to this. The most powerful details are not always the loudest or most shocking ones, but the ones that draw a specific, concrete image or impression from the reader’s memory (like the burned fingers on apple pie–that’s a good one). And just like vitamins, more of a good thing is not always a good thing; if you throw in another ten specific, concrete images, chances are they’re going to clash with whatever memory was evoked in the reader’s mind by the first one.

    I guess it all comes down to how much you trust the reader. As Tracy Hickman loves to point out, writing is a collaboration between the writer and the reader; no story comes alive until it is read.

  4. The silence is deafening.

    I might have to give this one a miss. My sound system is quiet as it is – I crank everything for the normal podcasts. Without mics, it’s barely audible at best.

  5. My encapsulation: be evocative; don’t squick the reader out.

    I also was surprised that Dan didn’t get in a plug for poetry: if you want to see how evocative sensory details can be and learn how to choose the right detail, read some poetry.

  6. In some stories you can tell who’s the important new character in a scene by how over-described they are compared to the others. Often it’s mostly visual, reminding me of an earlier podcast of your about descriptions and an example about t-shirts and blue jeans. By using those other senses you can get more described in fewer words (from your previous podcast). Kill two birds with one stone.

    “The young woman had a buttonless blouse made of white cotton with sleeves that stopped just above her elbows and blue hip hugging denim trousers with faded coloring at the knees,” versus “The young woman in the t-shirt and jeans smelled faintly of hay bales”.

    The second description tells me far more about the young woman than the first one. Good podcast guys!

  7. One other thought I had while listening to the podcast:

    Another mistake new writers make is to take the advice to include sensory detail and feel the need to include all of the senses in each scene. Just like larding with detail can be problematic, so can including too many of the senses or being predictable about it (every scene features a key smell or touch, etc.).

  8. Great episode! Lot’s of great advice. I’m revising a novel for the first time right now and so a lot of this I will be putting into use right away! Thanks for another great cast.

  9. @Rashkavar? I should have the transcript up in a day or two. Might be easier than both of us straining our ears? I had the thought that there is a certain irony in the episode on sensory writing be so hard to hear, but I’m sure it was unintentional.

  10. This is was an apt cast – thank you for this. I think it’s something that many of us who are just starting need. You’re trying to direct a movie and play every role – with words alone. Sensory writing is one of the most important tools we have. Thank you for this cast. I’m not sure if anyone noticed it, but the word ‘err’ is pronounced like ‘slur’ traditionally. Not that it matters; but what the heck – we’re all trying to be better writers and improve our vocabulary, right. +2 to Word Knowledge.

  11. A book that recently impressed me along these lines: “The Iron Dragon’s Daughter” by Michael Swanwick.

  12. @ Levi

    Agreed. So many things to try to keep track of. Character, pacing, descriptions, plot, word choice, etc. etc. Hopefully the more I practice, the more it will come a little more subconsciously, but for now, I’m going to rely on re-writes to catch some of this stuff and just focus on a couple things each go-round.

  13. Having switched to my iPod headphones in desperation to make this podcast audible, I now know what you’re talking about.

    I have to say, the whole “fantasy morality is black and white” thing is pretty much an out-of-date criticism. Lord of the Rings is like that. Eragon is largely like that, which is the main similarity to Lord of the Rings (honestly, they’re not all that similar, they just have parallel moral structures). Mistborn (SPOILER) seems to be black and white, then, as the trilogy goes on, we find out that the Lord Ruler is what’s held back the destruction of the planet for the past millenia. (Ruin itself is pretty solidly evil, but it’s a fundamental force of nature, not a person.) Song of Ice and Fire has 1 character and 1 group of beings that absolutely everyone will classify the same way morally: Eddard Stark (good to the point of foolishness) and the White Walkers (all they do is kill stuff). Wheel of Time is probably the biggest epic out there and, on the surface, it’s morally straightforward (Rand and servants of the Light vs the Dark One). But then there’s all the politicking and byplay. Heck, Asmodean was one of the Forsaken and nothing about him suggests he’s really evil, just selfish.

    The majority of straight-laced good-vs-evil fantasy these days is in children’s books, or books like most of the Drizzt books; I don’t pick up a Drizzt book and look for intense moral complexity (that’s why the most recent stuff from that series was such a let down for me).

  14. Thank you guys for doing this podcast (despite the audio quality). I can’t even begin to describe how much my writing has improved in the weeks since I began listening to these podcasts.

    My job includes a lot of driving from site to site. I would guess that in any given day I have five or six 15 minute drives, so I’ve been cranking through these podcasts, and by the time I get home I can’t wait to get to my computer and write.

    Today I was able to combine two ideas that you guys put out there, sensory writing and making your descriptions do multiple things at once. The page CAME ALIVE!

    I have always had trouble starting chapters from new viewpoints, and I think you guys just solved that problem for me. I’ve never been able to introduce a character or a setting so quickly. Two paragraphs and I was standing in the scene.

    Also, as a response to your disclaimer, my Chihuahua started clawing at the door when I started this podcast. I think it hurt his ears…

  15. MIKE BARKER: Thanks for the link to the transcript! I was ready to give up on trying to listen to the podcast, as my lil ol’ laptop comes complete with sucky speakers!

    Sam’s description examples are sheer poetry. I HAVE to read him.

  16. Great podcast, but the volume level was horrible. I’ve noticed that these are recorded at a low volume, but this was the worst offender thus far.

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